Hundreds of students and parents filled Cubberley Auditorium to listen to Pavle Levi, a professor of film studies and the faculty director of the Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies, provide a taste of a class he is teaching this quarter, FILMSTUD 135: Around the World in 10 Films. The introductory-level course explores themes pertaining to the social, cultural, and political diversity of the world through the study of international cinema.
Levi’s one-hour lecture focused on multiculturalism, Eurocentrism, and the origins of cinema. He highlighted several short films produced by the Lumière brothers, two of the first filmmakers in history.
Famous for inventing the cinematograph, the Lumière brothers were fascinated with documenting the world. “Sometimes, the more remote the subject matter, the more interesting and inviting the film,” said Levi.
Levi showed a number of films produced by the brothers, including a caravan of camels traversing the Egyptian pyramids, an African knife dance, and an opium den in French Indochina. To the surprise of many, Levi revealed that several of these films were staged, proving that there was a desire to control and even manufacture reality from the beginning of cinema.
“Filmmakers commonly project onto reality their own views and their own biases. If there is, for example, a desire to produce the exotic – well, when you cannot find it, you can stage it,” Levi explained.
Behind this yearning to cinematically reproduce exotic cultures lies a wide range of problematic assumptions, such as the idea that European culture is superior to other cultures. “This assumption leads to the license to indulge in condescending, dismissive, and even racist attitudes and stereotypes,” he added.
Many of the earliest films, including those made by the Lumière brothers, reflected a Eurocentric bias. “This is the opposite of the kind of perspective we are trying to teach students today,” Levi argued. “And that is to appreciate the diversity of world cultures without having to a priori evaluate them as superior or inferior.”
He ended his talk with several films produced by contemporary filmmakers in 1995 in celebration of 100 years of cinema. The films by Spike Lee, Zhang Yimou, Idrissa Ouedraogo, and others paid homage to the Lumière brothers’ films while also challenging the Eurocentric bias built into some of their motion pictures.