Film and the Problem of Seeing

Quentin Tarantino, Michael Bay, and other film directors, some who are called “auteurs”,  reproduce the ideology of the West in their films, creating illusions without meaning; we could all use less of that. As Lorraine Hansberry stated in a 1959 television interview “there is no contradiction between protest in art and good art” (Malburne-Wade, 2016). As such, the sons of cinema, intentionally or not, left the dominant society’s reproduction of capitalism unchallenged in Hollywood. As a result “mainstream film coded the erotic into the language of the dominant patriarchal order” (Mulvey, 1989). The weight of problems for film in the 21st century has shifted from production toward fundraising, marketing, and distribution. The problem of seeing – what I will argue is currently the main problem for new voices in film – is a problem of access and availability. The problem of production has been ameliorated. Here, “access” is defined as the non-existence of all economic, social, and legal barriers to use not simply its availability.

While sometimes “self-conscious and ironic, Hollywood [...] always restricted itself to a formal mise-en-scene reflecting the dominant ideological concept of the cinema” (Mulvey, 1989). With the growth of a global computer network we have an opportunity to ask ‘what does a revolutionary international cinema look like?’ and maybe even build one. Ideally the “alternative cinema provides a space for a cinema to be born which is radical in both a political and an aesthetic sense and challenges the basic assumptions of the mainstream film” (Mulvey, 1989). It would allow for the cinematic experience; the immersive environment of going to a communal place, and experiencing an activity collectively. It would also allow for a people from diverse environments and countries to experience the lives of others through media of their own voices and languages.

The West invented and discovered the language of film, a system of signs and signals. When given the opportunity to use photography to represent reality and truth, the West used photography to bend reality around them. As Roland Barthes states “if one photographs Agadir in ruins, it is better to have a few signs of ‘Arabness’ at one’s disposal, even though ‘Arabness’ has nothing to do with the disaster itself” (Barthes, 1977). The complex reality of the other is reduced to vague strangeness of the orients; defining and constructing an audience’s visual conception of the world.

“Seeing comes before words” are the very first words of John Berger’s 1972 book Ways of Seeing based on the popular BBC television series of the same name (Berger, 1972). “We explain the world through words” but we understand the world through seeing. It is through seeing we establish our place in the world. The technological revolution in cell phones and cameras has largely solved the problem of doing, but seeing still evades us. In the last fifty years capitalism has greatly reduced the capital required to produce a film (cheaper cameras, software etc) but in many ways it has become harder and more expensive to see a film. This is exacerbated by something often said by academics and information professionals: if it is not online it does not exist.

Film, as a cultural product, is an inherent fiction. By nature of its verisimilitudes, film is far more of a fiction than books, because it relies on the visual. As an imitation of reality “the cinema poses questions of the ways the unconscious (formed by the dominant order) structures ways of seeing and pleasure in looking” (Mulvey, 1989). The power of seeing, the significance of being watched, and therefore the power of the social class, gender, race of the filmmakers, producers, and screenwriters become immensely important. The film industry in the United States is not hyper-centralized in the same way in was in the 1930s to 1950s with the Hollywood studio system but the media is still highly monopolized with around five-to-six conglomerates controlling around 80% of all the media. Much of the difference, the growth of the independent film scene, has been a product of the rapidly decreasing cost of film production supplies and the growth of the internet as a marketplace and delivery vehicle. The “emerging phenomenon of movie streaming depends heavily on the technology advancement in computers, networking, and most of all the speed and capacity of the internet” (Chao, Hegarty, & Fray, 2016). But nearly 50% of the world’s population lacks access to the internet and “31% of the global population do not have 3G coverage, while 15% have no electricity” (Luxton, 2016). To further complicate this, even for the population that does have internet access high-speed internet capable of streaming video “is only affordable for 100% of the population in just 29 countries”. There are thousands of living languages in the world today but “the vast majority (80%) of online content is only available in 10 languages”.

Streaming services allow “viewers [to] watch movies without going to theaters, nor going to rental stores, nor placing DVD orders on websites, nor waiting for DVD disks (including Blu-Ray DVD) to show up in the mail boxes, nor returning these disks to rental stores” (Chao, Hegarty, & Fray, 2016). Over the past ten years online video streaming services have shown incredible growth as a direct result of decreasing data transfer costs.  Streaming of videos online “grew from 12.4 percent of the total IP traffic in 2008 to approximately 39 percent total IP traffic in 2012”. But in the non-industrialized world such access to streaming services requires you to be able to afford the proper mediums for content transmission. Which takes film away from those who are not in the privileged classes. The creation of film, the production and reproduction of knowledge in the most contemporary medium, becomes another luxury out of reach for the poor in non-industrialized country. And even in United States, where public libraries have the ability to provide their patrons access to movie streaming services through distributors such as Overdrive, Kanopy, among others, these same institutions find themselves heavily encumbered by a lack of adequate funds and the tricky minefield of copyright and intellectual property.  

Consider the difficulties of African audiences seeing Black Panther, a major American blockbuster film, on the silver screen. How much harder would it be for audiences in the underdeveloped parts of Africa, Asia, the Americas, and the Pacific islands to see the works of Mauritarian director Abderrahmane Sissako, or Burkinabe director Gaston Kaboré, or dozens of other black and indigenous directors from around the world. The less film centers the image of the white male character of Western Europe, the more difficult a film is to see for all audience. Even the image of Eastern Europe is scarce. Killer of Sheep, a critically well-regarded film directed by an African-American director, Charles Burnet, is not available for streaming on Google Play, Amazon, or iTunes. Or for the 2009 aboriginal Australian film Samson and Delilah directed by Warwick Thornton.  Or the 2016 Mozambique film The Train of Salt and Sugar directed by Licinio Azevedo. Some of these films maybe be acquired in physical form, however when a DVD cost $20-$30 it can hardly be considered accessible. Comparatively, renting film on Google Play or Amazon is $2-$6.

In an age where it cost $8 to $15 or more to see a film in theatre and $7 to $14 a month for a streaming service, the economics of film makes it even more difficult to actually see a film. The delivery vehicles are heavily multifurcated and becoming even more so. In the United States, there is Hulu, HBO, Netflix, Amazon Prime, not including the premium cable services, such as FX and Starz. Each platform competes with the others to provide exclusive content. This makes it difficult for the poor and working class to afford access. Not only must they pay to access the web itself, they must also pay to access the content on the web.

It is highly questionable, under these conditions of inequality, racism, colonialism, capitalism, and sexism, whether there can even be international art, let alone international cinema. Within these current paradigms the products of art and media propagate a double illusion. First the illusion already mentioned: that we are seeing reality itself. Second, an even more dire prospect: that we are seeing all there is. There are a few streaming services that offer African and diaspora film streaming. One is iRokotv, which started on YouTube, and primarily focuses on Nollywood films. Another is kweliTV, which offers a carefully selected and limited number of African and diaspora films. The problem with these, of course, is they are a variation of Netflix, where subscribers sign-up and pay a set amount per month. The Netflix model has come to dominate, even the multi-studio joint-venture Hulu has modeled its current pay structure on Netflix. Hulu has the added nuisance of being only for the United States.

A possible, albeit a capitalist one, is the old Hulu model, where non-subscribers could watch any film but with commercials. This is similar to the model provided by Viki, a service for streaming Korean, Chinese, and Japanese TV series’. Material in Viki is generally available internationally and is subtitled by teams of volunteers, similar in many ways to how some museums and libraries have crowdsourced tedious duties such as metadata cataloguing. A new model for media distribution is possible but it requires the rejection and replacement of the old system. The old system was designed in the interests of the patriarchal capitalist class. It can no less liberate the mind through art as it can represent the reality of the struggle of life under capitalism.   



  • Barthes, R. (1977). The Photographic Message. Image Music Text (pp. 15-31). (S. Heath, trans). London: Fontana Press.
  • Berger, J. (1972). Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin Books
  • Chao, C. N., Hegarty, N., & Fray, I. (2016). Impact of Movie Streaming over Traditional DVD Movie Rental—An Empirical Study. Journal of Industrial and Intelligent Information Vol, 4(2).
  • Malburne-Wade, M. (2016). Conclusion: Intentions and Impact. Revision as Resistance in Twentieth-Century American Drama (pp. 167-174). Springer.
  • Mulvey, L. (1989). Visual pleasure and narrative cinema. In Visual and other pleasures (pp. 14-26). Palgrave Macmillan, London.
  • Luxton, E. (2016). “4 billion people still don’t have internet access. Here’s how to connect them”. World Economic Forum. Retreived from

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Maxamed Ibrahim