From the Vault: Diasporic Cinema

The notion of diaspora, and as an extension, Diasporic Cinema, is imperative for the discussion of world cinema.

The umbrella of Diasporic Cinema covers all instances of diaspora, including those caused from war and genocide as well as migration as a result of globalization. These migrations were often from less prosperous areas into lands of opportunity.

The world has become interweaved with diasporas, and many people over the years have left behind their cultures and homelands and have been forced into assimilating. This has also been the case for the aftermath of the genocide. The result, in terms of cinema, has been films of dispersion and displacement; more specifically, a cinema of diaspora. These films explore experiences of migration and assimilation, a sense of “floating among cultures,” as well as feelings of being detached from the mainstream.

There are a number of filmmakers and films who make for interesting examinations, but perhaps one of the most essential filmmakers to discuss within the mold of Diasporic Cinema is Atom Egoyan. The filmmaker’s first feature film, Next of Kin (1984), sets forth issues of alienation that speak directly to the fundamentals of Diasporic Cinema. The filmmaker himself has a longstanding history of cultural confusion; he is of Armenian descent, born in Egypt and raised in Canada.

Atom Egoyan’s life can be measured in two time periods. In the early pat of his life and until adolescence (1960-1978), there is a clear rejection and denial of culture. In the second part of his life and onward into adulthood (1978-2012), there is a clear acceptance and embracing of culture. The rejection of his culture comes from his experience as a child and his incapability to identify with one nation in particular; he disowned his cultural roots in his youth in attempts of being considered Canadian. Next of Kin comes during a time in his life where had moved from British Columbia to Toronto for school and began investigating and embracing his culture.

The focus of the film is placed on pretending on the part of its main character, Peter. Peter’s assimilation into a host family of Armenians resembles the filmmaker’s assimilation into his host country of Canada. This is also the difference between the protagonist and the filmmaker; whereas Peter pretends to be a foreigner, the filmmaker in his own life has now stopped pretending and has begun acknowledging his cultural roots. The sense of aimlessness and disorientation in the film is reinforced with recurring shots that take place in a baggage carousel in a nondescript airport. This becomes suggestive of his confusion with Peter’s (and as an extension, the filmmaker’s) identity; where is he and, more importantly, where is he going? 

In discussing Diasporic Cinema, we can also make careful connections with “exile film.” The exile film portrays the experiences of individuals cut off from their roots, who in turn are reflecting on their native country from abroad. These instances can clearly be seen in Gikor (1982), a film in which a child is transplanted into Tbilisi, Georgia, but longs for his return to his homeland.

In both cases of Diasporic Cinema and the exile film, we are presented with an understanding of how filmmakers use their work as a way of reflecting on culture and their relationship to cultural identity. These films also deal with characters living divided social lives, primarily because of their inability to assimilate into a foreign culture. In understanding the films that make up Diasporic Cinema, we are also presented with a deeper understanding of how assimilation has had an affect on films and their filmmakers.