Is Nation a Defining Context for Early Cinema?
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The Ninth International Domitor Conference, held at the University of Michigan from May 29–June 2, 2006, opened with a rare multi-media screening of the film, Our Empire, based in part on the popular “Our Navy” show that toured Great Britain from 1900 to 1914. Our Empire included glass slides projected on a three-turret magic lantern (operated by David Francis, former head of the Motion Picture Division, U.S. Library of Congress), early British patriotic films, popular tunes sung by Celia L. (Rose) Randall-Bengry, and a lecture performed with gusto by Frank Gray (director, Screen Archives South East, Brighton).
Domitor is the only international organization devoted to the study of early cinema. The subject of this conference was the nation or national, a widely held concept at the turn of the last century, as a more or less defining context for the development of early cinema (through the mid-1910s). Forty-five researchers from 10 countries participated in this year’s conference.
The conference papers raised a host of important and sometimes contested issues that received extended discussion. At the outset, crucial terms were defined to make a distinction between nation, national, and nationalist. Countering an argument that early cinema was a global phenomenon, several case studies demonstrated it was more accurately transnational. U-M’s Giorgio Bertellini argued that racial difference in earlier visual culture was neglected in conceptualizing cinema’s modernity; other participants provided case studies of immigration foregrounding the link between national and racial distinctions.
In other sessions, the growing Americanization of American cinema was correlated with distinct production sites. One session outlined the emergence of cinema in Canada and Poland in relation to rising patriotic sensibilities, highlighting differences at the regional or even local level that complicated any definition of the national. The notion of the national was presented in a variety of ways: by analyzing electrification in three countries; by focusing on nonfiction; by taking up different genres (comic films, trick films, melodramas); by examining the promotion and reception of individual movie stars; and by analyzing the gendering of technological mastery.
Following the tradition of previous Domitor conferences, Abel, Bertellini, and U-M’s Rob King are negotiating with several presses to publish the revised conference papers into an edited volume.
Richard Abel is professor and chair of the Department of Screen Arts & Cultures at the University of Michigan. Giorgio Bertellini is assistant professor in U-M’s Department of Screen Arts & Cultures and Department of Romance Languages and Literatures.