Monica Hanna and Rebecca A. Sheehan (eds.)
Border Cinema: Reimagining Identity Through Aesthetics
Rutgers University Press, 2019
251 pages

Reviewed by Oscar G. Chaidez

The fixation with borders by conservative movements across the globe in recent years has once again rendered evident the paradoxical nature of globalization and its oft-fraught relationship with those on the periphery. As economic borders are increasingly dissolved, geopolitical borders, meant to mediate the movement of people (often meaning those forcibly displaced by the very same forces of globalization), are increasingly codified. While physical borders, i.e., those between places, may serve to delineate the boundaries of the nation-state, thus fulfilling the ideological need of sovereignty, there are also those between people, and these may play a dividing or uniting role. Indeed, as we learn from Gloria Anzaldúa, there is an intimate relationship between identity and borders (Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, 1987). On one hand, identity categories fulfill the colonial task of classification, facilitating the construction of hierarchical systems to safeguard power through negative stereotypes of others. On the other, it carries the potential to serve as a symbol of the queer essence of our being.

In Border Cinema: Reimagining Identity Through Aesthetics, a collection of essays that analyze contemporary world films which the editors term “border cinema,” Monica Hanna and Rebecca A. Sheehan address the current state of affairs regarding borders and globalization through the multisensory medium of contemporary cinema. The authors place emerging conceptions of national borders in an increasingly interconnected world against recent technological advances in cinema, chief among them digitalization and an ever-expanding way of consuming it. Hanna and Sheehan locate a cinema of contestation that not only registers the contemporary crisis of borders, it may also in various ways challenge the ideologies that borders enable and even the very idea of borders themselves—be they cultural or geographic. In tandem with theorists of Third Cinema, the relationship between aesthetics and politics becomes the connecting thread of an otherwise remarkably diverse group of essays.  

In the growing field of border studies, Border Cinema elucidates the way technological innovation—repeatedly viewed as a capitalistic endeavor—can also be instrumentalized for social justice and subversive ends. While acknowledging cinema’s legacy of crossing borders, the editors recognize its natural propensity for nationalism and other forms of border creation. Border cinema, precisely, is world cinema that transgresses geopolitical and ideological borders. The most exceptional aspect of the collection, nonetheless, is its emphasis on contemporary cinema’s potential to incite empathy through haptic visuality, a way of experiencing cinema that engages the body of the viewer in ways other than through vision and sound (e.g., by evoking memories of smell, touch, and taste by zooming on certain parts of the body) enabled by technological advances in the medium such as the digitalization of the cinematic image. Unlike sound and vision, cinema’s two dominant senses, the haptic have the ability to transverse discriminating ideologies in ways the other senses can’t. According to Hanna and Sheehan, “the haptic promises an uncharted territory for sensing the other, challenging vision’s primacy and its weakness as a sense quick to judge by appearance: the color of the other’s skin, the other’s gender, the other’s class.” Due to our capacity to assume identity-based on the voice of a person, sounds are equally susceptible to “the corruption of racist, nationalist, sexist, and xenophobic assumptions.” Haptic visuality, the editors propose, offers a way to overcome these prejudices and instill empathy in their stead.      

At the core of the collection lies the question of how recent shifts in cinematic aesthetics, especially the increased interest in haptic experiences, can be used to destabilize identity categories and the indifference towards the Other that borders perpetuate. In the second chapter, titled “Composite Aesthetics as Cultural Cartographies of Europe in Transition,” for example, Marina Hassapopoulou proposes that the mediated “composite image”—digital images highly subject to postproduction editing, particularly CGI and spatial montages—of European youth cinema captured Europe’s liminal stage of globalization at the turn of the century. In a sense, the composite image on the screen came to reflect Europe’s composite national and cultural identity. In “The Art Witness in Lourdes Portillo’s Señorita extraviada” (which addresses the title’s 2001 documentary about the femicides along the US-Mexico border), on the other hand, Rosa-Linda Fregoso argues that the “poetic,” equally postdigital image that the filmmaker’s favor affords spectators an embodied experience through persistent touching imagery and lyrical images accompanied by Gregorian chants, thus eliciting a sensual experience on the viewer.  This haptic experience at once refuses to replicate the violence exercised on femicide victims and is much more likely to awaken empathy.

Border cinema, then, reflects contemporary issues related to globalization (indeed, femicides along the US-Mexico border are as much a national problem as the result of globalization’s selective indifference to life) and actively engages with them. In the case of Señorita extraviada, the film not only proposes ways in which filmmaking can represent an issue without perpetuating violence against women, through its fomented empathy, it can also incite the viewer’s behavior and, potentially, political action. Comparably, “composite” images in European cinema call for the readjustment of a uniform identity and encourage a hybrid one, hopefully fostering a culture of inclusivity and deadening discrimination towards immigrants and racial minorities, for instance. 

Another important characteristic of border cinema is its ability to connect people across space by acknowledging the complex humanity of the Other, and effectively, the essays that most stand out are those concerning films whose subject matter most patently engages with human displacement and make us ponder upon the affective power of borders on the psyche of the individual. Such is the case in “Crossing through el Hueco: The Visual Politics of Smuggling in Colombian Migration Films,” which calls on the viewer to reconsider our conception of borders in the global age. According to Jennifer Harford Vargas, the borders which displaced subjects must cross are not merely physical—those that configure a line on a map—they can also be legal, temporal, or otherwise, and they physically exert their force on the bodies of immigrants. This situation is reproduced, for example, in Paraíso Travel, a film with a non-linear narrative whose characters must cross multiple national borders and endure physical and sexual assault (among other forms of physical and emotional hardships) on their way to even inside the US. Similarly, in “The Borders We Cross in Search of a Better World: On Border Crossing in Three of Amos Gitai’s Feature Films,” the border is a persistent emotional force reverberating historical events. Parallel to Anzaldúa’s experience, whose sense of un-belonging was conjured by a colonial legacy of Native American dispossession, the forced displacement and subsequent expulsion to Cyprus of Holocaust survivors at the end of World War II transforms into an inherited living trauma reenacted across generations.  

Via a political lens, Border Cinema delivers a novel and insightful analysis of contemporary world cinema. Due to its interdisciplinarity, not only can the collection be useful for those looking at the intersection of border and film studies, it easily informs several other disciplines, including globalization, displacement, and trauma studies. Hannah and Sheehan bring together an expansive range of subjects with an equally impressive sample of analyzed films, constituting a truly comparative work of scholarship. Ironically, this same quality might also be its drawback. Though the reconfiguration of borders is part of its goal, at times the concept is so broadly incorporated into the essays that it makes the relationship between one essay and the next feel tenuous at best, charging the collection with a sense of incoherence. This, of course, is to be expected when delving into such a ubiquitous but urgent area as border studies.