Barbie is a radical takedown of not only the patriarchy, but the conventions of cinema itself. Or it’s a movie-length commercial sweetened with pseudofeminist platitudes. Oppenheimer is a scathing indictment of a tortured genius whose amoral personal ambition left nothing but destruction in its wake. Or it’s a shiny canonization of the man behind one of history’s greatest atrocities.
The battle over the politics of the latest blockbusters exploded weeks before release. Like Oppenheimer’s unobserved quantum particles, movies in the Twitter era exist simultaneously in antithetical states; both revolutionary and reactionary, woke and problematic. Onto every film, an exaggerated image of one’s own position — or one’s enemies — can be projected.
Criticizing the politics of mass media is undoubtedly a worthwhile project. But in the sea of overbaked culture war discourse, it’s easy to lose sight of land. What should the anti-capitalist moviegoer look for on the horizon? What is the North Star of leftist film?
In the time of superhero franchises and Disney remakes, “eat the rich” Oscar winners and Adam McKay message movies, the Left would do well to consider how we assess the politics of film, and what an alternative, truly radical form of filmmaking might look like. There’s no better place to start than Third Cinema.
Third Cinema in Theory
In October 1969, the Tricontinental magazine ran an article by two young Argentine filmmakers, Octavio Getino and Fernando Solanas, titled “Toward a Third Cinema.” The twenty-page piece would become something of a manifesto, articulating the theory behind a nascent cinematic movement, and inspiring an approach to political filmmaking that lives on over fifty years later.
“Toward a Third Cinema” posits that most films, up until that point, could be classified as one of two categories. First Cinema was the cinema of Hollywood — corporate-produced movies, designed above all to entertain (and thereby make a profit). Think Golden Age Hollywood musicals or Marvel movies. Though First Cinema demonstrated the potential of film as a medium to reach mass audiences, it had no radical intent.
Second Cinema, on the other hand, is more often auteur-driven and experimental, concerned primarily with artistic expression. In many ways, Second Cinema marks a political step forward from First, pushing the boundaries of the medium in pursuit of loftier goals than mere spectacle. But according to Getino and Solanas, its political potential nevertheless remained limited by the commercial imperative. At worst, Second Cinema could become navel-gazing and individualist. At best, it testified to the existence of injustice and the suffering of the working class, but it remained divorced from a sophisticated critique of the material relations that produce such suffering, and their alternatives.
Recognizing both the strengths and limits of these two forms, Getino and Solanas proposed a Third Cinema, explicitly concerned with using the power of film to educate and agitate the masses toward class struggle and national liberation. Seemingly influenced by the work of early Soviet cinema, the thought of philosopher-educator Paulo Freire, and, perhaps most of all, theorist-playwright Bertolt Brecht, Getino and Solanas decried how Argentina’s film industry was “set up to accept and justify dependence, the origin of all underdevelopment.” Instead, they urged the development of a cinema designed to advance its audience’s anti-imperialist class consciousness.
As they put it:
The anti-imperialist struggle of the peoples of the Third World and of their equivalents inside the imperialist countries constitutes today the axis of the world revolution. Third cinema is, in our opinion, the cinema that recognises in that struggle the most gigantic cultural, scientific, and artistic manifestation of our time, the great possibility of constructing a liberated personality with each people as the starting point — in a word, the decolonisation of culture.
Getino and Solanas rejected a simplistic belief in the power of art or language to unilaterally change the world. Rather, they understood culture as just one site of contestation. Cultural production was one powerful tool with the potential to interact, dialectically, with material conditions to further the real struggle for Third World liberation.
In Political Film, scholar Mike Wayne identifies four key elements by which Third Cinema seeks to achieve these goals: historicity — the film situates itself in history, understood as “process, change, contradiction, and conflict”; politicization — the film explores “the process whereby people who have been oppressed and exploited become conscious of that condition and determine to do something about it”; critical commitment — while no artistic work is detached from ideology, Third Cinema embraces its critical perspective; and cultural specificity — the film grounds itself in its audience’s particular cultural context.
Perhaps the clearest expression of this approach is Getino and Solanas’s own La Hora de los Hornos (The Hour of the Furnaces), made in 1968. The film combines original and archival documentary footage to create a four-hour treatise on Argentina — its colonial past, its neocolonial present, its class composition, and, not least, the necessity of struggle for its liberation.
Though occasionally drifting into a more standard documentary format, La Hora de los Hornos is at its best when Getino and Solanas are playing with the form, almost tangibly experimenting with the power of cinema to educate and engage. The film opens to pounding drums, barraging the viewer with images of social conflict — protests, police brutality, guerilla warfare — intercut with title cards proclaiming slogans like “LIBERACIÓN” and “A common past. A common enemy. A common possibility.” In a later sequence, gruesome footage of a slaughterhouse is montaged with advertisements and intertitles describing, for example, the percentage of Argentina’s mineral wealth that is owned by foreign corporations.
To Getino and Solanas, Third Cinema was not just defined by its content and form, but also its method of production and distribution. The two cofounded the Grupo Cine Liberación, which built democratic control and workers’ ownership into the filmmaking process. Operating under the shadow of dictatorship, and seeking to minimize any financial obligations that might undermine their politics, the collective relied on “guerrilla filmmaking” — small crews operating on shoestring budgets, and often outside of the law.
Distribution fit a similar pattern. Banned in multiple countries, La Hora de los Hornos was typically shown by radical political organizations in underground screenings accompanied by intensive sessions of dialogue and debate. Not every Third Cinema filmmaker would meet the strict production and distribution standards outlined by Getino and Solanas, but the critique of capitalist cultural production and spirit of rigorous audience engagement that they embodied was nonetheless formative to Third Cinema’s development.
Third Cinema in Practice
While Getino and Solanas coined the term, Third Cinema is by no means theirs alone. Brazilian director Glauber Rocha’s “The Aesthetics of Hunger,” published four years earlier, and Cuban theorist-director Julio García Espinosa’s “For an Imperfect Cinema” were similarly influential essays on the political potential of film. But more important than any written theory are the films themselves.
Third Cinema takes many forms. La batalla de Chile: La lucha de un pueblo sin armas (The Battle of Chile: The Struggle of an Unarmed People) by Patricio Guzmán uses documentary footage to track the reactionary backlash to Salvador Allende’s presidency. Jorge Sanjinés’s Yawar Mallku (Blood of the Condor) is a drama based on an alleged true story of a Quechua community discovering that their women have been forcibly sterilized by the US Peace Corps. Kidlat Tahimik’s whimsical, often-droll Mababangong Bangungot (Perfumed Nightmare) follows a US-obsessed Philippine jeepney driver (and Wernher von Braun mega-fan) in his journey of disillusionment from the West.
Many Third Cinema films explicitly portray the fight for national political independence; set in 1961 Angola, Sarah Maldoror’s Sambizanga is about a woman’s journey to free her imprisoned, militant husband, who was part of the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola. Others, like “father” of African cinema Ousmane Sembène — who famously declared “Europe is not my center” — just as often set their sights on the postcolonial, comprador bourgeoisie. His Xala, for example, tells the story of a corrupt Senegalese businessman cursed with impotence — both political and sexual.
While unapologetic in its political stance, Third Cinema does not shy away from nuance or complexity. Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Memorias del Subdesarrollo (Memories of Underdevelopment) depicts the Cuban bourgeoisie as unmoored and disaffected in a country that has moved on without them, presenting, as one critic put it, an “empathetic portrait of an unsympathetic man.”
Though Third Cinema is generally made by artists from the Third World, it is not necessarily so. Italian Gillo Pontecorvo’s neorealist masterpiece La battaglia di Algeri (The Battle of Algiers) is often included in the canon, along with his lesser-known Queimada (Burn!). Nor is the label limited to feature films. The twnety-seven-minute Agarrando Pueblo (Vampires of Poverty) from Colombia’s Carlos Mayolo and Luis Ospina, for example, begins as an effective if unremarkable satire of poverty porn, but transforms into something altogether more powerful when the narrative is dropped to allow one actor — an actual resident of the depicted slum, it turns out — to break the fourth wall and articulate his opinions on the filmmaking process directly to the camera.
Third Cinema as a wave grew and, ultimately, ebbed alongside the Third World movement. But it was not consigned entirely to the past. Twenty years after his Touki Bouki, a Third Cinema classic, Djibril Diop Mambéty made Hyènes (Hyenas), an allegory for the arrival of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) onto the African continent, and the willingness of some to sacrifice everything for a share of promised riches. In 2006’s Bamako, by Mauritanian-Malian filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako, the people of Africa put the IMF and World Bank on trial for their crimes against the continent in the courtyard of a Malian family’s house. As the hearing unfolds, other members of the household watch a film-within-a-film in which a band of American cowboys goes on a shooting spree in Timbuktu; “Two teachers, that’s too many,” says one, before firing.
Spanning decades, continents, and genres, from the films that inspired Getino and Solanas to their descendents today, Third Cinema is less a singular movement than it is a shared approach — a common commitment — to using the power of cinema to advance the project of Third World liberation.
Third Cinema, Then and Now
Third Cinema is not beyond reproach. Despite the bombast of its claims, it has remained culturally marginal. Though it has sought a mass audience, the demands that it places on its audience have nonetheless disengaged or even alienated many viewers.
Nor, of course, does Third Cinema have sole claim to political film. From the Soviet masters to Bong Joon-ho, through vast movements of radical black, feminist, and queer cinema, film has been used as a vehicle for social change since the very inception of the medium.
But Third Cinema’s contributions to the history of political filmmaking — as a concerted attempt to manifest radical politics from production to consumption to distribution — are enormous. Where some films tap into righteous anger to exploit and assuage it, Third Cinema channels it. Moving beyond superficial lamentations on the state of the world, Third Cinema articulates a substantive critique of the capitalist, imperialist system. Rather than existing merely for profits, Third Cinema’s entire raison d’être is to develop class consciousness and contribute culturally to material anti-imperialist struggle.
Getino and Solanas conclude their manifesto by claiming that “the birth of a third cinema means, at least for us, the most important revolutionary artistic event of our times.” Though their claim may sound dramatic in retrospect, it came at a moment when Third World politics seemed poised to reshape global relations. The world of 2023 is assuredly different from that of 1969, but the fundamental objective of Third Cinema — decolonization — is no less urgent.
Not every movie needs to subscribe to Third Cinema’s standards in order to be politically impactful, much less artistically valuable. Barbie and Oppenheimer can be watched and enjoyed, criticized, condemned, or valorized, without reservation. But amid the confused and hyperbolic discourse that now inevitably accompanies each major release, the enduring legacy of one of cinema’s most influential political movements offers terra firma. Third Cinema is a reminder of the medium’s radical potential.