restricted access 2. Italian Cinema and the Colonies to 1935
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21 S 2 Italian Cinema and the Colonies to 1935 This chapter offers an overview of the imbrications and encounters of Italian ­cinema with the colonies up to 1935. I focus on the 1920s, a decade that has been slow to receive attention in accounts of both Italian colonial and filmic enterprises. During those years, the Fascists developed the ideologies and strategies of conquest that would serve them in Ethiopia and during World War II, quelling active rebellion in Somalia and carrying out a ruthless repression of resistance in the Libyan regions of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica. In the realm of ­cinema, the 1920s is normally considered a period of crisis and retrenchment, due to the collapse of production and distribution structures. Tenacious research has revealed a variegated filmic landscape, though, one characterized by a good number of colonial and exotic-­ themed productions.1 I bring these imperial and filmic histories together in my reading of Camerini’s 1927 work Kif Tebbi, which is located within the Orientalist genre that flourished internationally in the decade after World War I. My discussion of this Italian narrative of masculine redemption emphasizes the ways it sets the tone for empire films, but also highlights Orientalist elements that found less favor in the militaristic climate of later Fascism. This chapter also explores the notion of ­ cinema as an “eye of the war” as it emerged during the Italo-­ Turkish War and World War I. Empire film culture of the late 1930s builds on the militarization of the cine­ matic apparatus and celebrates the new images made possible by advances in military and optical technologies during these years.2 22 Italian Fascism’s Empire Cinema CINEMA, WAR, AND EMPIRE: ITALIAN BEGINNINGS The history of ­cinema is bound up with the history of imperial expansion and with the history of the technologies of movement that made that expansion possible. Cinema pioneers Georges Meliès’s and Louis Lumière’s early works include not only the well-­ known footage of trains arriving in Lyon and Joinville, but also shorts on slave-­ trading, harem dances, and Ashanti women and children who had been brought via boat and train to France for the 1897 Lyons Exhibition. Early ­cinema’s fascination with rail travel and with the journey as an optical experience for the passenger-­spectator was soon harnessed to the cause of colonial exploration and the camera’s discovery of indigenous bodies to be studied in situ.3 In the Af­ ri­ can interior, where the train rarely traveled, the camera was a primary emblem of a mobile modernity. Although the Italian case is less known, Luca Comerio, Giovanni Vitrotti, and Roberto Omegna were as active as Hans Schomburgk and other Europeans in enshrining ­cinema’s place in the culture of empire as an instrument of documentation and po­ liti­ cal propaganda. Exploration and ethnographic films, of­ten sponsored by Italian geographical societies, experimented with the panoramic shot and the long shot to highlight the “emptiness” of targeted landscapes, even as they documented close encounters with the inhabitants of those landscapes . This “reciprocal legitimation of the cine­ matic and ethnographic gaze” laid the foundations for interwar European colonial ­ cinemas’ engagements with the bodies and cultures of colonial subjects by affirming the modernity of the film apparatus, establishing the authority of the cameraman , and justifying his “ocular aggression” as necessary to the work of the civilizing mission.4 Comerio’s extensive oeuvre is key to understanding the range of the Italian ­ cinema’s engagement with imperialism. He documented Italy’s pioneering aerial bombing missions and other military operations of the 1911–1912 Italo-­ Turkish War, most famously in La battaglia delle due palme/The Battle of Two Palms, but also celebrated the parallel conquests of Italian radio technology (L’inaugurazione della stazione radiotelegrafica di Tripoli/The Inauguration of the Radio-­Telegraphy Station in Tripoli) and the work of Italian colonial troops (La vita degli ascari eritrei/The Life of the Eritrean Ascari—all films from 1912). Soon after, he returned to Africa 23 Italian Cinema and the Colonies to 1935 to film an expedition led by Baron Raimondo Franchetti. For decades to come, Comerio would be a protagonist of war and colonial ­ cinema. His 1929 documentary Dal Polo all’Equatore/From the Pole to the Equator, composed of footage that spans a period from the early 1900s to the late 1920s, anticipates many of the themes that run through Italian empire­cinema: the camera as weapon of war, the ability...


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