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‘One step away from propaganda’: on constructing otherness in cinema with Dr Matilda Mroz

Updated: Mar 9

Dr. Matilda Mroz specialises in how cinematic methods are utilised when telling stories about those who are marginalised or ‘othered’. As a Senior Lecturer of Film Studies at the University of Sussex, she focuses on cinematic representations of the holocaust and how time passes in film. The Channel had the opportunity to discuss her research, the use of film in political discourse and the importance of diversity in cinema.

How can cinema help us have in-depth discussions about urgent topics such as, the rise of the far right?

Many of us continue to have similar problems where we construct so-called ‘others’ in our head, this construction of otherness is based on stereotypes and cliché, false ideas about other people’s identities. This has much to do with how the media tends to operate. There is a certain figure of ‘The Terrorist,’ and particularly in anti-Semitic discourse there is a ‘Jewish figure’ that is trotted out as an ‘other.’

The prevention of othering involves taking a more ethical approach to all life, human and non-human, that doesn’t base itself on those categorizations. But at the same time, there is this philosophical approach to the ‘other’, in which every other person is an ‘other’ to the self, and that these other people are in some way unknowable. There is a sense of respecting that ‘otherness’ of people, and not instrumentalising that. In another sense, the self is also unknowable. There are things we don’t know or might never know about ourselves. But this really involves the media and how it discusses these things. It’s about interrogating how we construct the ‘other’.

With that in mind, can we effectively use film to raise awareness and to create a dialogue regarding these issues?

I think there is a double-edged issue here. Film is a mass, public medium that can reach millions or billions of people. It is so powerful in influencing people’s perspective on various topics. It can be a rallying point for opposition—we’ve seen this in Poland after communism when creative works became a flashpoint for political action. It can appear in the diversity and decolonisation debate too, because the more we represent one type of being and experience, the less people are likely to open themselves up to the experiences of others. It matters what voices are being heard.

However, there is also a bit of danger in that. If you don’t approach what you watch critically, it isn’t obvious when a film is being instrumentalised—which is one step away from propaganda. It’s important that everyone understands that film is a perspective, and sometimes that’s forgotten. Take Polish cinema as an example, some people from the conservative parties were attacking the film Ida, because ‘it showed the wrong image of Poland’, and then there were countering productions that show Polish people rescuing Jewish people. It becomes a tit-for-tat, and it’s unfortunate when film becomes instrumentalised in this way.

But overall, the more diverse voices that are heard, the better. We need a multitude of additional perspectives and discussions to happen around these films. These are just as important as the films themselves.

Is there anything that we can learn from the ways film treats change and the passing of time?

My ideas about time came from philosophy, which was not about film, but simply about life. It has transformed the way that I think about change. Change is a continual, sometimes very slow, process, rather than fixed-states of being, and it’s interesting how identity is so fluid from one moment to the next. It helps when you think about your life as a series of events. In the moments that seem to be very subpar and unsuccessful, it’s important to recognise that this always changes. If you’re in a really bad place, hopefully, it modulates into something different, and it passes.

What kind of role do you hope your work can play in academia and beyond?

Currently, my work on Holocaust cinema in Poland is focused on how Polish filmmakers are representing history through the aesthetic strategies they use to think about the trauma of the past. I’m also concerned with how they structure a viewing experience around the difficult questions that are raised in these films. With my current project, which is interdisciplinary, I hope that it can reach an interdisciplinary readership.

Beyond academia, I’ve done some film screenings and Q+As with non-academic audiences. That tends to work pretty well in getting your work out of academia. If you’re looking for a real shift in people’s ideas, it’s important to keep in mind that your voice is one amongst a multitude that has to keep pushing the topics before any real, interesting change can happen.

If you could go back in time to your years as a student, what film recommendations would you make to yourself? Do you have different recommendations for students today?

If I could tell myself something, I’d say to look at more diverse films. I fell in love with art cinema, and of course that was one particular kind of filmmaker, the classic white, male auteur. I wish I had already started looking at more diverse voices back then, especially outside of Europe, to find the global art cinema that I didn’t really encounter until much later. It’s the same thing I tell students now: Be diverse in who you’re viewing and what kind of films you’re viewing. There are many voices and identities that emerge from them that are crucial to your studies. Of course, there’s always a complaint among students that “I couldn’t relate to this film.” It’s such a common thing, and I think one of the beauties of film is that it can open you up to identities other than your own.

What are the benefits of studying film?

Part of what I love about film is the attention to detail. I love teaching film analysis because most people get so excited about spotting the details. Something will resonate with them in a way they hadn’t noticed before, and I think people appreciate this sense of discovery. It’s like a new language that opens up before you.

As an undergraduate, I had to choose between history and film. History has always been a passion of mine as well, so I wanted the ability to combine these two fields. The philosophy side of analysis also interested me. But that’s what’s so great about film studies! You actually need all these disciplines in particular projects. It draws on history, on sociology, on architecture, on art’s very omnivorous!

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