Decolonizing My Social Studies Classroom: using cinema to challenge mental maps

Two of the most famous "Arabists", Gertrude Bell and TE Lawrence,
visiting the pyramids with Winston Churchill in 1921.
Area studies folks love to talk about the creation of "imagined spaces" and "perceptual landscapes". Once you scratch beneath the veneer of this sort of jargon, it's easy to understand why the concepts these terms describe are currently en vogue. Forget about the porous border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, virtually all borders are now recognized as somewhat fictitious and (at least) intellectually insecure. They are the ultimate anthropological artifacts, and arguably the most largest monuments of individual human intervention. Outside of territory exchanging hands through collective negotiation and invasion, ordinary people such as politicians (like James Balfour of the infamous Balfour Declaration), navigators (like James Cook), empire builders (like Cecil Rhodes of DeBeers and Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe), and explorers (like one of my more dubious heroes Gertrude Bell) created the 20th century and 21st century world map.

Europe: 1900 (source)
As recently as in our grandparents' or great-grandparents' lifetime, the familiar map as we know it didn't exist, or at least, or at least, was free to be re-imagined and reshaped at will. Four or five generations back, some of my ancestors lived in Prussia. That territory then became German, then Polish, then German, then Polish again. Reportedly, my great-great-great grandfather Kruger, a goat boy who married a goose girl and migrated to the U.S., was obsessed with the military exploits of Frederick the Great and Napoleon until his death. For him, borders were surely loose concepts, at best. But to many people born after the mid-20th century, the lines between political entities probably seem immutable. Unless, that is, you happened to live in a disputed ethnic homeland, a hinterland with valuable resources prone to occupation, or in a recently established state, etc.

Which begs the question, who are the 21st century guardians of this awareness of map-making and map-breaking?

Well, high education rates aside, they probably aren't residents of North America. U.S. citizens post-1950 tend to look at world maps with a combination of boredom and awe, and to me the reason is twofold. One, we have not had to relearn the U.S. map since 1959, when Hawaii became the 50th state, and two, we have not experienced a significant war for territory on the contiguous North American continent since the conflict between U.S. troops and Pancho Villa in the Southwestern U.S. in 1916. (Unless you count the long process of "displacement" of indigenous people during "peaceful" frontier settlement.) When even the possibility of change to a nation state's borders exists outside of living memory, that nation state can easily come to believe in its own permanence, and through the rigidity of that mindset, to see other places as equally permanent.

We are not the best people to ask about spatial imagination.

The United States of Eurasia (MUSE) 

However, let's forget for the moment the modern notions of sovereignty and nation states. When we turn to the idea of "regions" we find, perhaps, the best example of imagined space. Contrary to our common mental categories and divisions, Asia is actually not (gasp) a separate landmass from continental Europe. The most radical social scientists and politicians *might* divide the regions by tracing a finger down the Urals and including the Northern European Plain (the most populated tract of Russia) into Europe as a whole. After all, it's got "Europe" in the title. But anxieties about Russian expansionism run deep, and after all, we don't really want to encourage Russian inclusion into civilized Europe, do we? Therefore, anything in the Russian sphere of interest cannot be Europe. It's Eurasia, at best, Asia at worst. And therein lies the moral problem: meaning, Asia as the ultimate "other", of course.

For most of us, imagining Asia and imagining Europe amounts to the exact same action.

Arranged (2007)
We cannot, at this stage, easily do one activity without involving the other. Perhaps, once upon a time (let's say 500 years ago), the two were free to imagine each other without much interference. But at some point in the European-defined Age of Exploration and Colonization, the wires got forever crossed. As Ashis Nandy points out in The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self Under Colonialism, the colonized person/nation's concept of self is no longer self-generated, it is dependent on the colonizer's image of that person or nation; so much so that even the act of rejection of the colonizer's imagined world only further cements the boundaries of the worldview that the colonizer created.

These internalized limits and categories certainly create political boundaries on paper and on the ground, but even more so, they create our mental maps--our personal and societal vision of the world. They decide not just where Turkey begins and Bulgaria ends, but what that transitional space signifies, and why it is necessary in the first place.

In order to decolonize the classroom, the invisible assumptions underpinning these mental maps must be (A) recognized and (B) challenged.

In other words, students must be freed to re-imagine space. 

Never on a Sunday (Greece, 1960)
Top assumptions ...

1. Colonial and neo-colonial mental maps have fixed, timeless borders.

2. Colonial and neo-colonial mental maps have black and white categories that place people in black and white spatial roles.

3. Colonial and neo-colonial mental maps exist outside the individual's ability to critique or change. BUT when colonial and neo-colonial mental maps DO change, it is because the West has decided to change the rules (which is legitimate), or because the non-West has decided the rules must be changed (which is obviously illegitimate).

And the challengers are ....

1. Films about explorers (to open students' minds to the unknown)

As colonial as the word "explorer" admittedly sounds, exploring is a comfortable transitional role for an American to assume, a role that asks students to treat the world as a new place without any "mistakes in it", to learn to turn a fresh eye to unfamiliar landscapes. "Explorer's" films highlight plucky individuals grappling with hostile landscapes and shifting borders. They can introduce discussions around the constant modernizing quest to tame the wilderness and to scramble for resources, but without reverting to tired American bedtime stories of Lewis & Clark or Davy Crockett ... while simultaneously avoiding placing the student immediately in a a position of uncomfortable ignorance or defensiveness.

One of my favorite films to use for this purpose is Letter Never Sent (1960), a beautiful and terrifying Soviet film about a group of scientists on an expedition to the Siberian interior to search for natural resources "for the Fatherland".

In the first half, the film mostly seems concerned with the popular "civilized man turning savage again" trope, comparable to The Lord of the Flies or well, every season of LOST. However, in the second half, the group is decimated and separated by a massive forest fire. Then, the only question is, will any of them survive to return to their families again? And was the venture worth the risk?

Watching the African Queen (1951), or The Naked Jungle (1954) might also be entertaining examples of White Man and Woman vs. the Wild. But it's hard to beat LNS for pure cinematic value or environmental realism. I often lean toward making students watch older films when possible, but this is an easy subgenre to find in recent action and adventure and science fiction (if not always in parent-friendly films), and a relatively painless way to to remind students that most of the earth's territory was once uncharted.

2. Films about the alien and stranger (to entangle students' emotions in other people's realities)

Though they're often tearjerkers, films that portray stateless persons, refugees, separated families, etc. are helpful in showing the human impact of political boundaries and bureaucratic red tape, and the humanity on both sides of a border. This is a pretty common genre in art house international cinema, but so far, Baran (Iran, 2001--pictured below) and Lakhon Mein Eik (Pakistan, 1967) have gone over well in some of my classes.

Any story about immigrant experiences could achieve a comparable end. Ultimately, I want students to think about what it means to navigate invisibility, hostility, and displacement. West Side Story (1961) and Fiddler on the Roof (1971) are excellent jumping off points, since U.S. students often have some familiarity with these stories and settings. English Vinglish (2012) is also probably a good choice, as it's both amusing and fairly universal in its themes.

As long as you can create an emotional reference point to humanize later discussions, or even a vocabulary to use across the board, I generally find that students will feel a kinship with similar, if more complex struggles elsewhere. If they watch Fiddler on the Roof and talk about anti-Semitic pogroms, then later we can discuss ethnic cleansing in the Balkans or East Africa with a bit more second-hand displacement experience with which to ground our conversation.

[Note: Of course, there are other ways to provide a similar second-hand experience. In my geography class last year, we did a refugee crisis simulation--where some students got to be the European gatekeepers and some "got" to be Syrian and North African refugees.]

3. Films about revolutionaries and rebels (to shift students' expectations of the "other")

This is one of my favorite categories of film. Half the time these films were released as propaganda serving some party on the political spectrum or some particular regime. But they are still fascinating, inspirational, and for U.S. citizens at least, enlightening. We tend to think of most other countries' citizens as disempowered in comparison to Americans, while simultaneously fearing the power that other countries' citizens may choose to seize.

I love the following films both for entertainment and discussion purposes: Lawrence of Arabia (1960), The Last Bridge (Austria, 1954) The Hunger Games films (2012-2015), The Red Detachment of Women (China, 1961), Kommunist (USSR, 1959), Battle of Algiers (Italy-Algeria, 1966), Island in the Sun (1957), and Baaz (1953).

Note: despite the appearance of the above list, I don't try to turn out communist sympathizers (nor do I push my students toward the American left or the right), but I do like to turn out students who respect revolutionary ideals in theory, and the right/ability of other people groups and oppressed populations to try to change their circumstances.

My next experiment ... 

Next year I think I'm going to have my students watch the surprisingly relevant Vincent Price/Samuel Fuller film about a forger who tried to "steal" an entire U.S. territory: The Baron of Arizona (1950).

I'll probably pair it with a reading on Cecil Rhodes and/or other famous landgrabbers, along with a conversation about land redistribution in postcolonial nations.

In conclusion ...

Sabarmati (1969)
If a student's mental map is neo-colonial (favoring the Western world in all matters of spatial choice, definition, and agency), then in order to decolonize the classroom, the teacher needs to shift the balance of power in the imagined space first by:

1. Encouraging creativity and curiosity when envisioning the possibilities and limits of human use of the landscape (even if it means temporarily letting students slip into easy colonial roles)

2. Fostering empathy for people who don't fit well inside those limits

3. Giving students a chance to spend an hour or two rooting for people who challenge those arbitrary boundaries or their own comfortable categories

Pedagogically, it's all to easy to stop here ... having hopefully encouraged the growth of empathy and awareness, if nothing else. But mental maps are also drawn from a specific lookout point--from the ground we psychologically stand upon. And that choice of ground is often suspect. As Prof. Harry Goruba (University of Cape Town) points out:
Yes, the view of Cape Town from here is as stunning as it is panoramic — just as the tourist brochure tells you. What arrests you here though is not really this view but the vision it encapsulates: the vision of an era when the world was out there for the taking, when Africa was envisioned as a vast landscape, lying supine at your feet, waiting for the lights of civilisation and commerce to shine over it. It is this panoptic vision of a world under the gaze and surveillance of an imperial man that hits you in the guts: this, in essence, is the modernist dream of encyclopaedic knowledge and control over native subjects. This is one way of thinking Africa from the Cape: the modernist, imperialist version that Cecil John Rhodes embodied and envisioned. It is a vision that represses other peoples, other histories, other knowledges; rather than a dialogic engagement, it privileges a mono-centric, colonising view of the world. [Excerpt from: How not to think of Africa from the Cape, 2011]
So, I'm adopting a fourth goal, elusive though it may be to attain. 

4. Helping students develop the mindset of a "borderlander", a concept inspired by the life of Czeslaw Milosz and developed by Krzysztof Czyzewski. Milosz was a Lithuanian-Polish poet (and one of my favorites), author of the anti-totalitarian work "The Captive Mind", and also Nobel Laureate. He hailed from a region of Lithuania that changed national "hands" many times through his lifetime.
Behind my thoughts is the practice of the borderland. Can one “practice” the borderland? If we understand by this term a certain territory, it would be more appropriate to speak of “cultivating” or “exploring” the borderland. But I am speaking here about a territory that is not necessarily situated in a specific place (for example, a state borderline); rather, I am referring to an area crisscrossed by internal borders, where the inhabitants speak different languages, pray in different temples, or have different national identities. In multicultural areas like the territories of the former Jagiellonian Commonwealth, the word “borderland” described not only a place but also a certain ethos or tradition.The way those notions used to be perceived is reflected in the very term “borderlander,” which refers to a person with tangled family roots who is characterized by tolerance, empathy, critical patriotism, a resistance to ethnic phobias, fluency in many languages, and curiosity about otherness. A borderlander loves his or her small homeland but is open to the outside world. [Emphasis mine] (Source: Line of Return: Practicing “The Borderland” In Dialogue With Czeslaw Milosz. By Krzysztof Czyzewski; Michigan Quarterly Review, 2007.)
It may not be a radically decolonized perspective, but it's a start. 

Now it's your turn! What (semi-accessible) movies would you recommend to expand my resource cabinet, and what do you think are the most important neo-colonial assumptions that affect our mental maps?


  1. I think you might find the books "The sly company of people who care" and "Netherlands" quite interesting. From films I could recommend 'Garm hawa" though I am not sure how it would go in a classroom and similarly the series "Jewel in the crown" , particularly the characters of Hari Kumar, Sarah Layton and Ahmad Qasim. The 1988 French film "Chocolat" directed by Claire Denis a favourite of mine. Aren't neo-colonial assumptions shifting features too as time goes on? Ideas change. From Penelope Keith's statement in "To a Manor Born" where she says "England for the English as we used to say about India", to the Telegraph or Times headline (I forget which) "The Empire strikes back" when the Indian company Tata bought Tetley's

    1. I keep thinking about using Garam Hawa, but I always run into the same problem of where the heck to put it in the syllabus. Normally I try to assign films from the period when we're studying the period, rather than "period dramas". You know, 50s films when we study the 50s, etc. But I've made an exception for things like Selma, so maybe next year I'll squeeze it in earlier in the course.

      I agree about Jewel in the Crown. I think it's probably mature in some sections for my students' (i.e. their parents.) Also: LONG. But it is definitely an amazing conversation starter. When my mother saw it, it was the first time we managed to have more than surface level discussion about India.

      I will check out those books! Also, that Tata/Tetley's story is a great (and amusing) example of how, though the neocolonial world and its worldview still exists (changing or no), it doesn't exist in a simplistic hierarchy over former colonies. On a purely economic level, domination through MNCs may perpetuate North-South economic dependence, but India and China aren't exactly sitting around waiting for US or European investment or leadership. Plus the U.S. is dependent on trading partners and manufacturing centers and cheaper labor, etc. Which is kind of what I meant above when I spoke about rethinking simplistic ideas about who "has agency" or is actually wielding the power these days.

    2. Gosh your replies are tough to read, I've never warmed to a dark background for black letters and my aged eyes aren't any better now.
      There were a couple of Malayalam films I would have suggested but I don't now how accessible they would be nor how good the sub-titling, not because of the grammar, but the subtleties. There is of course, "Bhaji on the beach", "East is East", "My son the fanatic", "Bend it like Beckham" , "In America" and a whole host of French films dealing with its former colonies (not Indochine, I did not like it much and you have already mentioned the classic "Battle for Algiers). I haven't seen much of South American movies dealing with their Spanish or Portuguese connections nor have read many books dealing with that. I would recommend C L R James "Beyond a boundary" not just for the cricket (which you may not be interested in) but for colonial life in the West Indies.

      As for the neo-colonial world still existing, I don't see how that will go away so quickly. Any recent historical experience will remain in a collective memory especially more so today since everybody can access the history they see fit as opposed to centuries ago where knowledge was accessible only to a few. So the effect of Britain on India and the United States and South Africa (especially the chosen myth that is perpetrated with films as with books ) is remembered more clearly more than the effect of the Roman Empire on Britain. Especially the imprint of language though dialects are evolving as Manjula Padmanabhan observed when she said she wrote in an Indian language called English. :-)
      Also different countries deal with these things differently, China's response to the British and Japanese control is different from India's response. Part of it is national character (for what it is worth) part of it is the government. There are so many factors. Since you mentioned Selma have you considered at "Smoke Signals" the Chris Eyre/Sherman Alexie film. I can never forget the lines where Thomas builds a fire talks about his parents dying while celebrating the white man's freedom. While not directly colonial it is a sense of the outsider but in their own land.
      Sorry for the long reply, I came to your blog from my wife's site and what you are doing is interesting.

    3. Ahh, are you Mr. Anu ? ;) If so, I think we chatted once about a Russian film on Anu's blog. Nice to meet you again!

      Accessibility, subtitles, and some level of age-appropriateness are the three biggest barriers to my use of films in class. I also prefer to find things they can view for free the majority of the time (though I usually ask the students to rent films several times during the semester). Of course, this is my barrier to Malayalam film viewing in general, as they often seem more dialogue and plot dependent to me than other South Indian language films. Or maybe I'm still just a lightweight in watching films without subs. (I've only managed it a handful of times for non Hindi-Urdu films).

      You're right in pointing out the dearth of Latin American categories in my list. I have yet to really get inducted into Latin American cinema. However, in the last year I've been very slowly trying out Caribbean/West Indian fiction, so your recommendation of the CLR James is quite welcome. I admit I am not cricket-literate, so perhaps I can change that at the same time, ha!

      But Latin America is a good segue into the other point you bring up--that the track of colonialism and independence and neocolonialism heads in a different direction with different obstacles depending on where you look. And then where do you draw the boundary of the definition of colonialism itself? As you say, the Native American history in the U.S. is now being interpreted in the context of the wider age of imperialist expansion. In the case of our Wild West/Pioneer years however, I think one can draw a lot of parallels to Boer-German settlement of the South African interior in the 1800s. Fleeing from taxes and trying to carve out farms in the wilderness and fighting with indigenous people for the same land... In that case, however, the British were still involved, and tended to order military strikes against certain tribes (*ahem* Zulus) with one breath while claiming "protectorship" (like in Botswana) over others with the next. Of course, protectorates usually ended up being land grabs in practice.

      And then, France and Britain obviously had different colonial administration styles, and different colonizer settlement patterns. But language, as you say, is certainly one of the most lasting reminders of colonialism, and for me is one of the most ambiguous. South Africa with 11 official languages and India with 22 scheduled are both in that awkward position of needing English despite the cultural downsides and the negative history. Though, obvs. in SA Afrikaans is an easier scapegoat because it was a forced medium of expression for so long. (Honestly, though, Hindi sometimes ends up being the bully in the playground in a similar way, I think.)

      Love your long comments and the conversation!

      P.S. East is East is not something my student's parents would like, I'm sure, ha. But Bend it Like Beckham is a good idea. I did this new unit a couple of weeks ago about national reconciliation and sports and ethnic identity (in the 90s), and that would fit really well. I already have a rugby film, so maybe I can add in an excerpt from James' book and a viewing of Bend it Like Beckham.

    4. Also, I hope the blog is easier to read now. I have been making some template updates lately, so your feedback came at the right time.

  2. Yes I am Mr.Anu.:-) She was tickled when I told her about it. Yes we chatted about Krylya, I did not know you were filmi-contrast. I don't follow Bollywood masala much, you'll notice she refers to me as the snob.:-)

    Malayalam films are plot driven and the dialogues draw very much from the Malayalee world view. Kerala was exposed to foreign influences right through history being a coastal state so the people tend to be a bit different than states in the interior.
    If you do get a decently sub-titled DVD watch this film. Maybe we can get one for you on our trip to India later this year.
    It is a Kerala masala film as opposed to the Bollywood masala film. Sort of middle of the road not art not camp. You have to understand the politics in Kerala though.

    C L R James is great reading. I myself did not know much about the Caribbean ethos and was familiar with it only from Naipaul's books. However "The sly company of people who care" gave me a different perspective of Guyana and the tension between the Indians who were brought there as indentured labourers and the Africans who were brought there as slaves and I guess some of it was reflected in places like Trinidad etc. It also gives a gives a small primer into the interference of the US into the governing of the islands and how after the death of the ethnic Indian prime minister Cheddi Jaggan his wife became the head of state in an election, the only Jewish woman to be head of state of a nation other than Israel. She was American born. Another interesting piece was a film called "Fire in Babylon" which dealt with West Indies cricket in the 1970s but also with the underlying tensions in governing the islands. It gave me a different picture of the islands which when we were children growing up in the early seventies were seemingly populated by flamboyant happy go lucky cricketers.

    Growing up in Bombay I was less exposed to South American politics but on my summer vacations to Kerala my home state there would be long discussions with Anu's brother who was well acquainted with the politics and literature of that place. Kerala like Bengal is peopled with intellectuals who have a marked tendency to shift leftwards and he was one of them. So there was a lot of discussion of the different nations there, from Argentina and its all white immigration policy to Brazil with its Portuguese connections (Goa was only liberated in the 60s) etc.


  3. To continue ....

    When you talk about explorers I have always wondered about the Eastern Indian expansion into Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam. Indians have always had a very laissez-faire attitude to history perhaps in keeping with our ideas that everything is Maya.

    I guess if you teach middle school parents might find "East is East" a little disconcerting. But I would have thought that The Battle for Algiers would be equally so.

    And yes I do agree that Hindi is a bully in the playground which is why English still exists as a link language. The Southern states are not very much in favour of Hindi though there is a very good chance that languages like Malayalam my mother tongue might eventually cease to exist under population pressures from North and Central India. We just ain't producing enough kids. :-)
    I think languages can co-exist but languages do shape your thinking and with that we each lose and gain something. In India it becomes more complicated too complicated to discuss here.

    Talking of sports films you must show your kids this movie.

    It is set in 1998 during the footer world cup and it deals with a bunch of Tibetan monks living in Dharamsala in India. Anu and I have often signed petitions for Tibet well knowing that nothing will come of it but sometimes it is not funny to do this and watch and talk to the young Tibetans who dream of a homeland they have never seen and probably will never be able to visit. The only country they know is India.

    And yes the blog is easier to read now and I'll stop blathering for the moment.

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