Tag Archives: world cinema

Obituary. Alberto Elena (1958-2014)

Professor of Cinema Studies at University Carlos III and member of the Advisory Editorial Board of the Catalan Journal of Communication and Cultural Studies

The little kid that went to the cinema during the summer in a small town in Avila called Piedrahita, probably didn’t know that cinema would later be such an essential part of his life. In Spain in the sixties, popular cinema still played an important role in our social milieu; it was a place where all types of audiences came together. The extent to which he enjoyed popular cinema can easily be noted in a rare text that he wrote on Joselito, the singer, published in 2001. His days as a fan of these types of movies would later enrich his career as a historian of cinema. In fact, he would end up becoming one of the greatest specialists in World Cinema.

During his university days, it was really funny to hear him speak about his passion for Antonioni, which he later thought to be excessive. At that time he devoured all French and Spanish cinema reviews and criticism even though he was studying Philosophy. He eventually went on to become a lecturer in the History of Science professor. He initially worked in the UNED (Spanish Open University) and finally in the Universidad Autónoma of Madrid University (UAM). I remember coming him across him in the train to Cantoblanco campus and, instead of talking about philosophy, we both exchanged our opinions of the last latest films watched we had seen or our expectations about some regarding others that were to be screened soon.

Although dedicated to the Modern History of Science and the popularisation of Science during his years at the UAM, he started the film club in the Philosophy Department. This was his first step towards teaching cinema at university, and it encouraged him to design his biggest project: a Programme of Cinema Studies. This programme enabled him to start a PhD programme in History of Cinema – which didn’t exist in any other Spanish university at that time. He also founded the journal Secuencias, which will celebrate its twentieth anniversary this year. His effort to combine his two fields of study – Science and Cinema – can be traced in his book: Ciencia, cine e historia. De Méliès a 2001 (2002).

As a result of his tenacity, Professor Elena achieved his transfer to Carlos III University in 2006; at a time that he was already teaching Cinema and Media Studies. At that point in his career, his extensive publications revealed his passion for World Cinema, which he introduced into the Spanish Academy. His commitment to knowledge led him to start publishing dictionaries and monographs that opened new fields of academic research in Spain. After that Alberto became an active promoter of research in these areas, as well as a tireless academic who wrote everything from general manuals to highly focused investigations, where he showed his creativity and his great productive capacity. You can follow his intellectual journey in World Cinema in books such as El cine del Tercer Mundo (1993) or Los cines periféricos: África, Oriente Medio, India (1999). Moreover, his curious nature spurred him to chart this unknown territory in a vast number of academic articles. His passion for travelling can be spotted in articles such as “De Tánger a Yakarta: Cartografías del cine en el mundo islámico” (2007) or “De Argel a Bombay: Paisajes urbanos en el cine contemporáneo” (2010). These articles are engaging itineraries which resulted from many thousands of hours watching the most peculiar films in festivals, rented from odd video clubs, as well as taken from his personal library which he nurtured all his life. His wife, Paloma, always supported him lovingly in his life as a traveller and as a dedicated film viewer; she was an accomplice in his adventures around the world.

His bibliography is evidence of his indefatigable research. Furthermore, he also encouraged others to undertake research projects, which can be witnessed in the large number of PhD students who ended up working in world cinema. We all form part of his school and always benefited from his assistance. Most of us had the opportunity to write or edit books and articles with him. It seemed as if he carried all our research in his head. When you met him it was normal to receive a little piece of paper, written in his peculiar handwriting, with something you should look at and read.

Moreover, his bibliography covers almost the entire Cinema World, which can be grouped into three main research areas: Latin American, African and Asian cinema.

Firstly, he worked on Latin American cinema and its connection to Spanish cinema. He was a pioneer in writing on this topic in the Spanish academy. Titles such as the following must be highlighted as being among the most important, including articles, Special issues of Cinema journals or books: “Cine para Macondo: Tecnología, industria y espectáculo en Latinoamérica, 1896-1932” (1998), Mitologías latinoamericanas (edited with Paulo A. Paranaguá, 1999), “Avatares del cine latinoamericano en España” (1999), The Latin American Cinema (edited with Marina Díaz, 2002), “Para un observador lejano: el documental latinoamericano en España” (written with Mariano E. Mestman, 2003), “Cine y migraciones: la experiencia hispanoamericana” (2005) and Abismos de pasión: Una historia de las relaciones cinematográficas hispano-mexicanas (edited with Eduardo de la Vega, 2009).

Secondly, African cinema, where he focused on the study of the creation of national cinemas (“Cines del Magreb: identidades disputadas”, 2011) and the Nollywood phenomenon (“Nollywood forever”, 2009). He was also the leading specialist on the connection between Spanish cinema and colonialism (La llamada de África. Estudios sobre el cine colonial español, 2010). He was also a pioneer in Spain in the use of Transnational Cinema theories applied to cinema.

Finally, Asian cinema, from Bollywood (El sueño de Bollywood: cine contemporáneo en la India, written with Aruna Vasudev (2003), “Global Bollywood”, 2007 and “Bollywood: nuevos contextos y nuevos públicos”, edited with Heliodoro San Miguel (2012) or Satyahit Ray (1999)) to the Chinese cinema boom (“Mi cámara no miente: Nuevo documental chino”, 2005) and to Iranian cinema. He is one of the best known international specialists on Abbas Kiarostami (2002 and 2005).

The organiser and collaborator of an endless list of national and international institutions and festivals, his zeal to explore the complexity of cinema, made his commitment to popularisation among other audiences and viewers possible.

He was diagnosed with cancer in 2001 and since then, he started fighting against this horrible illness. Every time I met him, I remember telling him I admired his calmness in the face of his illness and the pain it brought him. Then I remember his loving smile and his answer: “What else can I do?”

The eager film-viewer and the conscientious historian cannot make us forget the wonderful person he was. His sense of humour, his fair and generous attitude towards knowledge, towards the people who had the honour of working by his side, are difficult to express. The pain of his loss is not lessened by the necessary gratitude I owe to his legacy and to the honour of having been his student and his friend: an all-embracing concept of Cinema which was as huge as his heart.

 Marina Díaz López, Instituto Cervantes