Ceremonial cinema: world-creation and social transformation through film as ritual

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Janse van Rensburg, Rudiker
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University of the Free State
The journey to the cinema and our experiences there form part of what is effectively a screening ritual geared toward affecting audiences. The power of cinema largely derives from being removed from general society – presenting an ideal traditional ritual space of liminality. Within this space and in familiar patterns, viewers’ attention and emotions are guided and synchronised by the film, which are pre-determined by canonical codes like narrative logic and generic features. Ceremonial thresholds separate but also connect, and in cinema, they serve to initiate and encode spectators’ experience as part of a fundamentally social activity. When we visit the cinema to watch a film, the encounter is not only shaped by exciting moving pictures or engulfing sound, but also by the people watching with us, as we become part of a social ritual. This study aims to identify and explore the various connections and unavoidable entanglements between the spheres of film and ritual, particularly in terms of the ritualistic aspects that extend beyond the cinema before and after the screening. This includes basic phenomena that Ritual Studies take as its domain of inquiry – thresholds, liminality, collective effervescence and communitas, symbols, etc., and the broader effects or functions of these phenomena such as social identity, social structure, social cohesion, and social transformation. The diverse experiential qualities, effects, and broader influences of film may seem disconnected, but they share a deeper commonality that this study argues is the source of film’s profound social influence: each presents an instance or aspect of what is here called ‘film as ritual.’ It aims to explore the robust presence of film production and film spectatorship beyond the physical location of the cinema and considers viewer engagement in terms of pilgrimages and participation within an extended media landscape and its related narratives of symbolic significance. Ultimately, the study addresses film’s transformational power and influence by mapping it onto social ritual theories and exploring its worldbuilding capacities. The global fascination with films, which clearly includes social viewing experiences and encounters with film beyond the confines of the cinema, establishes film as ritual as a highly extended and culturally diffuse phenomenon. Film as ritual relates to collective identity creation and social relations through extensions of the cinematic experience beyond a mere physical place that provides the opportunity to watch a movie. The notion of film as ritual helps us come to terms with how films affect and influence people, their actions and their way of looking at the world – essentially transforming them, in some or other way.
Dissertation (M.A. History of Art))--University of the Free State, 2021, Ritual, Media ritual, World-making, Threshold, Liminality, Communitas, Myth, Pilgrimage, Identity, Social transformation, Social solidarity, Social conflict, Citizenship, Activism