The media that was cinema was quickly made useful for the fusion of economic, state, and geo-political logics that powered the intensification of capitalist imperialism beginning in the late nineteenth century. Broadly speaking cinema was utilized for purposes of display and what we should name clearly as propaganda. The form that came eventually to be called in the 1920s “documentary” connected those imperatives, and was innovated to facilitate and supplement the forms of imperial political economy that lie at the root of what nowadays gets called globalization. But the enmeshing of cinema/media with globalizing capital and state began far before the canonical moment of “documentary,” and shaped significant early non-fictional practices around the complex U.S. imperial war of 1898 that mutated into state practices of media-making in the U.S. in the 1910s fostered on the “development” of peripheral regions and the promotion of global trade. Grieveson traces out this history in this paper, exploring the ways that cinema in non-fictional, didactic, and propagandistic forms was made useful to imperialism and the dynamics of capital accumulation that structures the modern world system.
Lee Grieveson is Professor of Media History at University College London. He was the co-director of the Colonial Film Project, co-editor (with Colin MacCabe) of Empire and Film and Film and the End of Empire (British Film Institute, 2011), and author most recently of Cinema and The Wealth of Nations: Media, Capital, and the Liberal World System (University of California Press, 2018).