di Luca Caminati

The engagement of Pasolini with the Third World (as he polemically referred to the “developing countries”, in praise and hope of their alterity to western progress) began in January 1961 with a trip to India, undertaken in the company of Alberto Moravia and Elsa Morante.  When Pasolini moved to Rome from Friuli (the north-eastern part of Italy where he spent large portions of his youth and whose dialect he co-opted for his first poems), he claimed that it was the “discovery of the elsewhere” that drove him towards the early “realist” novels (The ragazzi, 1955, and A Violent Life, 1959).1 It would be the discovery of the other that would push him outside of the West and the Western canon.  Like many other engaged artists of late modernity, Pasolini was witness to a radical change: the other was no longer only identified with the proletariat and the working class, but with the “cultural other,” whether it be a non-Westerner or someone marginalized within Western society for racial or sexual reasons.  As Hal Foster writes (177), this change from a subject defined in terms of economic relations to one defined in terms of cultural identity is significative of the moment that obliges the committed artist to move beyond national confines and to explore new expressive forms, and above all, to turn to other disciplines, such as anthropology, sociology, and ethnography.  Pasolini’s engagement was neither a naïve orientalist vision of the East, nor a mere reproduction of the classical Marxist position on the revolutionary potential of the “underdeveloped peoples” (as theorized by Lenin and Trotsky).  It showed instead both a theoretical and artistic sophistication (he refers to himself in 1968 as a “fanonian-marcusian” intellectual) that anticipated the turn towards self-reflexive documentary filmmaking of the 70s and 80s.

Pasolini’s first experiment with the new genre of the Appunti was carried out after his first trip to Palestine in 1964 (Sopraluoghi in Palestina, Location Scouting in Palestina, 1963-64) and it continued with Notes for a Film on India (1968), Notes for an African Oresteia (1969), and The Walls of Sana’a (1971.  In addition to these completed works was the large and ambitious unrealized project of Notes for a Poem on the Third World, of which Notes for an African Oresteia and Notes for a Film on India were to be part.  To better understand what kind of artistic object we are dealing with, it seems useful to define these practices as experimental ethnography.  I borrow the term from Catherine Russell’s eponymous work, in which she defines this hybrid work as a methodological incursion of aesthetics into the field of cultural representation, a collision of social theory and formal experimentation born out the ongoing debate about “the critique of authenticity” (Russell XI-XII).  The two modern(ist) traditions of anthropology and avant-garde often overlap in the work of many figures in the artistic world,  renamed by Russell “artist-ethnographers” (Russell 7).  In their double poetic, these artists have as aim to produce films and videos taking as their object the study of the cultural other (the non-Western), and to continue from a stylistic point of view the tradition of experimentation typical of avant-garde films.  Many of the filmmakers also enter into the field of postcolonial studies, insofar as they make use of it to confront problems related to the stereotyped representation of alterity.  It is also crucial to underline the aspect of visual experimentation present in Pasolini as director and evident in his innovative style:  the hybrid nature of the “Notes” films refers back to the Pasolinian idea of a “cinema of poetry,” a cinema free of the rigidly descriptive directives of classical filmmaking. 2

Pasolini was so attracted to this filmic practice as to develop a project for a full-length film that would have been entitled Notes for a Poem on the Third World (1968), made up of five episodes from the “Notes” series to be filmed in India, Africa, the Arab countries, Latin America, and the black ghettoes of the United States.  In addition to their practical purpose—to find locations suited to his films—there were ideological and political motives behind the project.  As Pasolini explains:


………………..The feeling of the film will be violently and even foolhardily revolutionary:
………………..as though to make of the film itself a revolutionary action (not related to any
………………..political party, of course, and absolutely independent) […]
The immense quantity
………………..of practical, ideological, sociological, and political material that goes into constructing
………………..such a film objectively prevents the manipulation of a normal film.
………………..This film will thus follow the formula: “A film on a film to be made” […] Each
………………..episode will be composed of a story, narrated with a summary and through the
………………..most salient and dramatic scenes, and by preparation shots for the story itself
………………..(interviews, investigations, documentaries, etc.) […] Stylistically, the film will be
………………..composite, complex and spurious, but the nakedness of the problems treated and
………………..its function as a direct revolutionary intervention will simplify it. (Mancini e
………………..Perrella 7, my translation)


The poetics of experimental ethnography, with terms typical of the Pasolinian pastiche such as “compound,” “complex” and “hybrid” are all present, and so is the political value of the  “direct revolutionary intervention” that would be carried out in the attempt to analyze the cultures visited in the course of shooting.  The “Notes” genre shows the need of the intellectual to interpret, to establish, and practice a semiology of the world.  It was a matter of verifying the denaturalization and cultural and social alienation produced by neocapitalism on a worldwide scale and looking for paths for alternative development.

The choice of the “Notes”, this strange ethical-aesthetic crossroads, resonated with experimental linguistic forms of the time, what Umberto Eco in the same years called the “open work” (in his eponymous 1962 volume), and that Pasolini called struttura da farsi (structure that has to be done or that has do be completed).  Open works, in Eco’s words, are those “that must be brought to conclusion by the interpreter at the very moment at which he benefits from them aesthetically” (Eco 33).  As Rumble has noted (358), the da farsi represents for Pasolini more that a simple unfinished: it is related to the necessity of creating a work with a fluid structure that reflects on one hand the Marxist socio-political vision of the da farsi society.  This is particularly useful if one thinks of the notion of Marxist praxis and its importance at the moment of transition to the structuring of a democratic state as it was happening in many African countries in the 1960s.  Also, it resonates with what Eco, referring to Brecht’s theater, calls “revolutionary pedagogy” (Eco 45).  Eco so clarifies the “revolutionary pedagogy” of the open work: “It is the same concrete ambiguity of social existence as a clash of unresolved problems to which it is necessary to find a solution.  The work here is ‘open’ as a debate is ‘open’: the solution is awaited and hoped for, but it must come from the conscious participation of the public” (Eco 45).

The African Oresteia project, the best known and probably the more successful of the Appunti series, was born while working on Medea (1969).  Pasolini took a trip to Uganda and Tanzania in search of sets for a new project, a full-length film taken from Aeschylus to be shot in Africa.  Pasolini explains the motivations behind this new experiment: “I seem to recognize analogies between the situation of the Oresteia and that of today’s Africa […] Orestes’s discovery of democracy is the discovery of democracy that Africa has made in recent years (Naldini 341).  Despite the fact that the planned full-length film never saw the light of day, there remain from these sopralluoghi (location scouting) a documentary produced by RAI entitled Notes for an African Oresteia, filmed between 1968 and 1969, but presented to the public only in September 1973 at the Venice Film Festival.  The work is composed of material gathered in three different phases: in the first, we see Pasolini and his small crew searching for characters and locations for the film; in the second, the director meets a group of African students at the University of Rome and screens for them images that he has filmed in Africa and invites them to comment on the project; in the third part, Pasolini experiments with a staging of the Greek tragedy in Rome using African-American jazz singers.  This tripartite division is hardly rigid: not only do the three different phases alternate and move close to each other in a chronologically non-linear succession, but Pasolini also adds in the editing room other archival footage relating to African civil wars.

Pasolini’s stylistic choice—the use of metafilmic moments like the interview with the “informers” at the University of Rome, the use of “found footage” and archival material nonchalantly blended in the narrtive, the détournement into jazz of the Greek text —is undoubtedly to be understood as a movement in the direction of the new visual anthropology that begins in the 1960s, born in the French context in particular thanks to the work of Jean Rouch.  Rouch’s experiments, which takes the anthropologist-scientist off his pedestal to plunge him into daily life, has been justly noted as an attempt to challenge the hierarchical relationship present in any kind of anthropological contact (Nichols 89).  The self-reflexivity of the African Oresteia, only appears to weaken the validity of the project while instead it incorporates, anticipating them, the critiques that the film will inevitably provoke.  In short, Pasolini’s films are no longer a document that represents the other to the Western public, but a meditation upon the studied subject (the other and alterity) and upon the filmic apparatus.  It is this self-reflexive element that makes the African experiment of Notes for an African Oresteia and in general of Notes towards a Poem on the Third World a fundamental moment within Pasolini’s filmography, and an indispensable contribution to the debate on the use and abuse of the ethnographic documentary as a scientific document.  It certainly anticipates much of the 70’s and ’80 self-reflexive ethnographic documentary of Chris Marker and Trinh-T. Minh-ha, in that it prefigure the challenges to the epistemological value of the image in the era of global television.


A version of this essay was originally delivered at the “Pasolini’s Body” conference organized by Prof. Mark Franko and held at the Visual and Performance Studies Center at UC-Santa Cruz on April 29-30, 2011.

1l’agnizione dell’altrove”, quoted in Anzoino 2
2 Pasolini notion of  “cinema of poetry” is a somewhat thorny subject.  The best discussion on the matter is “Theory: Towards a Poetic of Cinema” in Greene 92-126. See also Caminati, 31-43.


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Caminati, Luca. Orientalismo eretico: Pier Paolo Pasolini e il cinema del Terzo Mondo. Milan: Bruno Mondadori, 2007.
Eco, Umberto, Opera aperta, Bompiani, Milano 1962.
Foster, Hal, The Return of the Real: The Avant-Garde at the End of the Century. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996.
Greene, Naomi. Pier Paolo Pasolini: Cinema as Heresy. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1990.
Mancini, Michele and Giuseppe Perrella, eds. Pier Paolo Pasolini: corpi e luoghi. Rome: Theorema, 1981.
Naldini, Nico. Pasolini, una vita. Torino: Einaudi, 1989.
Nichols, Bill. Introduction to Documentary. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2001.
Pasolini, Pier Paolo. Saggi sulla politica e sulla società. Milan: Mondadori, 1999
Heretical Empiricism. Washington: New Academia, 2005.
Rancière, Jacques. “The Emancipated Spectator”. 
Artforum. March 2007: 271-280.
Rumble, Patrick.“Contamination and Excess: I racconti di Canterbury as a “struttura da farsi”, in Baranski, Zygmunt, ed. Pasolini Old and New. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1999, 345-362.
Russell, Catherine. Experimental Ethnography. Durham and London: Duke UP, 1999.



Luca Caminati is Associate Professor of Film Studies in the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema at Concordia University in Montreal.  His book, Orientalismo ereticoPier Paolo Pasolini e il cinema del Terzo Mondo (Milano: Bruno Mondadori, 2007), investigates Pasolini’s engagement with India, Africa, and the Middle East. Caminati’s new volume on Rossellini’s non-fiction films (titled Una cultura della realtà. Rossellini documentarista) is forthcoming in 2012 from the Edizioni del Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in Rome.