Films that are produced in contexts that breach the boundaries of nation and question nationalist narratives can be called transnationalist documentaries. They neither describe international trajectories that leave national boundaries intact, nor remain within the levelling and totalizing narratives of multinational capital. Transnational documentary, then, traces the effects of cultural and national intermixing at a scale that is smaller than the nation but also crosses among nations.
Documentary film then can be transnational even when its subjects are stationary. Objects that travel along paths of human diaspora and international trade encode postcolonial cultural displacement. Commodities, though subject to the deracinating flow of the transnational economy and the censoring process of official history, nevertheless retain the power to tell stories of where they have been. Films can document this process by decoding the displacements, and social relations, that objects carry. These films might constitute a subgenre of the transnational independent genre discussed by Hamid Naficy. If that genre focuses on the diasporic movements of immigrants and exiles, these films excavate the traces left by things that “emigrate” due to similar global flows of capital, power and desire.
By following the movements of objects, these films describe a transnationalism that intersects the unifying movements of globalization. Globalization occurred during a period of colonial and postcolonial unification: of markets, of the nation-state, of time, and of a notion of the individual. As such, it is a trend that is already beginning to unravel, as attested by increasing polyethnicity in nations, factional civil wars, and disputes over the definition of the individual in terms of human rights and citizenship. This new uncertainty about the status of global interconnections signifies not a retrenchment but the limits of the usefulness of the Western category of the nation-state. If globalization is a movement of unification, then transnationalism is a tendency that follows many of the same movements but often to contradict or complicate them. For example, if the establishment of nation-states around the globe has facilitated the dominance of multinational capitalism, then transnationalism would describe both the movements of capital among nation-states and the subversion of capitalist flows, such as barter or the diversion of commodities into unique objects.
The use of film to trace the movements of objects is not incidental. Meaning is embodied and communicated materially, both by objects and by film. The films here trace the transnational and intercultural movement that produces transnational objects. Film’s ability to animate objects makes it a suitable medium to follow their transformations. Film is capable not only of following this process chronologically but also of discovering the value that inheres in objects: the discursive layers that take material form in them, the unresolved traumas that become embedded in their flesh, and the history of material interactions that they encode. Film has an archival quality that allows unresolved pasts to surface in the present of the image. For Gilles Deleuze,
It is as if the past surfaces in itself but in the shape of personalities which are independent, alienated, off-balance, in some sense embryonic, strangely active fossils, radioactive, inexplicable in the present where they surface, and all the more harmful and autonomous.