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Daniela Berghahn, Immigrant Families and Alternative Models of Family Life in European Cinema

Abstract for The Family in Cinema Conference


Keynote Professor Daniela Berghahn


Immigrant Families and Alternative Models of Family Life in European Cinema

In the age of globalisation, immigrant, diasporic and other types of transnational family are increasingly represented on film, yet they have been neglected in film studies. While there is a significant body of scholarship on the representation of the family in Hollywood cinema, the depiction of ethnic minority families in European cinema has so far received scant scholarly attention. Kinship is an issue of universal significance, but the structures (nuclear, multi-generational, extended, dual heritage families, etc.) and the value- and belief-systems that underpin family life are always culturally specific.

As cinema tends to depict social conflicts and historical transitions indirectly through affective relations in the family, immigrant families on screen crystallize the emotionally ambivalent response to growing ethnic and family diversity in the West. Constructed as Other on account of their ethnicity, language, religion and different structures of kinship, immigrant families are frequently perceived as a threat to the social cohesion of Western societies.  At the same time they embody a nostalgic longing for the traditional family, imagined in terms of extended kinship ties and superior family values. By affirming or challenging these prevalent media images, films about far-flung families make important contributions to wider socio-political and legal debates about immigration, citizenship, ethnic diversity and the success or failure of multiculturalism.

My presentation will focus on the cinematic representation of Maghrebi French, Turkish German and Asian British families, adopting a transnational perspective. An overview of post-war immigration into France, West Germany and Great Britain will consider the fervently debated legislative issues of citizenship and family reunion. The shift from primary migration to family reunification during the 1970s has been the single most important prerequisite for the development of diaspora populations whose presence is felt in all spheres of life. As I shall illustrate, the rise to prominence of immigrant and diasporic families on the silver screen is linked to the social history of postwar immigration and European legislation on family reunification, which resulted in the transformation of temporary labour migrants into diasporic settler communities. The coming-of-age of the second generation that was born and/or raised in the host society has, in turn, led to the development of a vibrant diasporic film culture – a phenomenon that happened almost simultaneously in France, Germany and Britain in the mid-1980s. When the children of the postwar immigrants gained access to the means of production and started making films, they entered into the struggle over representing their identities by contesting negative and reductive images with positive or more complex and nuanced ones. Most importantly, in the context of this conference, they have brought immigrant families on to the screen and challenged our understanding of what constitutes a family by representing alternative family structures and family values that are not readily reconcilable with a hegemonic model of the white nuclear family.

My presentation will focus on three feature films that engage with alternative family values and structures. The Turkish German family melodrama When We Leave addresses the inflammatory issue of female honour killings and identifies it as a patriarchal practice linked to the traditions of the Anatolian village while establishing connections with Islam more subliminally. The film’s unexpected melodramatic twist at the end highlights the absurdity of honour killings. Intended to preserve the family lineage from suffering ‘irreparable harm to its reputation’ and restoring it ‘to a place of respect in the community’ (Laviosa 2010: 187), the accidental killing of the only male grandchild actually curtails the male lineage. Patriarchy is devouring its own sons; it is an ideology without a future.

The British Asian comedy West is West traces a journey from England to Pakistan on which a domineering father embarks together with his rebellious son in order to reassert his patriarchal authority. In a humorous reappraisal of ethnic stereotypes, the remote village in the Punjab reveals itself as a place more modern than it may seem and where the patriarch is divested of his prerogatives and where he has to hand over the power to the women in his family. In the process, George Khan’s polygamous family arrangement, consisting of a Pakistan-based first wife and two daughters and his second British wife and six racially mixed children, is transformed into a trans-local extended family, based on affective bonds between the wives and including elective family members, such as ‘Auntie Annie’ (who is no blood relative) and a surrogate father figure, who proves to be better than the ‘real’ father.

Abdellatif Kechiche’s portrait of a sprawling Maghrebi French family in Couscous also pits ties of blood and elective family bonds against each other. The film makes filiation, a term that usually denotes lines of descent, especially between fathers and sons and between the generation of the parents and that of their children, its central theme. Yet what holds this multi-generational and multi-cultural Beji family together is their shared heritage (symbolised by the quintessentially North African dish, couscous) and the labour of love through which the protagonist’s former wife and his ‘chosen’ daughter create a patchwork family that calls into question the significance of bloodline and patrilineal descent on which patriarchal family structures are based.


Almanya – Willkommen in Deutschland (Almanya – Welcome to Germany), Yasemin Samdereli, 2011

Auslandstournee (Tour Abroad, Ayse Polat, 2000)

Die Fremde (When We Leave), Feo Aladag, 2010

East is East, Damien O’Donnell, 1999

La Graine et le Mulet (The Secret of the Grain, Couscous), Abdellatif Kechiche, 2007

My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Joel Zwick, 2000

Nina’s Heavenly Delights, Pratibha Parmar, 2006

West is West, Andy De Emmony, 2010

Selective Bibliography

Berghahn, Daniela (2009), ‘From Turkish greengrocer to drag queen: Reassessing patriarchy in recent Turkish–German coming-of-age films’, New Cinemas: Journal of Contemporary Film, 7:1, pp. 55-69.

_____ (2011), ‘Queering the family of nation: Reassessing fantasies of purity, celebrating hybridity in diasporic cinema’, Transnational Cinemas, 2:2, pp. 129-46.

_____(2013), Far-flung Families in Film: The Diasporic Family in Contemporary European Cinema, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Bhabha, Homi K. (1994), The Location of Culture, London and New York: Routledge.

Brooks, Peter (1976), The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama and the Mode of Excess, New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Castles, Stephen and Mark J. Miller (2009), The Age of Migration: International Population Movements in the Modern World (4th edn), Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Chambers, Deborah (2001), Representing the Family, London: Sage.

Elsaesser, Thomas ([1972] 1987), ‘Tales of sound and fury: Observations on the family melodrama’, in: Christine Gledhill (ed.), Home is Where the Heart Is: Studies in Melodrama and the Woman’s Film, London: BFI, pp. 43-69.

Grillo, Ralph (ed.) (2008), Ralph Grillo (ed.), The Family in Question: Immigrant and Ethnic Minorities in Multicultural Europe, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

Laviosa, Flavia (2010), ‘“Death is the fairest cover for her shame”: Framing honor killings’, in: Flavia Laviosa (ed.), Visions of Struggle in Women’s Filmmaking in the Mediterranean, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 185-212.

Naficy, Hamid (2001), An Accented Cinema: Exilic and Diasporic Filmmaking, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Pisters, Patricia and Wim Staat (eds) (2005), Shooting the Family: Transnational Media and Intercultural Values, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

Sassen, Saskia (2002), ‘Towards post-national and denationalized citizenship’, in: Engin F. Isin and Bryan S. Turner (eds), Handbook of Citizenship Studies, London: Sage, pp. 277-91.

Tarr, Carrie (2007), ‘Family differences: Immigrant Maghrebi families in contemporary French cinema’, in: Marie-Claire Barnet and Edward Welch (eds), Affaires de famille: The Family in Contemporary French Culture and Theory, Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, pp. 209-20.

Weeks, Jeffrey, Brian Heaphy and Catherine Donovan (2001), Same Sex Intimacies: Families of Choice and Other Life Experiments, New York and London: Routledge.

Weston, Kath (1991), Families We Choose: Lesbians, Gay, Kinship, New York: Columbia University Press.

Williams, James S. (2011), ‘Open-sourcing French culture: The politics of métissage and collective re-appropriation in the films of Abdellatif Kechiche’, Journal of Francophone Studies, 14:3, pp. 391-415.


Professor Dr Daniela Berghahn studied at the University of Cologne and the University of Cambridge. Before joining the Department of Media Arts at Royal Holloway, University of London in 2006, she held teaching positions at the University of Cambridge and Oxford Brookes University and worked at AMV.BBDO, one of London’s top advertising agencies. Her research and teaching interests include transnational cinema, German film history and culture, the relationship between film, history and memory discourse, cinema and national identity; and representations of the family in cinema.

She is the author of Raumdarstellung im englischen Roman der Moderne (1989), Hollywood Behind the Wall: The Cinema of East Germany (2005) and Far-flung Families in Film: The Diasporic Family in Contemporary European Cinema (forthcoming with Edinburgh UP, May 2013). Her co-edited books include Unity and Diversity in the New Europe (2000) and Millennial Essays on Film and Other German Studies (2002).  Between 2006 and 2008, she led an international Research Network on ‘Migrant and Diasporic Cinema in Contemporary Europe’ ( that was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council of Great Britain. The findings of this project were published in the anthology European Cinema in Motion: Migrant and Diasporic Film in Contemporary Europe (with Claudia Sternberg, 2010) and in a special issue of New Cinemas, entitled ‘Turkish German Dialogues on Screen’ (2009). In 2010, she was awarded an AHRC Research Fellowship for a project on The Diasporic Family in Cinema (, which led to numerous conferences and publications.

Contact details:


Department of Media Arts

Royal Holloway, University of London



TW20 0EX

United Kingdom

T (work): +44 1784 443734

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