World Cinema: Why I Love It!
I remember being very young and walking with my dad and brother into the local video rental store, an elongated, brightly lit cathedral of home entertainment lined with shelf upon shelf of movies and video games. Choosing the Friday night video was a weekly ritual: one for my brother and I, and one for my parents, who obviously didn’t want to watch whatever crap we picked out. This routine was pretty much one of the highlights of the week, made all the more exciting because Friday night was takeaway night; films and fatty food being, as everyone knows, a marriage made in heaven.
I was always attracted to the foreign film section; it seemed by far the most exciting and unusual. The strange images on the video covers, the mysterious locations and the enigmatic titles all appealed to my sense of adventure, and I don’t think this feeling of excitement has ever left me. The fact that the world cinema section was also beside the adult films, where frankly genius titles like Top Bum and Throbbin’ Hood took pride of place, admittedly added to the exotic allure.
I passionately believe world cinema and foreign films in general offer a vital service to consumers. As well as providing entertainment for its own sake, they offer the viewer the chance to see the world we all share through a completely different set of cultural eyes. We see environments and people we may never get the chance to visit; cities and towns teeming with lives lived separately from our own. As a way of travelling without leaving the comfort of your chair, you really can’t beat it.
And yet they also offer so much more than just fulfilling a desire for adventure and cultural knowledge. When we watch a film from another country or area of the world, we are often confronted with seemingly alien ideas and passions; people living lives so very different from our own and engaging in activities or past-times we may find peculiar and outlandish from a Western point of view. Indeed, often their cultural norms or values appear opposite to the ones we hold. Crucially, however, we are presented with astonishing similarities; in other words, we are reminded of our own shared humanity and collective experiences. Life at the other side of the world, we learn, isn’t really so very different from our own.
It’s not all about educating and enlightening, however, it’s also just about plain old enjoyment.
In a world where it is very easy to get caught up in your own life and situation (despite increased connectivity through mediums such as the internet), this is an important message to convey. Globalisation and multiculturalism may be primarily political buzzwords, but they do hint at an underlying reality of increased cross-cultural communication and interaction in the modern world. The UK alone is made up of people from all sorts of different backgrounds and cultural roots. This is a fantastic thing, and often leads to blossoming creative scenes. Sometimes, however, it can also lead to misunderstanding and unrest caused by ignorance. Foreign films offer a brilliant medium with which to engage with and understand other countries and cultures through an art form which thousands of people around the world all have a shared passion for. In a world where we are increasingly coming into contact with people from all generations, backgrounds and cultures this is vital.
At any rate, opening our eyes and ears to the creative output coming from countries other than the UK can only be a good thing: not only do we learn about the problems and issues facing people elsewhere, but we also gain an increased understanding of the human experience in general.
It’s not all about educating and enlightening, however, it’s also just about plain old enjoyment. To put it mildly: why on earth would you want to limit yourself to films only dealing with the West? There is a whole planet of creativity and ideas out there just waiting to be explored; thousands upon thousands of people producing life-affirming works of art you couldn’t find anywhere else. If great films can be made in the UK and America, they can and will be made elsewhere too. Increasing the pool of talent and energy is only ever a good thing. In many ways, I’m passionate about foreign films simply because I’m passionate about film: I simply don’t want to miss out on anything great being produced anywhere at all.
World cinema is a constant dialogue of ideas being exchanged and reassessed, and cultures defining and redefining themselves in the modern world. It is an exciting, on-going conversation between many different people from many different areas of the globe. Films were made to be seen and discussed, and world cinema, with all its variety and experimentation, is at the forefront of this discussion
First Experience Of World Cinema
My first experience with foreign cinema admittedly happened completely by accident. My brother and I were obsessed with Asterix, the French comic book series written by Rene Goscinny and illustrated by Albert Uderzo. We had pretty much all the books, and when we saw that there were animated Asterix films available for hire in the local Blockbuster, we naturally proceeded to rent them all out, unaware that they were subtitled and in French. As you might expect, this was a disaster, at first, but after a while, it just stopped being an issue. We simply forgot we were reading subtitles and enjoyed the films at face value, for what they were: thoroughly entertaining cartoons.
I believe the first one I saw was Asterix And Cleopatra (1968), and while I don’t really remember much of it, besides the fact it was littered with songs and bizarre, surrealist humour, I certainly remember enjoying it immensely. I must have been around 8 or 9 if I was happily reading dialogue off a screen, and the experience taught me a valuable lesson: namely, that foreign languages and subtitles simply needn’t be a problem. I haven’t looked back since.
The Hollywood Alternative To World Cinema
Hollywood and mainstream cinema, in general, is lacking two main things: variety and risk. When so much money is pumped into an industry, the emphasis is naturally on seeing that this huge investment reaps equally huge rewards. Big budget, mainstream films are made to make money no matter what – quality and artistic merit are simply an afterthought, or, at the very most, a means to an end.
Such a climate hardly encourages variety: once a format or formula is seen as successful, it will be exploited again and again and again – as can be seen in the multiple franchises, sequels and prequels churned drearily out of Hollywood every year. Risk is discouraged due to its very nature, and without risk, creativity is stifled.
I’m not going to just mindlessly slate Hollywood, however, as I am guilty of enjoying a sneaky blockbuster as much as the next man (although I draw the line at Transformers). Yet, while Hollywood can occasionally produce some classic films, and independent filmmaking in Britain is currently undergoing an interesting resurgence, it is to world cinema that we should look to find our main antidote to the often tiresome Hollywood film factory, simply because it contains these two vital ingredients – risk and variety – in abundance.
From stunning animation to shock-laden, brutally bloody horror flicks to gritty, realist drama: world cinema has them all, and in an unbeatable variety.
What’s Missing For World Cinema?
Personally, I don’t really buy the line that foreign film suffers in the UK because people can’t be bothered to read subtitles. In reality, I don’t think many people consider this to be a problem – indeed, once a film starts, most people forget they are reading them.
The real problem lies in the lack of publicity afforded to world cinema. Foreign film barely gets a mention in most mainstream publications and large, multiplex cinemas simply assume audience members lack interest in such productions. What world cinema is shown in these large, mainstream cinemas is relegated to awkward times of the day, or small, speciality festivals primarily focussed around art house film theatres.
The real problem lies in the lack of publicity afforded to world cinema.
If the right amount of publicity and hype could be generated for interesting films coming from overseas, audience interest and enthusiasm would almost certainly be captured. This can be done by increasing the coverage such films receive in mainstream media, as well as through websites devoted to the best (and worst) in world cinema.
I’m optimistic about the future of foreign film in the UK. People are naturally curious, and it’s unfair to paint the vast majority of cinema-goers as lazy or stupid. Most film fans would welcome the chance to see interesting movies from around the world; all that really remains, in my opinion, is to alert them to the where and when.
What’s On Offer For World Cinema Fans?
Being based in Edinburgh affords me the rare luxury of being relatively spoilt for choice when it comes to experiencing new and exciting world cinema. It may be filled to the brim with tourists constantly snapping each other at every innocuous street corner, but Edinburgh is undeniably a great city to live in if you enjoy anything culture-related.
The Filmhouse showcases some of the best foreign films from around the world, and regularly hosts mini-festivals focussing on particularly active countries or areas. As well as this, it is also the home of the Edinburgh International Film Festival – a feast of cinema from all over the globe. Boasting a particularly well-stocked bar and the kind of café that makes you feel proportionately more intellectual for every second spent on its premises, there really is no excuse not to visit.
The Cameo Picturehouse on Home Street also runs occasional screenings of foreign films from around the globe, particularly those which have picked up critical acclaim and/or a certain amount of controversy.
If you can brave the devastating wind and famous gravity-defying, sideways rain, Edinburgh has plenty of treats in store for you.
Top-5 World Cinema Films
The film that cemented Ingmar Bergman’s reputation as a world class director, The Seventh Seal is nothing short of a masterpiece in filmmaking.
Telling the tale of a knight (Max von Sydow) returning from the crusades to a plague-ridden Sweden, it contains several scenes so powerful and iconic that they can justifiably be said to have forever altered the face of cinema around the world. The brooding chess game with death – beginning at the start of the film on a beach underneath dark, gloomy clouds – has been aped and parodied in countless films and television productions; while the sinister, macabre dance of death that closes the film is a truly haunting conclusion that stays with the viewer for years after watching.
Everything about the film is close to perfection: the acting; the sublime cinematography from Gunnar Fischer; the introspective, fiercely intelligent script…it’s all about as close to perfect as a film can get.
While many of Ingmar Bergman’s other films are arguably equally as accomplished, such as the highly emotional Wild Strawberries (1957), it is The Seventh Seal which remains the most unforgettable for me personally. I first saw it at a fairly young age and it seared itself into my imagination forever: a menacing, fascinating cinematic tour de force. Viewing it is a must for anyone even vaguely interested in cinema of any kind.
An obvious choice, Amelie may, unfortunately, have set the blueprint for the subsequent rise in annoying, self-consciously quirky romance movies featuring kooky female leads – but this should in no way detract from the achievement of the original film.
Directed with astonishing confidence and visual flair by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Amelie follows a lonely Parisian waitress as she vows, upon finding a strange box filled with childhood trinkets, to return it to its former owner and devote her life to bringing pleasure to others. In doing so, however, she further ignores her own needs and her increasing sense of isolation, before eventually being forced by her observant neighbour to seek romance with an eccentric man who collects unused passport photos discarded by their owners around photo booths.
The storyline is pretty much as quirky and idiosyncratic as cinema gets, but the film manages to happily avoid coming across as self-conscious or staged; instead, we are presented with real emotion and heartfelt, tender comedy. Audrey Tautou is a charmingly loveable lead, expertly blending the downright odd with the endearingly eccentric, and never once coming across as insincere or irritating. Mathieu Kassovitz, meanwhile, is equally as impressive in his role as love interest Nino.
It might be a far cry from a realistic representation of modern Paris, but it’s deliciously realised fantasy world is hard not to fall in love with. I, for one, am yet to come across a more genuinely entertaining romantic comedy.
Provoking a huge amount of controversy on its release, Downfall portrays the final days in the life of Adolf Hitler and the fall of Nazi Germany in 1945. As a piece of historical cinema, it is accomplished; as a piece of drama, however, it is quite simply unforgettable.
Bruno Ganz is fantastic – if that is the right word – as Adolf Hitler. He completely inhabits the role and, crucially, avoids any hint of exploitation. Much of the controversy in the run up to the film’s release was centred on his portrayal, many critics and commentators believing it wrong to represent Hitler as a human being. To humanise him, they claimed, was to undermine the atrocities he committed.
However, I believe this criticism misses the point. Firstly, at no point in the film do we empathise, as such, with the character of Hitler. We are never emotionally manipulated into siding with him or seeing things from his point of view. Instead, he simply comes across as broken and pathetic, occasionally depressive and, at other times, maniacally holding on to thin threads of hope amidst increasing turmoil and destruction. Secondly, I believe portraying Hitler as a human being confronts us with a vital and terrifying lesson of history: it is not monsters who commit these atrocious acts, it is people. This does not take away any of the crushing weight behind the Nazi Party’s legacy; if anything, it actually adds to it. In Downfall, we are confronted with the stark, inescapable reality of what people did to one another, told through an engaging yet undeniably disturbing narrative. It is films like this that can give us hope that one day we can learn from the lessons of history.
Downfall is harrowing and uncomfortable viewing, there is no denying it. However, it is also essential and unforgettable, and deserves to be more widely recognised by a mainstream audience.
Critically lauded and embraced by audiences the world over, Spirited Away is animation at its most visually stunning. Written and directed by the award-winning Hayao Miyazaki, it not only won a Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2002, but is the only animated film made outside of the English-speaking world to have been awarded an Oscar for Best Animated Feature.
The film is, essentially, a fantasy adventure about a young girl who finds herself trapped in a bizarre spirit world following exploration of an abandoned theme park at the behest of her father. Her parents are turned into pigs for their displays of greed and gluttony in the park, and the young girl is left by herself, alone in this strange other-world she has been transported into; or, at least, almost alone – she does have the help of Haku, a mysterious spirit that initially takes the form of a boy.
Spirited Away is about so much more than this brief description suggests, however. At once a fantasy fairytale and a coming-of-age drama, the film also offers critiques on modern Japanese culture and pressing environmental issues, like pollution. On top of these complex layers of story, there is the astounding animation and the astonishingly beautiful, dream-like imagery it presents to the viewer.
Spirited Away was my first introduction to the films and animations of Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, and so will perhaps always hold a particular allure for me; as an introduction to a modern film-making genius, however, it may well prove impossible to parallel.
Charting a veteran’s attempts to piece together his memories of the 1982 Lebanon War, Waltz With Bashir is another film which has provoked more than a little controversy in its time.
A highly autobiographical work for director Ari Folman, it can perhaps best be described as an animated documentary. Indeed, much of the story centres on genuine interviews Folman conducted with his fellow veterans, making much of what occurs in the film all the more harrowing.
Currently banned in Lebanon, the film has been described by some critics as Israeli propaganda, with many complaining that it is not harsh enough when depicting the role played by Israel in the conflict. However, as a cinematic portrayal of the emotional and psychological cost of war, it has few betters.
The animation is often surrealist and bizarre, and never less than consistently striking. The minimalist soundtrack blends with the bold, blocky colour scheme of the film well, while the featured songs seem to actively commentate and critique events as they unfold to the music.
If nothing else, you should see Waltz With Bashir for the simple reason that you will never before have seen anything quite like it. It is one of many films which provide ample proof that animation is not just for kids; rather, it can be used to depict and illustrate disturbing events and complicated stories with often stunningly successful results.
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