Wednesday, 28 March 2012

World Cinema: Why I Love It

Despite writing for a ‘world cinema’ website, I actually really dislike the label. As far as I’m concerned, cinema is cinema regardless of which country or language it was produced in. It’s a shame that many wonderful films receive little coverage or limited releases in the United Kingdom, but I’m not sure that it’s attributable to their ‘foreign’ origins. Equally, there are numerous amazing films made at home which only ever show in art house cinemas or on limited runs. In that sense, I’m not sure that there’s a great deal of difference between Paddy Considine’s Tyrannosaur and Baran Bo Odar’s The Silence.

I love good, well-made films which challenge my conceptions, teach me something new, surprise or delight me. It seems obvious to me that movies from other continents and countries will often meet those criteria. But I don’t see ‘world cinema’ is an alternative to English language productions – it’s a supplement and a companion. I wouldn’t want to eat roast beef for every meal – but, equally, I’d get sick of paella if it was on the menu every day.

I’d love to see more people picking something different from the menu, choosing something which isn’t obvious. Often, that might be the product of another country or culture. Often it isn’t. But I’m not sure it’s anyone’s place to dictate what people ought to consume. If masses of people enjoyed Transformers or Monsters vs Aliens that’s their prerogative – and their fault. I’d rather sit in a comfortable cinema enjoying a silent Italian movie about goat-herding with a few likeminded people than endure the unbearable stench of buckets of polystyrene popcorn. But I’m perfectly happy to acknowledge that I’m in a minority – a minority I’m absolutely delighted to belong to.

First World Cinema Experience

I have absolutely no idea what the first foreign-language film I watched was. But I can pinpoint the first to have a huge effect on me: Man Bites Dog. It’s a Belgian mockumentary with a microscopic budget and a thoroughly homemade aesthetic. As a pre-digital, pre-Blair Witch production, it was one of the first times I’d ever seen fiction presented as fact – and the horrific blurring of the two was a thoroughly jarring and discomfiting experience.

The film follows a publicity-hungry serial killer as he hones his craft in front of a pair of documentary makers. The hand-held camera (and the visible presence of the crew) lends an authenticity to the gruesome proceedings which might be too much to bear but for the large injections of darkly black humour which runs throughout the film. Benoît Poelvoorde is charismatic, hilarious and frightening in the lead role, and provides numerous sound bites and quotes with which we peppered our smart-arsed student conversation as film students. We never came close to emulating it in our pathetic attempts at making our own movies – and I don’t suppose we ever will.

What’s Missing For World Cinema?

Is anything missing? I assume if you’re reading this you’re already a fan of world cinema. There are no shortage of films for you to enjoy – there’s a whole world out there producing interesting cinema for you to watch. There are websites like this one, blogs and magazines catering to your tastes. There are increasing numbers of international film festivals, you can watch movies online, download or purchase them from across the globe. The world, indeed, is your oyster.

But those outlets are preaching to the converted. What about those unaware of the delights lurking beyond their local multiplexes and rental stores? Some of them might feel that reading subtitles is hard work (it’s not), that foreign films are ‘weird’ (they often are), or maybe they just don’t know about these films (they probably don’t). So tell them.

Show them a subtitled film so they can see how easy it is to read and watch simultaneously. Educate them about how many of the ‘mainstream’ films they watch are remakes of ‘weird’ foreign flicks. Show them where and when they can see films which will never reach their local Cineworld. How many times have you recommended music, restaurants, TV shows or any number of things to your friends? Why should foreign films be any different?

What’s On Offer For World Cinema Fans?

I consider myself extremely fortunate to live in Leeds, home of the Hyde Park Picture House. It’s 100 years old, extremely comfortable, sells reasonably priced hot beverages and has an amazing programme of interesting films from across the world. I’ve attended talks with Paddy Considine and Mark Kermode recently and watched some truly brilliant films which would never have made it to my local Vue! It’s also a venue for the estimable Leeds International Film Festival – a citywide showcase of the best of international cinema which has been running for twenty-five glorious years and gets bigger and better when it takes place every November.

Favourite World Cinema Genre

I’m a sucker for a documentary and nothing has delighted me more than the recent renaissance which has taken place in the genre. Spurred by digital technology, documentary makers the world over have been able to produce a superb body of work which is inspirational and educational in equal measure. Superb productions, such as Michael Madsen’s atmospherically apocalyptic Into Eternity, Cambodian Khmer Rouge expose Enemies Of The People, and the uplifting musical tale of Staff Benda Bilili have been just a few of the highlights of the last year or so. Check them out!

Favourite World Cinema Director

If Guillermo del Toro is involved, I’m there. Whether he’s directing, producing or ‘presenting’ (whatever that means), you can be sure his name will only be associated with quality. His name on a movie poster is practically a guarantee of genuinely creepy, gothic drama which will enthral and delight – from The Devil’s Backbone to The Orphanage to the utterly amazing Pan’s Labyrinth, the Mexican rarely disappoints when he works outside of the English language – although he seems to be on less sure footing when he goes ‘Hollywood’!

Top-5 World Cinema Films

These made the top five today. Tomorrow it might be Pan’s Labyrinth, Let The Right One In, City Of God, Y Tu Mama Tambien and La Quatro Volte. It’s too hard to choose.

Amelie (France/Germany, 2001)

I could just have easily picked Delicatessen – there’s not much to choose between Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s masterpieces: the two share much of the same cast and a very similar quirky aesthetic. But whilst Delicatessen could be seen as slightly grim, Amelie is wholly heart-warming. There are not many ‘feelgood films’ which can genuinely make a misanthrope like me feel good – but this is one of them. From the sumptuous cinematography to the Yann Tiersen’s magical score, Audrey Tatou’s beguiling performance to the charming narrative, everything about this movie just feels right. As an introduction to world cinema, Amelie is absolutely perfect.

The Motorcycle Diaries (Argentina, 2004)

All heterosexual men are allowed one man crush and Gael Garcia Bernal is mine (and he actually makes a pretty attractive woman when he drags up in Pedro Almodovar’s Bad Education). The Motorcycle Diaries is arguably his finest performance – he’s completely convincing as the young Che Guevara. I first saw it in a thoroughly deserted cinema and was delighted there was nobody there to distract me from the engaging, hilarious and touching narrative. It’s a wonderful film about friendship – although the central relationship is almost overshadowed by the magnificent motorbike of the title!

The Bothersome Man (Norway/Iceland, 2006)

The first time I ever received a proper press pass I wrote a review of this film. It opens with arguably the most disgusting screen kiss of all time, features a horrific attempted suicide, and is about a dystopian society where even steaming mugs of hot chocolate have no taste at all. It’s uncomfortable viewing, at times, but a nuanced comic performance from Trond Fausa Aurvaag in the lead role lends just enough warmth and hope to proceedings to ensure the darkness isn’t too dark! Scandinavia produces loads of these quirky, original comedies – it’s only a matter of time before Hollywood realises and starts reproducing them (badly).

Battle Royale (Japan, 2000)

I work in education, so seeing a class full of children massacring each other with knives, guns and dustbin lids is a thoroughly cathartic experience. Need I say more?

The First Movie (UK/Canada, 2009

Film is a hugely powerful medium and this is the best way I can think to illustrate the point. Filmmaker Mark Cousins travelled to Iraq to a community who had never even seen a movie and showed them classic films projected onto a bedsheet before giving them digital cameras and asking them to make their own. It’s wonderful and the films they produce are brilliant – Cousins’ soothing voiceover adds poetry and beauty to proceedings. I run a film club in my school and can only hope to have a fraction of the effect Cousins did on his little corner of Iraq. A beautiful, inspiring film.

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