Welcome to my movie blog, containing reviews and articles. I've been writing since 2004 - with a short break during 2009.

World Cinema: week 1

Welcome back! This semester I'm studying World Cinema and I'll be keeping you updated as I study - partly as revision, partly as rant-space, and partly as an excuse to blog.

This week we watched Pather Panchali, and discussed exactly what World Cinema was. Obviously it's a huge catagory, and one bound up with all sorts of politics. How useful is such a term, when it encompasses EVERYTHING ELSE outside of "normal" cinema - which is assumed to be from the West and in English. Does it include Europe? Britain? Or is it merely the "Third World" countries, places with crappy economies, in which case is there any way this is a topic you can discuss politely and without giving offence? It's precicely these touchy grounds regarding nationhood, race and all the rest which made me want to take this course.

I'm reminded of a quote I heard pre-Live 8. There was controversy because of the lack of black prescence on stage - so they also held "Africa Calling" on the same day, featuring African artists at the Eden Project. A comedian commented:

"We've organised a party for Africa but forgotten to invite any Africans. It's OK - they can come along, but can they stay in the greenhouse?"

That's key to my understanding of World Cinema. Along with World Literature or World Music, it's a rather limiting pigeonhole seen from a Western perspective. For example, India has had the largest film industry since the 70s - producing 1,000 movies a year. The first Japanese film to escape from Japan was in 1934, despite having produced films for 20 years before that. True national cinema didn't start to emerge until after the war, with 1948 being the first year of the Best Foreign Language Oscar. All this remained rather eletist until the 70s and the rise of the Film Festival, when World Cinema became very prominant. In the 90s, a vote was taken for the most important directors of our time - the two winners were from Taiwan and Iran. In which may become a running theme, I couldn't get their names down fast enough. A good, short history of trends in World Cinema can be found here.

So it's a ludicrous term when you think of it, and maybe that's why I'm gonna spend the next eight weeks attempting to define it.

My chief association for World Cinema encompasses non-mainstream. When Oceanic's German pen friends came over, I was looking forward to having a good natter about German cinema - and was disappointed to discover I'd seen more German films than they had. When I reflected on this, I considered that most Brits don't watch British cinema either - we are far more likely to be exposed to films from America, or made with an American co-production. British National Cinema - Billy Liar, Alfie, This is England - is far more the preserve of the film literate than the general public. For this reason, I now think of indie British movies as World Cinema, exposing a view of what "normal cinema" is as not just Western-centric, but Hollywood-centric.

This is especially interesting when compared to Pather Panchali - one of the Great Masterpieces of Indian Cinema by Great Director Satyajit Ray. But the film is in Bengali, a language spoken by only 5% of the population, and had little relevance to regular Indian cinemagoers. The popular cinema of India is, as you know, "Bollywood", which is produced in Urdu, Tamil or Hindi. The film ran for seven weeks in India - in the US, it ran for eight months.

One of the qualities of World Cinema picked out was how this seemed more "real" than Sholay -
and indeed the film was criticised within India for it's depiction of poverty, but again this is something I associate far more with independant/arthouse cinema. Mainstream cinema self-censors - it's not reality, it's the common consensus sold back to us. Pick any marginalised group and you know their depiction will be lacking. Look at the lack of interesting female characters, the Bechdel Wallace test, all the roles as sex object or token girlfriend, the absence of protagonists who are just female and get on with it. We're a long way from screaming and falling over, but the principle remains the same: woman, as represented by film, bears little relation to woman in real life. There's another overlap with social realism - it has always had a mission to faithfully represent the under-represented.

And one of the things I criticised the genre for last year was the way it purports to be life, and yet is no less fake. The documentary style pre-conditions us to accept what we see as truth - people commented on the tottery "auntie", and how she seemed to be not acting but real. But it is a constructed a version of India - as I mentioned above, in a language only 5% of the population speak, depicting a single lifestyle. It isn't, and doesn't attempt to be, representative. Yet it's taken as realistic compared to, say, Sholay - merely because the second seems fake.

Does world cinema have a duty to represent itself? I'm reminded of the French brothers who made Le Fils and L'Enfant, who always shoot with a sense of community - portraying a very specific group of people, despite the universality of their themes. Yet I'm not sure any film can escape representation. A spy thriller from Japan will share common themes with one from America, but even without trying, the Japanese will make a film about their conception of spying, and so will the Americans, and something gets represented all the same. Even High School Musical successfuly depicts the experience of being in an American high school - contrast it with The History Boys, The Wave and Battle Royale. At the same time, I don't think any film could be completely representative of a country - I'll be interested to hear any suggestions you might have to the contrary. Of course, "all art is quite useless" - I would have high disdain for any film that set out to be didactic first and fiction, or at any rate cinema, second.

Perhaps part of the appeal in World Cinema is this representation - appreciation of things strange and exotic. We can't help but view foreign cinema as foreigners. An obvious statement, but nevertheless a true one. We enjoy universal human emotions (love, hate and the rest), while also experiencing the strange - whether that be mannerisms, customs or merely costume and appearance. Pather Panchali, for example, is a detailed depiction in the life of an ordinary family. In other words, it's social realism - everything from the style to the subject matter screams it. A genre I detest with a firey passion. I understand it is well made and Important - with my brain but not my heart. Where is the fun in watching real life? I get enough of that when not at the movies. Truffaut, rather spitefully, commented on Pather Panchali that "I don’t want to see a movie of peasants eating with their hands." And while that's a mean and small minded view to take towards anything, if he had applied it to British realism and said "I don't want to see a movie of Cockney housewives cooking chips" I might have more sympathy.

So on some level I was appreciating it as a documentary, because as mentioned above, it seemed "real". And yet the exotic depiction of life also appealed to me - little things like keeping money wrapped in a sari, and yes Truffaut, eating rice with their hands. Had it been made in Britain - and the tropes are the same, from the struggling housewife to the layabout father - I'd have found it interminable.

There is maybe something a little patronising in this connection to European realism. From the 50s-70s, Ray was Indian cinema for cine-snobs in the West. This was nothing unusual for that time - most countries outside Hollywood were filtered through one or two directors - and arguably it is still done today (China? Crouching Tiger. Japan? Anime. Brazil? City of God e.t.c...). Ray learnt filmmaking from Jean Renoir (France), he adored The Bicycle Thieves (Italy), and his greatest influence was a year spent watching movies in London. Obviously globalisation means nothing grows in a vaccum, but what Europe praised coming out of India was a cinema that Europe had invented. It took far longer for the all-singing, all-dancing, and totally unique Indian cinema to be appreicated.

(Or is this just my Western perspective? As someone used to British Social Realism, I am boxing it as such, but missing all sorts of layers and influences which an Indian audience would understand? Tricky tricky.)

Again, this makes sense in context. 30 years ago, all academics wanted to talk about were auteurs - arty, irrelevant movies. Recently, there has been a rise in "genre studies" - in other words, studying films that normal people watch. So the move from Ray to accepting "Bollywood" matches a global trend.

But there is a danger here with foreign cinema - because what is foreign anyway in this day and age? Tarantino can make Kill Bill, and Edgar Wright Hot Fuzz, even though the obvious properties would identify one as "Japanese" and the other "American". Do we enjoy the World Cinema we do precicely because appeals to the West? Either accidentally, or consciously made for export?

So, back to my first definition - it's not a place but a state of mind. It's not necessarily about where the producers come from, but the underlying ideology and the snobs who consume it.


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