Saturday, January 29, 2011

Invisible cinema

It is so common to hear complaints that a given cinema year is dull. Yet, a person lazily applies the dull tag by only looking at a handful of movies playing in a cinema near them. If a person is not lucky enough to live in New York, Toronto (to some extent) or a select city, then chances are they will only have access to Hollywood films in their local cinema. Last year, I went to Cardiff and naively hoped that I would get a chance to see some British or European films in local theaters. Yet, every single theater was playing the same Hollywood movie hogging the theaters back home in Canada. In brief travels around the world in the last few years, I have found the same Hollywood films playing in Paris, Barcelona, Madrid, London, Delhi, Mumbai, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and Bangkok at the same time. There was a slight difference in Paris & Spain in that a given Hollywood film was dubbed in French and Spanish respectively but the same product existed in all these places. The pattern seems to be that as more multiplexes are built around the world, only Hollywood films can provide enough prints to book up all the screens. Some countries such as India, South Korea, Brazil, France and Japan are able to hold their own against Hollywood but even in these countries, it is the commercial titles that occupy the multiplex screen. In Delhi and Mumbai, Bollywood rules the multiplex while an Independent Indian film (yes, shockingly there is such a thing) struggles to get screen time. Same goes in America where indie cinema has a tough job edging out the muscular Hollywood machine.

There is clearly a horrible imbalance in the ratio of Hollywood vs indie films on theater screens not only across North America but around the world. Yet with the exception of a few film blogs, one rarely finds mention of this imbalance. So A.O. Scott’s new article is more than welcome:

And the Oscars reinforce this, frequently ignoring accessible and entertaining movies from other countries and settling on a frequently random-seeming list of finalists.

Scott tackles this variance by using the foreign film category in the Oscars as an example. The foreign film category begs to be expanded as many great films from around the world need more attention. Also, he questions the one film rule per country which really needs to be removed in this day and age of co-productions:

For some reason, the Academy insists on a one-film-per-country rule, which places a large part of the decision-making process in the hands of film industries at least as corrupt and agenda-driven as our own. Why should “Of Gods and Men” have been France’s only shot? And what determines the nationality of a film in any case? Why is Rachid Bouchareb’s “Outside the Law” an Algerian rather than a French film, given that its director is a French citizen and that it was made with mostly French financing and therefore within that country’s extensive legal statutes governing cinematic production? And what makes "Biutiful," shot in Barcelona with a Spanish cast, a Mexican film?

Another example that comes to mind is who between Germany and Austria can claim the brilliant film The Robber as their own? There is clearly a lot of lobbying and discussion that goes on in each nation as to which film should be submitted as a sole representative. For example, every year the question in India does not seem to be which is the best film of the year but rather which film has the best shot to get nominated for an Oscar. This question has certainly gained prominence in the last decade ever since Lagaan got a surprize nomination.

While there is a shortage of foreign/indie films at local theaters, it is not all doom and gloom. Thankfully, some of this great world cinema can be found via film festivals, DVDs and online. Scott highlights this as well:

Their work is almost invisible here, though it commands a fair amount of attention in the flourishing and contentious cinephile wing of the blogosphere. But it is nonetheless available to anyone with the curiosity and patience to navigate the new, fast-evolving cosmos of V.O.D. and streaming Web video.

I like to believe that theater owners will book a non Hollywood film if the movie will make them money. An award and a nomination for a foreign film will certainly go a long way in helping theater owners make that decision, as will a film’s success at various international film festivals. Also, if a foreign film is a box-office hit in its native country, then that will also increase the film’s chances of getting some screens in a North American multiplex. Yet, such awards and box-office success only greets just a few out of the thousands of foreign films that get made every year.

We are supposed to be living in an open world of limited boundaries yet theaters in North America appear to be firmly closed to the world. There is a line in Saul Bellow’s novel The Dean’s December along the lines of "For God’s Sake, open the universe a little more!". So taking that line as an inspiration:

For God’s Sake, open your theater doors a little more and let in the world.

and...a nudge towards film programmers:

If you book it, people will come.

They may not come in droves at first but a few will appear to see what this Carlos movie is all about. Then slowly others will follow. But the average person has much better taste than what film producers and distributors like to think.


Sam Juliano said...

Why should “Of Gods and Men” have been France’s only shot? And what determines the nationality of a film in any case?"

Indeed Sachin. This is a vital point. This past year was a banner one for French cinema. Lourdes, Carlos, Un Prophete, Mademoiselle Chambon, White Material as well as Of Gods and Men (which I believe will be opening next week as per a poster display at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas where last night I saw a Korean film called POETRY--which may well be the greatest Korean film I have seen in my life!!!) are proof parcel that limiting the choice to only one is foolhardy.

Sachin said...

I have been waiting to see Poetry for a while now. I was quite impressed by the director's previous effort Secret Sunshine which leaves plenty of food for thought.

Oh in a few weeks I will be able to see Lourdes.