Film is sometimes like music. There is a certain scene which is considered cool at a certain time, and a time and place which is a hotbed of creative energy. Musically, it currently resides in New York, but film-wise is perhaps more open to debate. Unlike music, film cannot react instantly to social changes. It take years to write, produce, and release a picture, and that’s with a major studio release.
But every so often, a region will produce a string of filmmakers and create a buzz about it, one which inevitably becomes noticed by Hollywood. So, what’s been hip in recent years?
In my view the defining world cinema of the last decade plus must be from Latin America. The list of names now recognisable to film fans all over the world speaks for itself, Guillermo del Toro, Alfonso Cuaron, Alejandro González Iñárritu, and Fernando Meirelles are just four of those who have translated arthouse critical praise into mainstream commercial success.
The directors often seem inspired by each other and frequently collaborate, fuelling this idea of the region as a creative powerhouse exampled by del Toro, Cuaron and Iñárritu setting themselves up as producing team Cha Cha Cha.
The films produced are varied as the countries, with the nightmarish fantasy of Pan’s Labyrinth sitting happily next to the stylised realism of City Of God. And considering that Argentina’s The Secret In Their Eyes just walked away with the Best Foreign Language Oscar, the region seems set to continue being fertile ground for activity.
However, despite the dominance of Latin America, it has not been the only regional cinema of recent years which has created a stir. North-East Asian cinema has become incredibly popular and referenced by those with a passion for film. I imagine the number of film students essays about Asia extreme has shot up since Ringu gained prominence at the turn of the century. And while Japanese horror set the initial pace, it was the Korean family psycho-drama which proved its defining moment in the form of Chan-wook Park’s vengeance trilogy.
Asian cinema is the prime example in my lifetime of a film scene which was popularised by word-of-mouth. Friends would ask me, “Have you seen such and such?”, or get me to come round and watch yet another extreme horror film.
Of course, Asia has long been a provider for scene cinema. In particular, Hong Kong has been a focus point of World Cinema since the 1970s, when Hong Kong martial arts films became popular. This then continued into the 80s with the John Woo-led action extravaganzas, which gained both critical and audience success. However, the arthouse was not ignored either, as the politically motivated Hong Kong second wave shows, the leading light of this was surely Wong Kar Wai.
And so it goes on. You can trace backwards throughout the century of cinema to discover what was the focal point of ideas and attention at a particular time. French New Wave, German Expressionism, Italian Neo-Realism, all these key movements were at one time scene cinema, and considered fashionable to enjoy and discuss. No doubt, a new screen scene is about to emerge, and perhaps I will run down a list of potential world cinemas to keep an eye on in the future. For now, however, I shall leave this as an introduction to how world cinema will often follow regional trends.
Around the World in Eighty Films
Picking up where I left off last time, we remain in Africa for the next five stops on the global tour…
Just down from Nigeria is Cameroon. While not being able to boast the massive production numbers of its neighbour, Cameroon does have a long and proud film history and the not so catchy nickname of Camollywood. Amongst its leading players is Daniel Kamwa, but it is 2005’s Sisters In Law I recommend.
Co-directed by Kim Longinotto of Rough Aunties fame, this documentary tells the stories of women in the Cameroonian justice system. A powerful and positive depiction of women, it has been acclaimed around the world, including winning the Prix Art et Essai at Cannes.
Also critically adored was The Hero, my Sundance prize-winning choice from Angola. This film depicts the lives of Angolans following their brutal civil war and explores how the conflict touched everyone’s lives in some way, whether physically or emotionally.
Showing that Africa can do epics as well as anyone else, Namibia steps up with Namibia: The Struggle For Liberation.
With that subtle title in hand, this Danny Glover starring film tells the story of Sam Nujoma, freedom fighter and the country’s first president. Carrying on the critical success, this film seemed to clean up at the Kuala Lumpur International Film Festival, blagging Best Score, Best African Film and Best Director.
Offering a change of tone, Botswana has its own comedy franchise, in the form of The Gods Must Be Crazy series. The first has three separate narratives involving a bushman, a band of guerrillas and a romance between a scientist and a schoolteacher, and, of course, the evils of Coca-Cola. Figures.
Finally for Africa, we reach the tip of the continent. South Africa has produced some of the most noteworthy world cinema of the last few years, and my nod for the best goes to Tsotsi, an incendiary six days in the life of the eponymous lead, who, although driven to act altruistically, knows no other way than violence and crime to achieve his goals.
The Secret Of Kells
I’ve already mentioned one surprise Oscar winner up above, but here was the surprise nomination at this year’s awards. An Irish cartoon so little known that I don’t think even the makers had bothered to watch it, The Secret of Kells seems to have deserved its acclaim. Getting a belated UK release this Friday, this tale of a boy overcoming his deepest fears to help complete a magic book is one of the few films I have suggested that you can take your family to. I am obviously getting soppy these days!