Monday, January 27, 2014

Introduction to the Film Atlas

Welcome to the Film Atlas!

In brief:

I am going to review a favorite film from 100+ countries.
There will be a new post with a new country and a new film every day.

Countries whose films will be featured, color-coded by decade.
In detail:

Films, for me, have always been a form of exploration. I don’t just mean that they ‘transport us to worlds of the imagination’ (although that too), but that they introduce us to new places, personalities, situations, historical moments and moral dilemmas that can be both fascinating in their novelty and yet startlingly close to home. Movies allow us to virtually travel and vicarious experience, giving us a chance to consider how we would react under other conditions and providing a window into how others think, feel, work, play, express themselves, live and die.

This project, The Film Atlas, is just an extension of my love for exploring through movies. I’ve always been interested in the vastness and variety of international cinema. Perhaps it's partly because, though there is no real substitute for actually travelling abroad, movies are a lot more affordable!

I live smack in the middle of the U.S., which has a passionate, progressive, omnivorous film culture that coexists, paradoxically, with a tendency towards insularity. For a variety of historical, commercial, technological and cultural reasons, the U.S. has played such a dominant role in the development of cinema that many moviegoers, especially domestically, consider Hollywood to be the gold standard, somehow more valuable, important or real than movies made anywhere else. Films made in other countries or by independent studios and individual artists often get labeled as special interest and are written off by popular culture.

It probably goes without saying that I think these films have more to offer!

I started working on this project about two years ago. The idea came to me when I was attending the St. Louis International Film Festival near my home. Each year I try to see at least one film in the festival from a country whose cinema I am totally unfamiliar with. It was getting hard to keep track of so I did what I normally do and compiled a list. It turned out that I’d already seen films from almost 60 countries! The thought occurred to me that I should set a goal of 100. Even better, instead of just seeing the movies, what if I wrote about them?

It sounded like a great idea for one of those highly successful/annoyingly-trendy blogs where someone spends a year eating only foods that begin with B or vows to hug 100 species of cacti. Not that a lot of those projects aren’t fun, but I hope to steer the Film Atlas away from their frequent pitfalls: being too zeitgeisty, arbitrary or self-absorbed. Shoot me a comment or email if you feel I stray. I’ve even, after much vacillation, rejected the seductive roundness of the number 100. I’m now seen at least one movie from upwards of 140 countries, but since I'm only writing about films I can genuinely recommend (there will be very few exceptions), the final count will likely land around 120.

I'll continue to grow the list over time, even after my initial run, so I'd love it if readers chimed in with advice on films from countries I miss.

So how does one pick a single film to represent a whole nation’s cinema? For some countries, like Suriname, Liberia or Samoa, the film I’ve chosen is simply the only one I could find (perhaps even the only one made). For countries with thriving film industries it was harder. I initially set out to identify the “best” movie from each country, but I balked at the idea of writing about so many already well-documented greats like Citizen Kane, The Rules of Engagement or Seven Samurai. Finally acknowledging the inevitability of subjectivity, I instead opted for a more flexible approach: sometimes I wrote about the most critically well-regarded, other times I went with my favorite, or a highly representative film or the most interesting or the most underrated.

For most countries I was not just content to find a movie, I wanted to watch as many candidates as reasonably possible to make a moderately informed selection and to provide a hefty chunk of runners-up. But keep in mind that I didn’t have time to become an expert on anywhere, so don't be outraged if you think I've shortchanged your favorite country. A bit of argument over some selections is to be expected and is part of the fun. I’m curious to hear what you consider to be the best film from A or B or C, so don’t hold back when you disagree.

I'm excited to say that even though I came into this project already loving international cinema and being reasonably fluent in it, I was surprised by how many absolute masterpieces I hadn't yet seen, languishing in under-appreciated corners of the globe. This is easily my most ambitious project to date and my focus on it has probably driven a few of my friends a little nuts. But it has also been my most rewarding writing effort and I hope you enjoy it too!

Here’s a breakdown of the number of films I saw from various countries, which also serves as a very, very rough estimate of cinematic prominence, if you are curious about that type of thing:

1000+: US
300+: France, UK, Japan
100+: Italy, Germany
75+: Russia, Hong Kong, Czech Republic, Canada
50+: South Korea, Australia, Sweden, Spain, China, India
40+: Poland, Iran
30+: Hungary, Denmark, Mexico
20+: Brazil, Belgium, Taiwan, Argentina, Turkey, Ireland, New Zealand, Greece
10+: Serbia, Norway, Austria, Israel, Thailand, Finland, Slovakia, Croatia, Netherlands, Portugal, Romania
6+: Chile, Cuba, Kazakhstan, Switzerland, Ukraine, Colombia, Egypt, Georgia, Indonesia, Peru, Senegal, South Africa, Vietnam
3+: Macedonia, Uruguay, Burkina Faso, Iceland, Ivory Coast, Mali, Singapore, Antarctica, Bangladesh, Ecuador, Lebanon, Lithuania, Mauritania, Mongolia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Palestine, Slovenia, Sri Lanka, Syria, Tunisia, Venezuela
2: Albania, Algeria, Belarus, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Cameroon, Chad, Cyprus, Democratic Republic of Congo, Estonia, Ethiopia, Ghana, Haiti, Honduras, Iraq, Jamaica, Jordan, Latvia, Libya, Malaysia, North Korea, Paraguay, Zimbabwe
1: Afghanistan, Angola, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bahamas, Bahrain, Bhutan, Bolivia, Burundi, Cambodia, Fiji, Greenland, Guatemala, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Guyana, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Liberia, Madagascar, Moldova, Montenegro, Morocco, Nepal, Nicaragua, Niger, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Rwanda, Samoa, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Suriname, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirate, Uzbekistan, Yemen

Some countries are under-represented relative to their real output for various reasons, like having highly productive and popular cinemas that focus primarily on domestic audiences (India, Nigeria), experiencing a golden age that pre-dated home media (Egypt, Lebanon), suffering from a lack of international distribution/translation (the Baltic states) or some combination of the above. Plus there are my own limitations in terms of tracking things down and managing time and money.

I should also point out that I am using an inclusive definition of nationhood that is not intended to have any particular political significance. For instance, I chose to represent Antarctica, Greenland, Palestine and Hong Kong in the Film Atlas. For older films made when countries had different names or borders, I have "given the credit," so to speak, to what I think is the most accurate modern-day equivalent.

I struggled a lot with the question of how to deal with co-productions, since so many films involve the cooperation of multiple nations. Boiling the complexities of such films down so that I could classify them under a single heading was an expedient I'd rather have avoided, but couldn't. In classifying these films I gave preeminence to the language, setting and subject matter in addition to the nationalities of the director, writer and cast as well as, to a lesser extent, the financing of the film.

For example, I consider films like Hotel Rwanda, The Kite Runner and Memoirs of a Geisha to be American films instead of, respectively, Rwandan, Afghan or Japanese. Likewise, I would classify Waking Ned Divine and Slumdog Millionaire as British instead of Irish or Indian. Not that I would have selected any of these examples for either their ostensible or actual country of origin, but I mention them as the type of things I didn't consider representative indigenous productions. I’d rather highlight films in which the creative voice was of the people who actually live there. That said, a few of my selections (Algeria, Nepal, Venezuela) walk a fine line and are open to debate.

To keep the Film Atlas as interesting as possible I've also striven for variety in other senses beyond nationality. I quickly found certain patterns emerging in researching the great films of various nations. For instance, most countries have their epic national-identity-affirming patriotic war film (either an against-the-odds victory over an invader or a tragic story of martyred heroism), their oft-quoted but notoriously untranslatable low-budget comedy that you simply have to live there to appreciate, and their semi-autobiographical coming-of-age-during-a-time-of-political-change drama. All of these will generally feature a romantic subplot. While each of these genres is represented on this list, I will also be including documentaries, musicals, action movies, science fiction and horror, animation, experimental films and unclassifiable oddities.

I’ve chosen films from every decade from the 1920s onward, although there is a definite bias towards the last two decades (since many countries did not have the means of production and distribution before then) and the 1970s (my admitted favorite decade).

My format will be to include a plot summary and review of one film from each country, along with a list of other recommended films and of prominent directors.

The Film Atlas has two goals:
1) Creating a starting point for anyone interested in international cinema or seeking out landmark movies from a particular country, many of which aren’t widely discussed in English-language resources.

2) I want to get you (yes, you!) interested and excited about at least a couple of these movies. Some of them are rather obscure, so if something sounds good but you have trouble finding it, email me and I’ll try to help!

Lastly, I want to thank all the people who helped with this project whether they knew it or not, especially the many others cinephiles who’ve conducted polls, posted lists or shared their opinions with me, ensuring that I never run out of recommendations to pursue!

The Film Atlas begins today with Afghanistan. Enjoy! I’ll update this table of contents from time to time:

Afghanistan: Osama
Albania: Slogans
Angola: Sambizanga
Antarctica: Crossing the Ice
Argentina: The Swamp
Bahamas: Rain
Belarus: In the Fog
Belgium: All Night Long
Bosnia-Herzegovina: No Man's Land
Bulgaria: The Goat's Horn
Burkina Faso: Yaaba
Cambodia: Rice People
Canada: My Winnipeg
Chile: The Maid
Croatia: H-8
Cyprus: Akamas
Czech Republic: Case for a Rookie Hangman
Denmark: The Celebration
Georgia: Repentance
Germany: Metropolis
Greenland: Nuummioq
Hong Kong: The Boxer's Omen
Hungary: The Round-Up
Iceland: Jar City
Indonesia: Tiger from Tjampa
Ireland: The Butcher Boy
Ivory Coast: In the Name of Christ
Jamaica: Rockers
Japan: Akira
Kyrgyzstan: Beshkempir
Lebanon: Where Do We Go Now?
Liberia: Johnny Mad Dog
Luxembourg: Little Secrets
Macedonia: Before the Rain
Madagascar: Souli
Malaysia: My Mother-in-Law
Mali: Brightness
Mauritania: Timbuktu
Nepal: Himalaya
Netherlands: Turkish Delight
New Zealand: Utu
Nicaragua: Alsino and the Condor
Nigeria: Sitanda
North Korea: Flower Girl
Pakistan: Silent Waters
Palestine: Paradise Now
Philippines: Three Godless Years
Portugal: Tabu
Samoa: The Orator
Saudi Arabia: Wadjda
Senegal: Hyenas
Serbia: Underground
Singapore: Ilo Ilo
Slovakia: The Sun in a Net
South Africa: District 9
South Korea: Mandala
Spain: Raise Ravens
Sri Lanka: The Treasure
Sudan: Tajouj
Suriname: One People
Sweden: The Magician
Switzerland: Alpine Fire
Syria: The Dupes
Tajikistan: Moon Father
Turkey: The Herd
United Arab Emirates: City of Life
United Kingdom: Monty Python and the Holy Grail
United States: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Uzbekistan: Man Follows Birds
Venezuela: Araya
Zimbabwe: The Legend of the Sky Kingdom

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