// It's a small world
// Jonty Davies

When you think of movies, what do you think about? If you said Star Wars, car chases, or Marilyn Monroe, you’re right. If you said anything else at all, you’re also right, the point being that the most important global icons of cinema are all products of Hollywood – the major source of American film, and ruler of the global scene.

It’s always been that way, too. Though it was the Lumière Brothers of France who first made moving pictures projectable in 1895, it wasn’t long before the liberal intelligentsia of the United States commoditized and commercialized it into an entirely new stratosphere. Even beyond dollars and cents, American cinema has been responsible for some of the most innovative and bold statements ever made on celluloid.

Today, it remains the world’s foremost cinematic authority, but it’s far from the only one. As a matter of fact, it’s only the third-largest producer of films, after India and Nigeria. Cinema’s voice is a very global one, and there is a world of fantastic and immersive film. It’s often the case that a country’s artistic output is a concise reflection of their cultural being. Consider some of today’s most important international cinematic contributors, both established in decades of powerful expression and emerging with colorful significance in the contemporary world.


Much can be said on the important governing bodies in world cinema, such as Italy, India, Russia, and France. They all claim vibrant histories – histories strongly reflected in their film – but for now, let’s look at my personal favourites – Japan and Germany.

Japan – There’s something about the movies of Japan that elevate them to the cinematic sphere’s greatest essence of fantasy. Japan, although a neon wonderland of excitement and insanity to the visiting outsider, is a nation of considerable longstanding repressions. Misogyny is an ancient practice and many, many lives are lived in drab routine with hardline work all day and a distant home life. However, the world of Japanese cinema is nothing like that at all (with the exception of a few slow but biting family dramas – most importantly Yasujiro Ozu’s devastating and tender Tokyo Story (1953) – a film considered by many critics to be among the greatest ever made). The art itself acts as something of an outlet for that cultural repression and, as a result, the Japan we see is the Japan we dream.

Japanese cinema can be divided into two distinctive (though thematically linked) eras: Pre-Akira Kurosawa and Post-Akira Kurosawa. Kurosawa was a filmmaker and without question the most important filmmaker in the nation’s history. His international influence is widely acknowledged and works like Rashomon (1950) and Seven Samurai (1954) are considered genre-transcending masterpieces. He took stylistic inspiration from the grand images of Golden Age Hollywood and dynamically infused it with fantastical conceptualization, philosophical musings, and samurai.

Post-Kurosawa, the world of Japan is a psychedelic candy-land of Yakuza and schoolgirl lovers. It's electric and kinetic, and although there are great pictures, like the teenage blood sport of Battle Royale (2000), there are few directors who have a command of the effect quite like the ultra-prolific Takashi Miike. With films like DOA: Hanzaisha (1999) and Ichi the Killer (2001), Miike transforms Tokyo into the vibrant vision we imagine.

Germany – German cinema is just about as innovative and diverse as the nation’s own history. After Germany was defeated in WWI, devastating terms were laid out in the Treaty of Versailles that put the German economy in a stranglehold of rapid inflation. What this meant for filmmakers is that they could borrow the money necessary to make a film and pay it back at a ludicrously devalued rate a little while later. This resulted in an industry boom and some of history’s most visionary cinema, all of it standing on the parameters of one term: expressionism.

German expressionism was a heavily stylistic world that dealt with darkness on a very intellectual and atmospheric level. Some of its most important results were the vampire classic Nosferatu (1922) and the dystopian masterpiece of radicalism and futuristic revolution that is Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927).

Once the Nazi Party came to dominate Germany, their cinematic vision reigned supreme. Goebbles had high faith in the power of cinema and he intended to use it as a powerful tool of unification. Many high quality pictures were produced under the party’s influence, but none were quite as monumental as Leni Riefenstahl’s 1934 chronicle of the Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg Triumph of the Will. The film is a masterwork of propaganda, and although history has shown the extremely negative consequences of its ideals, it stands as a benchmark of cinematography and the power of documentary.

Like the country itself, it took quite some time for German cinema to restructure in the wake of WWII. It wasn’t until the progressive slate of New German Cinema began appearing in the ‘60s and took flight in the ‘70s that the nation’s art found its voice again. There was a large core of individuals that spoke to the archetypes of the movement, but none had the reach or integrity of the idealistic madman Werner Herzog.

Herzog blasted out of the regional art-house scene to gain international praise for powerful, humorous and even disturbing fare like the jungle odyssey Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) and the fractured American dream of Stroszek (1977). A method-director, Herzog throws himself and everyone involved so thoroughly into his productions that the stories surrounding their creation are as mind-blowing as the final product. Though mostly known for documentaries these days, Herzog is still very active and very well-acclaimed.


It seems that each year, a new country is earning substantial praise in the international critical market. Just this year, Iran’s A Separation (2011) walked away with the Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards. This was a film that very powerfully – though very subtly – addressed the nature of right and wrong in a nation struggling to escape the rigid order of an Islamofascist government. The bravery of the film to ask the questions it does is a testament to the nation’s growing social upheaval, and as the world has seen so many times before, great art can be a great expression of protest – even on the most suggestive of levels.

As some filmmakers will tell you, the most valuable prize a film can win isn’t an Oscar, but the Palme D’Or. It’s the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival and unlike the Oscar, it’s not limited to a country, language, style, or sentiment. It’s supposed to represent all of cinema and although often polarizing, it says a lot about the way things are in the modern cinematic world. Two of the past five Palme D’Ors have gone to countries that have never won before – Romania and Thailand.

Romania’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days (2007) is a harrowing film about a woman seeking unlawful abortion in the final days of notorious dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s dilapidated regime. Thailand’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) is a transcendent meditation on memory, Buddhism, and transformation. Though both are extremely different in tone and subject matter, it can be argued that they both deal with pillar issues of today and reflect their respective home nation’s newfound growth in cinema’s global consciousness.

South Korea has had recent growth in importance too. Several of its films, like the hyper-kinetic revenge thriller Oldboy (2003); the macabre, good-and-evil blurring (also a revenge thriller) I Saw the Devil (2010); and the genre-defying monster-movie-that’s-actually-about-family The Host (2006) have gone beyond setting box-office records at home to make considerable international splashes.

Most importantly for us, Canada is continuing to grow as a legitimate cinematic voice. There is a legion of enterprising and talented young filmmakers coming out of Canada, and Vancouver, with its in-depth industry and comprehensive facilities, is a great place to be. As long as we continue to produce challenging and unique films, we’ll improve as a global force. As we’ve seen, it doesn’t take grand production value to create meaningful cinema; it just takes meaning to produce something grand.

//Jonty Davies, columnist
//Graphics by Caitlyn Neufeld

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