Jon Dudley explores the notion of national cinema…
Although cinema is a worldwide spectacle that can be enjoyed by billions of people, there seems to be a way to define a films origins and values, and who or where it represents. It would be all too easy to walk into any cinema and identify the nations of the films on show. For example, at the time of writing there seems to be a variety of national delicacies for cinema goers to choose from: there is Law Abiding Citizen (USA), Harry Brown (UK) and Kurbaan (India) to name just three. But are we right in thinking of films as expressions of national identity?
“There is no such thing as British cinema” according to an essay entitled The Cambridge. Also according to this essay, which was written by seven different people, the notion of national cinema, and here they specify British films, is not feasible. “British cinema can only justify itself, we are told, by saying something about being British. But all other cinema begins by speaking about the human condition”. Here they argue that British cinema seems to want to force itself to have a national identity whereas other countries seem to want to tell stories, not stamp their national identity over them.
Jim Leach, who wrote the book British Film makes a very good point indeed: “The problem is that ʻpeopleʼ and ʻnationʼ are not synonymous”. And he is right – nations of the world are so culturally diverse that it is difficult to consider the ʻnationalityʼ of a film. For example, East is East and My Beautiful Laundrette are British films yet both address issues that are familiar with Pakistanis. They are both classed as British films since they are set in England, but highlight a different cultural heritage to that of the majority of the nationʼs population.
More recently, and on a much larger scale, Slumdog Millionaire swept the board at the BAFTAs and Academy Awards. Director Danny Boyle, a Brit, and writer Simon Beaufoy, also English, were at the helm of this film set in India, about Indian people, and raising Indian issues – yet the film is still recognised as British. On the other hand, The Constant Gardener is directed by a Brazilian, Fernando Meirelles, yet also a British film because of the content – is this not the same?
The writers of The Cambridge Document are not the only ones that seem to dislike the whole idea of different national cinemas rather than one worldwide collective film archive. Sarah Street, writer of British National Cinema wants to encourage “the need to examine cinema from perspectives that celebrate pluralities and the blurring of boundaries instead of seeking to locate an essentialised notion of national identity”. She is saying here that different nations should not think individualistically when it comes to producing ʻhomegrownʼ films, but embrace the fact that world cinema can be appreciated as a whole.
If some people are against the idea of national cinemas, why does such a notion exist? It appears that many countries have their preferred genres. “Most national cinemas produce home-grown comedies that work only in the domestic market” according to Jim Leach. This doesnʼt apply to just the comedy genre of films but to ones that raise issues to which the particular nation of the films origin can relate. For example there were often comedic elements in war films such as people taking the traditional “stiff upper lip” approach, a trait only familiar with British audiences. In recent cinema, in Britain there remains to be a focus on social issues that affect the inhabitants of our nation today, resulting in a high volume of British films belonging to the social realism genre.
Leach comments that Britain is persistently recognised for having a unique sense of humour. When talking to an American friend of mine I asked him for his opinion of British cinema, and he replied “British film is like American film, but with more irony, different accents and worse teeth”. Although this response was humourous, it does highlight some of the characteristics that Britain in general and not just the films can be identified by.
But it is not just Britain that has addressed lower class problems over the last decade or so. Mathieu Kassovitz made the hard-hitting critically acclaimed French film La Haine in 1995, highlighting the hostility between youths and authority in Paris. Since other nations are addressing similar issues to each other, this puts forward evidence that perhaps films should not be defined from the country they originate from but by the genre they represent.
Films of different countries that produced similar films also added their national ethos into productions. An article in The Guardian suggests “it is widely felt that the key to a national cinema lay in ‘realism and restraint”. British social aspects raised in films can include unemployment (The Full Monty), family issues (Fish Tank) and drug use and partying (Human Traffic). As I just mentioned La Haine brought up youth issues in France and therefore Armstrongʼs point is valid when he says national cinema is when films represent issues familiar in the countries where they originate.
Another key point that backs up my suggestion that films could be defined by genre, not by nation, poses the question ʻdo films really have to cater for national audiences or fans of particular genresʼ? Street highlights an issue with this: “Producers have been caught in a perpetual bind: Should they make films for the British market or for international export? Is it possible to aim for both, at the risk of satisfying neither?”. If an individual does not like watching films that highlight social issues for example, then they are very unlikely to be persuaded to go and see them. Instead of targeting specific national markets, perhaps producers should target genre audiences, and instead of asking themselves the questions raised by Sarah Street, they should be trying to investigate ʻwhat can we do within the genre of this film to satisfy the fans of this material?ʼ
Another suggestion was put forward by Erich Pommer, which led to the formation of Film Europe in the 1920ʼs. He said that “It is necessary to create ʻeuropean filmsʼ which will no longer be French, English, Italian or German films; entirely continental films…”. Unfortunately due to the rise of fascism in Germany and sound being incorporated into moving pictures, the company didnʼt last very long.
The introduction of sound, but more importantly language, to film meant that “individual countries were much more focused on producing films in their own languages for domestic audiences” says David Puttnam. Of course the most important thing was for home audiences to be given films in their own language, and at this point in time it was not feasible for films to appeal to continental audiences while they were still adjusting to incorporating their own spoken language into films.
Before sound design was an element of film making, David Puttnam also points out that it was the absence of language that made film universally accessible to audiences because there was no barrier. When language was common place in films, Puttnam remarks that “perhaps it was hardly surprising that cinema… became closely identified with the idea of national identity”.
Maybe it was the introduction of sound that eliminated films being viewed as a worldwide medium, and language did in fact encourage the divides in the moving image industry between countries and continents. Or simply it could all come down to the fact audiences would rather stick to watching films that were made in their homelands and address issues that are relevant to them.
Jon Dudley is a freelance film and television journalist and his 17-minute short film Justification was shown at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival.