Around the World in several Films: “Round up the Unusual Suspects!”

Author: Ashvin Immanuel Devasundaram

As the dust settles on the febrile buzz surrounding the Oscars, it becomes possible to take a step back, delink cinema from this veneer of glitz and glamour and reframe it through a broader global cinematic filter. The last couple of years, in particular, have conjured an eclectic and heady mix of films, from often unexpected places on the planet. As my PhD research straddles the realms of film studies, World cinema and film philosophy, I reckoned this may be a propitious moment to round up the ‘not so usual’ cinematic suspects. Let us cast a glance at films that provide us with vibrant, colourful, uplifting and occasionally disturbing glimpses of other nations, cultures and people.

Wadjda, is the first Saudi Arabian film made by a female director, and also the first filmed entirely in Saudi Arabia. This film is essential viewing, if only to afford the wider world a glimpse into the lives of ordinary Saudi citizens, particularly women and children. The title character – 10 year old Wadjda is a revelation and her honest, impish performance is at once charming and captivating.

Paulo Sorrentino’s tribute to Rome, The Great Beauty is a whimsical masterpiece, as evocative as anything Federico Fellini has created. France’s powerhouse credentials in art cinema were reinforced with Blue is the Warmest Colour and Stranger by The Lake. Both films shimmered and rippled in their representations of lesbian and gay relationships, whilst Apres Mai’s (Something in the Air) palpable rendition of the 1970s radical student movement was heightened by its impeccable aesthetic.

Director Anand Gandhi’s poetic and philosophical Indian masterpiece Ship of Theseus used the modes of hyperlink cinema along with bustling Mumbai cityscapes, to entwine three disparate narratives- a blind photographer, a rebellious monk with liver cirrhosis and an improbable good Samaritan on a quest to retrace a stolen human kidney.

Last year saw the release of two outstanding biopics. Legendary auteur Andrzej Wajda’s Walesa: Man of Hope about the Lech Wałęsa led solidarity movement in Poland, and Margarethe von Trotta’s film, Hannah Arendt about the eponymous German philosopher’s brush with the banality of evil.
Alternately labelled dormant or moribund, American independent cinema received a boost in the form of Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene; a brooding and disturbing immersion into America’s penchant for obscure cults.

Joshua Oppenheimer’s chilling exposé on Indonesian death squad leaders in darkly disconcerting ‘The Act of Killing’ is an example of innovative narrative approaches to the theme of genocide.

British cinema had its own coruscating examples, with Ken Loach’s hysterically funny and quintessentially Scottish, The Angel’s Share, and the powerful, documentary retrospective, The Spirit of ‘45 – a paean to the post-1945 Labour welfare state. Clio Barnard’s The Selfish Giant, was an inspired reworking of the Oscar Wilde tale and Philomena, a powerfully understated narrative continuation of Peter Mullan’s monumental The Magdalene Sisters.

Chilean film ‘No’ starring Gael Garcia Bernal of The Motorcycle Diaries fame, was a politically charged, irony-tinged exposition, about dictator Pinochet’s absolute power and a ‘Yes/No’ referendum poised to determine the birth of a new nation- themes that will no doubt find resonance in several other quarters of the world!

All in all, being a part of Heriot-Watt University’s department of Languages and Intercultural Studies, it is especially wonderful to witness this general glut of global films colouring the spectrum of transcultural cinematic exchanges and informing our perceptions of a constantly changing world.

The global village and the information superhighway have often been credited with enmeshing cultures and people and bringing the world closer together. In my view, cinema is doing the same job…and arguably in far more enjoyable fashion!

One thought on “Around the World in several Films: “Round up the Unusual Suspects!”

  1. Couldn’t agree more, Ash. Sorrentino’s ‘The Great Beauty’ was so characteristic of a changing world. I thought the main character would start shouting “O tempora, o mores!” in the end (thankfully, he didn’t, as that would have been too predictable). One of the most poignant scenes in that film was when he gazes at the decaying half-sunk cruise ship from the top of a hill. So much symbolism in a frame of just a few seconds.
    I haven’t seen ‘Hannah Arendt’ and I really wanted to because of my admiration of Arendt’s work. Have to wait for the DVD unfortunately…
    ‘Martha Marcy May Marlene’ was disturbing indeed but I found it overall mediocre and predictable – sorry. It does give an insight into obscure cults, though, you’re absolutely right on that one.
    ‘No’ was a tricky one. I very much enjoyed it and it made me want to learn more about modern Chilean history. The song for Chile and Happiness is still stuck in my head. But this was a film about campaigns and audience management and how the world of politics is evolving. Really thought-provoking from a Habermasian point of view (aaah the public sphere). Not much emphasis was put on the people’s struggle or Pinochet’s atrocities, but then that was probably deliberate.
    Thank you for that insight into Film Studies and Film Philosophy in particular. There’s more to LINCS than languages ! 🙂

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