National Cinema(s)

I recently finished a six week course on National Cinema(s), which was hosted by 20th Century Flicks: Bristol’s last remaining video rental shop (it also has a cinema room that can be hired and is home to two adorable cats – what more could you want from life?) The big question, going into this course, was, ‘What is National Cinema?’ and over the next six weeks my fellow classmates and I attempted to answer this through film screenings and discussions, each one organised around a particular national focus (British, Australian, Swedish, Venezuelan, Kenyan, European/Borderless).

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While the economics of a film’s production and distribution is arguably the biggest factor in determining which ‘national cinema’ it falls into, I was very much fascinated by the discussions around the filmic content and the idea of ‘national genres’, or to put it more crudely, what type of films do we associate with certain countries? For example, when asked what Swedish films we had seen, the majority of those cited, particularly those that had been the most commercially successful, could be considered to fit the description ‘Scandi-noir’. This made me wonder how much this ‘national genre’ really represents Swedish interests and how much it is influenced by its exportability to international audiences, i.e. Swedish film-makers may be more inclined to work within this genre because it is more likely to sell well abroad. This is because it seems to be much easier to market a foreign film when a nation is predominately linked with a particular style of film-making. Further examples might include French Arthouse, Japanese Anime and Indian Bollywood.

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Additionally, ‘Scandi-noir’ raises further questions regarding the geography of national cinema(s) and the grouping of films from several countries (Denmark, Norway, Sweden – perhaps because this is easier to market internationally). What then might be the exported British ‘national genre’ (grouping England, Scotland and Wales)? This is difficult to judge since I am living in Britain and exposed to the wider range of its film productions but literature on this subject indicates that heritage cinema seems to enjoy particular international success: the Merchant Ivory productions of the 1980s and more recently The King’s Speech (Dir. Tom Hooper, 2010) and The Imitation Game (Dir. Morten Tyldum, 2014). The wider socio-political implications for these exported ‘national genres’ is something that really fascinates me and I hope to explore this as I take up research in this area.

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With this in mind, the National Cinema(s) course was a wonderful opportunity to watch films that we may not normally have seen due to their lower visibility in the international film market. Putting Australia’s hugely successful Mad Max franchise to one side, I watched two lesser known films: Charlie’s Country (Dir. Rolf de Heer, 2013), a depiction of an Indigenous Australian dealing with the loss of his land, and The Boys (Dir. Rowan Woods, 1998), a disturbing drama about violence, hate and crime within a suburban Australian family.

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As part of our focus on Swedish cinema the featured screening was not a ‘Scandi-noir’ but a sensitive, sweet account of two teenage girls falling in love in a small town: Show Me Love (Dir. Lukas Moodysson, 1998). This screening was quite a nostalgic experience for me, proving that questionable fashion choices, bubblegum pop and ‘hanging in the park’ are late 1990s teenage experiences that transcend national borders.

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The course also exposed me to some films from countries that I must shamefully confess I knew very little about in terms of their cinema: Pelo Malo (Dir. Mariana Rondon, 2013) explores issues of racism, homophobia and poverty through the tense relationship between a mother and her son living in Caracas, Venezuela; Nairobi Half Life (Dir. David ‘Tosh’ Gitonga, 2012) is a hard-hitting insight into gang culture in Nairobi, Kenya.

Many thanks to Peter, Tara, Lorena and Elizabeth for selecting an array of truly fascinating films and for leading such insightful discussions.

Written by Sarah Kelley for 20th Century Flicks.

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