I write film reviews for a youth themed urban magazine. Which simply put means that I review major Hollywood films because that what the young urban audiences want to see or at least, have been convinced that it’s what they want to see. Alternatively I’m also a member of the Toronto Film Critic’s Association as well as FIPRESCI whose ideas of film is decidedly different. So, whenever I sit on FIPRESCI juries and am asked to judge decidedly un-Hollywood films, or am asked to review the latest Hollywood summer blockbuster I always feel a bit schizophrenic.
In mainstream North American films before the money men hand over the millions in production funds, the first and most important questions asked are: “Who is this film for? Who will pay to see it?” And this year while sitting on the FIPRESCI jury for the 2003 Locarno (Swiss) Film Festival I found myself asking myself these very questions as I watched film offerings from Korea, Germany, Italy, France, Iran, Romania, Japan, the UK, Bolivia, Bosnia, Argentina, Pakistan, India, and the US.
However, I was alerted by my Swiss fellow jury member that often outside of North America the question asked is: “What is the story you want to tell?” So which is the right question in order to create good cinema? Or better yet, what is good cinema? I’m a populist at heart. I believe that the audience, the public dictates what is good rather then it being something that is judged by a set of standard rules. So whether it be a Hollywood film that makes millions because people like it or whether it be a festival film that programmers and juries like, good films are deemed so by a certain democratic process. And a look at the global box office receipts which constantly have Hollywood films at the top of the lists seems to say that audiences around the world respond to “films that are made for an audience” rather than films that are simply stories that a filmmaker wants to tell.
At the Locarno International Film Festival in 2003 there seemed to be only a handful of films that where made for an audience in mind; which I think is a bad thing. Sure, the Iranian film about two watchmen guarding a mine in a deserted and isolated mountain hamlet was skillfully realised. And yes, in the Korean film that delicately illustrates the cycle of life through the life of holy man living on a remote Korean lake, I could absolutely see what the director was trying to achieve. And I could most definitely appreciate the obvious skill in which with the Romanian director told the story of a woman forced into prostitution due to the shift from socialism to capitalism in 90s Romania. However, at the end of the day many such films are of interest to only a handful of people familiar to those worlds. A film at its best has to be universal in its themes no matter when and where it is set. And if it isn’t, then isn’t it a failure? I think so.
Unfortunately, or fortunately film is a hugely expensive medium that often has to be financially backed by some form of public money and because of that it’s imperative that film not be totally self indulgent.
If an artist feels they have an important story to tell but that that story might have very limited appeal, then writing a novel may be a more suitable form in which to get that message across.
But ultimately the answer, as always, is somewhere in the middle. At their best, a good film, or any truly good work of art is a compromise between the two; a personal vision executed with a universal vernacular.
© FIPRESCI 2003