Features and Columns

Culture Warrior: Crossing Borders

By  · Published on June 15th, 2010

I am in no way a regular sports fan, but I did show up at a bar in Austin this past weekend in an earnest display of support for my country’s soccer team and their game against England in this year’s World Cup. When England’s coach’s name appeared on the board – Fabio Capello – the explicitly non-Englishness of the name of the head representative of the English team gave me a chuckle. Yet this is consistent with much of my experience watching soccer. David Beckham, who often resides in the US and currently plays for a team based in Los Angeles, would have been part of the English team had he not been injured, and the German and American teams have standout players whose last names clearly designate their lineage as not originating from that country. (Don’t worry, this post isn’t heading towards xenophobialand. Read on…)

The World Cup, like the Olympics, situates a competition between nations, a series of games that inevitably and intentionally spur waves of nationalism within each respective competing country. But for such competitions to take place, one has to assume that distinct borders do indeed exist between nations, as such games are not positioned to be merely a competition between citizens, but presumably between nationalities as a fight for a sense of culturally-specific pride associated with their country’s flag.

Yet, when examining the specifics of these teams, any sense of national and cultural homogeneity within them quickly fades away. This is because, in modern history, the idea of delineation between nations works more effectively and powerfully as some sort of utopian perceived ideal of cultural unity rather than a concept that actually has any useful function in reality. In terms of cultural exchange, borders between countries are becoming blurrier than ever.

It almost goes without saying that the increasingly vague delineations between nation are just as visible in the world of film.

The politics of the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award probably demonstrates most effectively the problems of our antiquated thoughts about nations. Since the award has existed, only one entry per country has been admitted to compete, and there strict rules are in place which can result in disqualification for a film if any American money is involved in the given production. Take two of the highest-profile foreign language films of 2004 for example, Walter Salles’ The Motorcycle Diaries and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s A Very Long Engagement, neither of which were nominated for Best Foreign Language Film because of these simple disqualifications. Both films were co-produced in America, Motorcycle Diaries having received funding by Robert Redford, and A Very Long Engagement being an official co-production with Warner Bros.

But that’s not the most important or telling aspect of these films. Both, in simple narrative terms, are nation-specific stories that require and venerate a certain degree of cultural specificity – The Motorcycle Diaries being a tell of celebrated Argentine figure Che Guevara’s trek in his youth through rural South America, and A Very long Engagement being consistent in Jeunet’s post-Amelie aesthetic of calculated French-ness and telling a historically-distinct WWI French tale based on a novel from that same country. Both films are arguably specific and explicit displays of nationalism, films that assume nation and culture are border-contained and unique. Yet each film, ironically, required a hodgepodge of multinational, pond-crossing funding sources in order for the vision of a complete, homogeneous nation to be realized (the veritable league of nations that is the business behind The Motorcycle Diaries, for instance, included companies residing in Argentina, the US, Chile, Peru, Brazil, the UK, Germany, and France).

Deliberately National

When it was first introduced in 1957 with the honoring of Fellini’s La Strada (1954, released in the US in 1956), the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar operated in a time in which film distribution took on a more nationally distinct form. This was something not only reflected in the business practices of international distribution, but in the films themselves. As a wave of art filmmaking swept Europe in the late 1950s and celebrated auteurs of the East (Ozu, Kurosawa) found audiences in US arthouses, their films in turn sought to be deliberate and thoughtful representations of nation and national identity, often commissioned by their governments as postwar nation-building projects or as part of nation-specific artistic movements.

While these films often overlapped thematically, their delivery of these themes were culturally specific in a way that ventured far deeper than whatever language they happened to be speaking – Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour (1959), Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950), and De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948), for example, are unified in that they are all (explicit or implicit) thematic responses to the trauma of WWII, but they are, respectively, specifically French, Japanese, and Italian in their response.

Celebrated foreign films of this period are also unique in that, in their specifically modernist artistic intents, they were envelope-pushing, challenging films that innovated the established forms of cinematic expression, often methodically tearing them apart and haphazardly piecing it back together (e.g., the early works of the French New Wave). The brand of foreign cinema that is most often celebrated and imported in the United States today, however, are nationally-unspecific in neither their foreign/alien artistic innovation or in any nation-specific themes. What’s struck me recently when seeking out the most celebrated subtitled fare at my local arthouse is how completely non-unified films emerging from certain countries are.


Besides possibly Romania and South Korea (and even this is in question), no country is currently giving us a swatch of good films that signify some sort of threaded artistic movement, just individually great filmmakers and great films. And without this connection to an artistic movement or nation-building project like the foreign imports of fifty-plus years ago, the most import-able and celebrated foreign films coming to the United States seem not to be those that abstractly push the envelope of cinematic meaning-making, but those films that simply act as examples of truly great storytelling. A Prophet, The Secret in Their Eyes, Let the Right One In, The Class, Tell No One, Summer Hours, The Host, and even arguably more challenging fare like Cache don’t represent an urgent call for film-as-art barrier-breaking as they are simply an export of great stories told greatly.

They’re original, but accessibly so. Yes, there are some selectively implemented unconventional approaches to style in these films, but unlike, say, films of the French New Wave, these contemporary films place more emphasis on the stories told rather than the means used to tell them.

And it’s clearly a form of storytelling than transcends perceived borders rather than existing strictly within them, as Hollywood options popular foreign language fare each and every year for watered-down remakes, evidencing that these stories don’t broadly exist exclusively to the place where they were made (take the highly entertaining but artistically mundane French film The Dinner Game remade as this summer’s Dinner for Schmucks, for example).

Only when these films look backward, historically and introspectively, do we encounter a nationally specific foreign film (e.g., the aforementioned films by Salles and Jeunet; the recent onslaught of historical fare from Germany: The Lives of Others, Downfall, The Baader Meinhof Complex, and Goodbye, Lenin!; Austria’s The Counterfeiters or Romania’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days).

We live in a global economy. I know this because Ned Beatty used Paddy Chayefsky’s impressive apocalyptic rhetoric to tell us so thirty-four years ago. And as commerce is exchanged, debts are shared, people migrate, and cultures clash and intertwine, stable ideas of nation, nationality, and national culture become increasingly hard to locate. But as our films are exported out and foreign films come in, the countries involved in turn exchange a very specific idea of what their nation is and what it is supposed to be (even American-ideology-championing blockbuster superhero fare is heavily reliant on foreign box office receipts), an idea which veils the fact that those very ideas of nation had to be blurred in order for such films to arrive in theaters all around the world.

In exchange, we also receive (and one should remember that the selected world cinema which arrives to the US severely skews any idea of what is popular abroad) the best of world cinematic storytelling, films contain signifiers of culture but hardly aim to be a project of nationality or a breakthrough in form, the supreme irony residing in the fact that, in order to break through the conception of borders between countries, such films modestly avoid falling into the tradition of crossing borders of form and content.

Culture Warrior is our weekly walk on the wild side with actual film school graduate Landon Palmer. To read more from Landon, you can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/landon_speak

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