Thoughts from the Berlinale jury press conference
This morning, at Berlin’s Grand Hyatt Hotel, the press had a chance to ask questions of the Berlinale’s international jury prior to the kick-off of this year’s festival. The head of the jury is Isabella Rossellini, and her fellow jury members are Australian producer Jan Chapman, German actress Nina Hoss, Indian actor and director Aamir Khan, Canadian director Guy Maddin and British costume designer Sandy Powell. A seat was left vacant for Jafar Panahi, the Iranian director who has just been sentenced to 6 years in prison for his work, and banned from writing or directing films for the next 20 years. Rossellini said that they are still hoping that Panahi might be able to join them.
One of the first questions on the lips of the press was, of course, about Jafar Panahi’s absence, and the issue of censorship. Aamir Khan pointed out that censorship is an issue which has always been of concern, and which will continue to be a challenge in future. Censorship, he said, has existed all over the world in different forms and at different times: the McCarthy era in the US, for example, and the period following The Emergency in India. Khan said that it is something that artists worldwide must struggle against continuously.
One journalist raised the issue of a form of censorship inherent in government cuts to arts funding. She addressed a question specifically to Guy Maddin, asking for his reaction to Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper dramatically slashing Canada’s cultural budget for its overseas embassies worldwide. Maddin said that anyone working in film or in the arts in general will probably disagree with the current government’s policies in this area. He believes that the savings made from these cuts are a false economy, as Canada is no longer able to act as a good host abroad. While governments routinely promise to spend on projects prior to an election, the Harper government’s cuts came immediately before an election, and the decision backfired as they returned with a minority government.
Jan Chapman said that fortunately in Australia funding for film is very strong at present. She said that it is especially important for English-speaking countries to make the most of their cultural specificity, rather than trying to make American-style films which they expect to be more financially successful. In fact, she says, the opposite is true: it is the films that are culturally specific that do well, both domestically and abroad.
Aamir Khan was asked about Indian cinema’s presence on an international level. He said that world audiences have been seeing more Indian cinema in recent years. In general, though, he said that Indian directors have tended to focus on making films for their domestic audience, which is a big and healthy one in India. Indian films don’t really a global audience to succeed (although he may have been referring to Bollywood here rather than Indian art cinema). Khan added, perceptively, that the language and grammar of mainstream Indian cinema are different from the language and grammar of world cinema.
I think that these three issues raised during the press conference offer some interesting points for discussion:
1) How broad is the definition of censorship? Does a government’s failure to promote its own nation’s arts scene constitute a form of censorship of the national voice, through neglect of local culture? I also raised the issue in my first Berlinale blog of whether a film festival host country should use the occasion to promote its own cinema. Is this unfair favoritism, or is it a fine oportunity for both local and international audiences who come to the festival to enjoy the local product?
2) Is it true that there is always an appetite for local cinema? Do audiences ever prefer Hollywood cinema because it is easier to consume, in terms of familiarity and lightweight subject matter? Or is it always a case of a lack of availability of domestic production in the cinemas?
3) Finally, and perhaps of most theoretical interest, is it always a country’s art cinema that is of most interest to an international audience? Even if we say that most Bollywood movies are highly formulaic, why should they not be of interest to the rest of the world, who have watched the formulaic narratives of Hollywood for so long? I would argue that we can learn a lot about a culture from its popular cinema: even if it is art cinema that is more stimulating in the long run, it does not mean that popular cinema is without interest. Only a small selection of any given country’s total film production makes it to international distribution. In the case of most countries, it is typically art films that are distributed abroad, rather than popular cinema (with the exception of Hollywood and Bollywood). This may give a false impression that some countries, such as France, only make ‘good’ films (ie: artistically ambitious, or alternately, talky and dull) and not ‘bad’ ones (ie: light, popular entertainment). Finally, when Aamir Khan talks of a ‘language and grammar’ of world cinema, is this the same as the language and grammar of art cinema? Is there any threat of a homogenising influence in global art cinema? Is there room for every country to express its individuality fully in the confines of this language and grammar?