International Film: Importance, Relevance and Transcendence

Wilhelm Haydt

Traditionally, movies that come out of a culture other than our own have been called “foreign.” Although the term is apt, it implies an otherness, a distance that is more than just geographical. In more recent years, the word “international” has been incorporated as an alternative to “foreign,” when referring to these films, and the change represents a step towards a more inclusive perception of “foreign” films. The term “international” rejects a sense of difference. It broadens the definition of “foreign” film to become a wide collection of works in which nationality is an important factor, but not the determining factor to identify a given film. The term “international film” thus invites a more open observation from spectators. This openness is necessary in light of the cultural biases that influence our reading of a film: where with foreign we tend to eschew, with international we want to participate.

It is pertinent, then, to ask what international film is. Films from outside our own culture would qualify. Co-productions between different nations could also be included. Even domestic films can be looked at as international when they leave the national market. I would like to suggest another manner in which we could consider films “international.” The third Harry Potter film, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, based on a British novel, features a British cast, has American producers and screenwriter, a Mexican director, and a cinematographer from New Zealand. The result is a culturally synergetic film in which the different cultural backgrounds of the key players synthesize into a truly international film. This internationality is furthered by the audience, who transform this film (and the books) into a collective worldwide experience.

The Artistic connection

But this collective worldwide experience is not something new. It has existed since the birth of the cinematograph and the moment the Lumière brothers toured the world with their invention. Since then, audiences from all over the world have enjoyed what other countries have offered them in entertainment, culture, art and beauty. Some of the earliest to take advantage this exchange of ideas were the Russian filmmakers, Sergei Eisenstein and Vsevolod Pudovkin. They were impressed by the techniques used by the American director D.W. Griffith and used them to develop their own techniques and ideas about film. Later on, spurred by the migration of filmmakers from Germany to the United States in the 1930s, German Expressionist films of the 1920s would contribute to the look of the American horror films of the 1930s, film noir of the 1940s, and even science fiction film of the 1940s and 1950s. In turn, the French would take a look at Hollywood’s “Golden Age” and admire the works of such directors as Orson Welles, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Nicholas Ray, etc., and tout them as works of art.

As the perception of film evolved, and was considered no longer exclusively an industry or a business, but a cultural and artistic manifestation, universities began instituting film programs designed to study, analyze and produce films. As a result, educated filmmakers appeared, trained not only in the craft of filmmaking, but also in its art. Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg came out of film schools having been exposed to international film in the context of a higher education. This allowed them to acquire both a liking for international film, and a sense of universality in their own filmmaking as they incorporated international elements into their own work. Even such a popular film as Star Wars finds its roots in international film like Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress. And in fact, many of the films and filmmakers they admired, like Kurosawa, are admirable precisely because of their own deep literacy and knowledge of international film theories and histories.

This artistic cross-fertilization does not limit itself to the past or to Europe and Japan. Today’s Hollywood films are strongly influenced by the Hong Kong film industry. Stars like Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Jet Li, Michelle Yeoh and Chow Yun Fat have crossed over to Hollywood with varying degrees of success. John Woo (Face/Off, Mission Impossible 2, Paycheck) and Ang Lee (Sense and Sensibility, The Hulk) are directors who now make big budget films in Hollywood. And Yuen Wo Ping (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, The Matrix, Iron Monkey) is the most sought after martial arts choreographer in Hollywood. (Parents will want to inform themselves regarding these titles before choosing them for family viewing.) Admittedly, the import of international filmmakers shows the co-opting of overseas film industries into Hollywood, again, echoing something that has happened repeatedly. However, it also signals evolving trends in filmmaking and evolving tastes in audiences; international films begin to exercise social and cultural influence, rather than just artistic or commercial.

Cultural/Social Relations

Lots of questions come up: what does filmmaking and film watching tell us of a nation and its culture? Of our own? What are the similarities between them and us? What are our differences? Where do we meet? Where do we part? Hopefully, these initial questions will lead to deeper and further introspection of our own place in our culture and our relation to others.

Although Hollywood can be a helpful window to different cultures, it cannot be the end of our experience. As the questions we ask ourselves change and mature, two dangers arise from relying only on Hollywood. The first is stereotyping. As an example, for decades, Mexicans in westerns were the bad guys, lazy people who would rather rob, murder and rape than work honestly. They threatened the “American Way.” While in all truth there were Mexican bandits who espoused this lifestyle, there were millions of others who toiled away their lives virtually enslaved in haciendas during the end of the nineteenth century. Where are these Mexicans in Hollywood films? As another example, during World War II, the war effort against the Nazis led to an understandably vigorous and even slanted propaganda campaign depicting Germans as goose-stepping, unintelligible fiends. But today, where in Hollywood films can we find the quiet spirituality of Wim Wenders’s The Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin, 1987) or of Far Away So Close, (In weiter Ferne, so nah!, 1993)? (Again, parents will want to screen these first.) The stereotype has not entirely left us.

Related to the issue of stereotyping, and perhaps at its root, is the fact that an outsider’s point of view, however sensitive, can never fully fathom or convey the complexities of a given culture. Even when the intentions are well-meaning, this incompleteness brings about misunderstandings and inaccuracies. Richard Brooks’ 1966 western The Professionals manifests a change in attitude towards Mexicans. Initially they are regarded as the “bad guys,” but as the narrative progresses and the characters develop, the Mexican bandits turn out to be not only in the right, but also honorable, loyal and praiseworthy. It is an admirable shift, but particulars of Mexican culture depicted in the film are still inaccurate: the music is from the Mexican Gulf Coast rather than from Chihuahua, where the film takes place. In addition, the Mexican heroes are played by Jack Palance, an American, and Claudia Cardinale, an Italian, rather than by Mexicans. While this might be regarded as nitpicking, it may be logical to ask ourselves how we would feel if it were our culture being depicted inaccurately.

Other incomplete pictures may be viewed under a more positive light, while at the same time acknowledging their incompleteness. Steven Spielberg’s 1987 Empire of the Sun takes a look at a part of Japanese culture in awe and wonderment. Through Jim, played by Christian Bale, Spielberg honors the Japanese pilots of WWII. As the last of the pilots are sent on their missions in ceremony, Jim watches from behind the fence. The pilots take their sake and begin to sing the Japanese national anthem, while Jim salutes in military fashion and begins to sing the “Suo Gan,” a Welsh lullaby that introduces us to the film and to Jim in the beginning. The backdrop of an enormous rising sun only adds to this romantization of the legendary Japanese pilots and their Zeros. This moment in the film acts as a bridge between two cultures within the film (British and Japanese), but also between the audience (presumably Western) and the Orient. In spite of the beauty of the moment, or perhaps because of it, we must ask if honor, pride, and ceremony are all there is to Japanese culture and people. This is where native films open up infinite possibilities and suggest the obvious solution: seeing more, reading more, and conversing more.

Where Empire of the Sun focuses on the romantic aspects of the Japanese military, Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru no haka, Isao Takahata, 1988) gives us a less pretty picture of Japanese attitudes during and after the war, a side of Japanese culture which is not only negative, but condemnable. Seita and Setsuko, the two child protagonists of this animated feature, lose their mother during an air raid in World War II. Subsequently they move in with relatives, where they suffer vexation and prejudice. Their troubles do not end when they decide to leave their relatives and move into an abandoned bomb shelter, where they reach some level of happiness—though it is through stealing and starving. The indifference Japanese society shows these two outcasts becomes the critical issue as they wither away in their childhood. Only the sympathy of some merciful strangers redeems this otherwise bleak and condemnatory vision of the Japanese people. Such a strong critique of the Japanese nation would have been impossible to do from the outside; a gaijin (foreigner) could not make this kind of statement with full understanding, and would certainly be accused of racial prejudice. That is the advantage of the native experience: it can give its audience insight or cultural awareness that an outsider cannot into a society, its culture, prevalent attitudes, values, concerns, dreams and truths.

Spiritual Paradigms

As we become familiar with a culture, we realize that there are certain values that we share. These universal truths manifest in native films, serve not only as stepping stones between cultures, but also as a springboard to reach spiritual enlightenment. Paul Schrader, an American scholar and filmmaker, names three directors he believes share a transcendent (spiritual) film style: Yasujiro Ozu (Japan), Carl Theodor Dreyer (Denmark) and Robert Bresson (France). In spite of their different religious backgrounds—a Buddhist, a Protestant and a Catholic respectively—in Schrader’s view, they reach an unspoken consensus of style that “can take a viewer through the trials of experience, to the expression of the Transcendent.”1 Thus, [this] “Transcendental Style can bring us nearer to that silence, that invisible image, in which the parallel lines of religion and art meet and interpenetrate.”2 This is the place where film as art—and especially international film—can bring us. The religious question is not an exclusive to western societies. Recognizing the struggles of different cultures, nations, and religions as they deal with spiritual issues should facilitate our own experiences with divinity.

According to Schrader’s definition, Majid Majidi, an Iranian and a Muslim, qualifies as an exponent of this style that seeks to show the unshowable. Children of Heaven (Bacheha-Ye aseman, 1997) and The Color of Paradise (Rang-e khoda, 1999) manifest the universal values of filial and fraternal devotion and selfless love. In the former, two siblings have to share one pair of shoes when the younger sister loses her shoes. The older brother gladly shares his shoes with his sister and promises to get her new shoes. Majidi takes a patient and loving look at the sacrifices both children have to make for this deal to work. Through the portrayal of their daily and seemingly insignificant sacrifices, Majidi tells the triumphant story of regular people with divine qualities. This story, though set in Tehran, is a universal one. The children’s struggles elevate the story to a level at which divinity and childhood are equated. The meanings and lessons drawn from this film, while never overt, can take its audience to a higher level of spiritual awareness, a spiritual enlightenment that can only come through openness to the film and to its culture.

International film enriches a society’s art, its culture and its individuals. Artistic cross-fertilization, cultural awareness and spiritual enlightenment are only a few of the ways by which international film can and does interact with world societies. Its influence is connected to the evolution of film, and from there to the historic devenir, or evolution, of world cultures and societies. To ignore such a tremendous force is to condemn oneself to a continuous state of oblivion about our own place in the world. Can we live with that?


1. Schrader, Paul. Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, p. 169, 1972.

2. Ibid.

See Also

Grave of the Fireflies

Not One Less

Whale Rider

Aguirra, the Wrath of God

Children of Heaven