The bigger picture

Jeremiads proclaiming the death of cinema are commonplace these days. In fact, writes Sukhdev Sandhu

Anyone who has ever made the mistake of going to see Charlie's Angels or Bad Boys II will know the rage that mediocre films can induce. You stand outside the picture house afterwards feeling sullied and despoiled. Still, you would have to be seriously jaded if you were to take no-brain blockbusters such as these and go on to prophesy the demise of film itself.

Yet jeremiads about the death of cinema are commonplace these days. No less an authority than David Thomson prefaces the most recent edition of his Biographical Dictionary of Film with the admission: "I have learned that I like books more than film." He compares the state of cinema today to that in the 1970s and finds it wanting. Even when he talks of the genius Abbas Kiarostami, the Iranian director responsible for such forward-looking works as A Taste of Cherry, he says: "If this is modern movie mastery, then our medium is gone and this is funerary art."

Thomson is a wonderfully stimulating writer, but he's wrong. His crepuscular view is not unusual among those who are used to gauging the health of cinema from an American perspective. Nowadays, that would be a big mistake. While there are a number of directors such as Kenneth Lonergan, David Gordon Green, Paul Thomas Anderson and Spike Jonze producing rich, imaginative work, for the most part American studio releases are as leaden and unadventurous as they have ever been. However, look further afield and the picture is very different: this is a golden age for movies. The only problem is, they tend not to be in English.

In the 1960s and 1970s, cineastes grew used to lapping up the latest masterworks emerging from France, Germany and Italy. A few non-European directors were canonised, too - Satyajit Ray, Yasujiro Ozu, Akira Kurosawa - but they were the exceptions, rather than the rule. These days, it's almost impossible to keep up with the treasures from countries never previously associated with film-making.

In the past 12 months alone, many triumphs have been released. Tareque Masud's The Clay Bird, set in east Pakistan in the late 1960s, is about a villager who responds to the growing political instability that is engulfing the region by sending his shy son to a strict Islamic school. The boy discovers not only that many of the mullahs are illiterate, but that there exist other, more lyrical and more mystical Muslim traditions. Some of these are dramatised on screen, lit and recorded with a tactile beauty that recalls Ray's Apu trilogy, and they add to the pleasures of this brave, anti-fundamentalist film that was initially banned by the Bangladeshi government.

Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, meanwhile, is the first director from Chad to come to international prominence. Abouna, released last autumn, is an exquisite and often moving story about two brothers who go looking for their father, who disappeared just before he was due to referee a local football match. They roam the city looking for him, only to end up being sent to a repressive Islamic school (another one!) after they are arrested for stealing some film reels that they feel sure hold a clue to their father's whereabouts. Scored by the great guitarist Ali Farka Toure, the film dances with colour and light. At times, it recalls Francois Truffaut's Les Quatre Cents Coups. Always it gives us the feeling of falling in love.

Perhaps the most unexpected film of recent times is the Inuit epic Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner) by Zacharias Kunuk, which won the Cannes prize for best first feature in 2002. This micro-budget, digitally shot tale of innocence and evil is based on a 1,000-year-old story, the scripted version of which is said to be the first work of fiction in Inuktitut. More gnarly and less romantic than Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North (1922), it is a revenge tragedy about the battle that ensues when two brothers, Amaqjuaq (the Strong One) and Atanarjuat (the Fast Runner), challenge the authority of their community's corrupt leaders. One image - that of Atanarjuat running naked across the Arctic ice after his brother has been murdered in his sleep - is unforgettable.

None of these films is remotely hectoring. Not one is an ethnographic treatise. Rather, they are ravishing to behold and maintain compelling narrative arcs. They also feature strong, complex characters who are blessed with deep and carefully modulated relationships to the landscapes they inhabit. These are films that are local in setting and in the social and political issues they address, but are able to strike an emotional chord that makes them universally appealing. Would that many British film-makers could do the same.

Bangladesh. Chad. The Arctic. I haven't yet mentioned great films from Mali (Waiting for Happiness); Senegal (L'extraordinaire destin de Madame Brouette); Mexico (Japon, Amores Perros, Y tu Mama Tambien); Brazil (City of God); Turkey (Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Uzak); Iran (Kandahar, The Apple, The Circle, Bahman Ghobadi's frighteningly brilliant Marooned in Iraq). Then there's Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Korea.

Critics, let alone amateur film enthusiasts, struggle to keep up with the quantity of top-notch movies being produced these days. Still, such prolixity at least gives the lie to the idea that Hollywood's globalising tendencies will inevitably lead to the erasure of national cinemas and to auteurism. The anti-imperial cricketing epic Lagaan (2002) showed that it's possible for directors to have one eye on catering to the tastes of Asian audiences living abroad in Feltham or New Jersey and still manage to create films that are brash with native, insurgent energy. Meanwhile, the Thai director Pen-ek Ratanaruang makes the clash of local and imported cultures part of the subject of his fabulous romantic comedy Monrak Transistor, which was released earlier this year.

Will the American dominance of the entertainment business last for ever? Shekhar Kapur, the award-winning director of Bandit Queen and Elizabeth, has argued that since Japan, India and China, along with Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, the Arab countries, East Africa, Egypt, Iran and Morocco, make up 80 per cent of the world's population, the future of film and television is Asian. Certainly Bollywood, even though it is generating few new hits in India itself, is becoming more familiar to western audiences through such creolisations as Moulin Rouge and The Guru. The Japanese mastery of modern horror has led to the remaking of such classics as Nakata Hideo's Ringu (1998).

Just as earlier generations of English-speaking film-makers were inspired by the innovations of Soviet masters such as Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov or the Nouvelle Vague, forward-thinking directors today are going abroad for new ideas. Some look east - Disney to the work of the animator Hayao Miya-zaki, creator of Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away; Jim Jarmusch for Ghost Dog; Quentin Tarantino for Kill Bill, which pays tribute to the samurai movies and Hong Kong kung fu flicks of the 1970s. Meanwhile, Gus Van Sant's strange and wonderful Gerry (2002) is dedicated to the austere Hungarian Bela Tarr, and the British maverick Michael Winterbottom was heavily indebted to Iranian directors such as Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf in the making of his film In This World, about Afghan refugees trekking to England.

Some of these names may seem rather obscure, which is no reflection on the quality of their work. It is more an indictment of a British media that too often regards foreign cinema as synonymous with arcane obscurantism and prefers to gush forth cheerleading advertorials on such undemanding fare as Calendar Girls. It also refutes the thesis advanced by Susan Sontag, in her characteristically doomy essay "A Century of Cinema" (1995), that great films will have to be "heroic violations of the norms and practices which now govern movie-making everywhere in the capitalist and would-be capitalist world - which is to say, everywhere".

On the contrary, you'd have to say that such "heroic violations" have now become the norm. It is Hollywood, tired and limping, that is the exception. There are today just as many, if not more, idealistic screenplay writers and ambitious, single-minded directors desperate to tell new stories in fresh and challenging forms as there were back in that heroic age for cinephilia, the 1960s. The real challenge is to get multiplexes, local picture houses and TV schedulers to show the films they make.

Sukhdev Sandhu is the author of London Calling: how black and Asian writers imagined a city (HarperCollins)

"Far from Hollywood", a celebration of world cinema, is at the National Film Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 (020 7928 3232) from 12 November to 30 December

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