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Cookie-Cut Arthouse Cinema: a New Separate Film Genre?

This year’s theme of Berlinale Talents, “Common Tongues – Speaking Out in the Language of Cinema”, brings our attention to the notion of connection through something that can be shared between two parties, regardless of their background. Finding a language that all the participants know enables communication. Of course, English, more or less a global lingua franca due to several debatable reasons, would be one example of that connection. There are also hubs which enable the transfer of culture, such as film festivals, with the Berlinale being one of the biggest and most notorious. The catalogue boasts many titles from filmmakers working outside of the American/European mainstream, including many offerings from the countries of the Global South. Diversity of the programme is a testament to the programming teams of respective sections, and the due diligence with which films are currently picked. Albeit commendable, the work shouldn’t end there, as new questions begin to emerge. The fact that English is the global language or that a selection to a major European festival can make or break a film’s run are both examples of hierarchies and cultural hegemonies.

Tools offered by the West to support filmmakers globally exist because independent filmmaking is on the wane. To stimulate arthouse cinema in different parts of the world, a network of financial help and creative mentorship was put in place. Łukasz Mańkowski (BT 2022), a festival programmer, stresses the crucial role of funds: “they give filmmakers an opportunity to highlight and address issues which are important to the local identity – otherwise those stories wouldn’t get a chance to be told.” However, one should also notice the ambivalence tied to these forms of support. Researcher and film critic Maja Korbecka (BT 2020) believes that “tailoring films for specific audiences doesn’t start in labs, but at an earlier stage of filmmaking. Directors inquire about ‘what will get accepted’ to festivals because they are the doors to the film market. The programmers just look for films that they like. Therefore, the tailoring is the strategy that filmmakers think they have to employ to get to festivals. It is not necessarily the programmers’ intention”. This leads to further considerations – what are the ways in which specific stories, aesthetics or subjects are selected and enter festival circuits? And how does globalization, in this context represented by various film funds, labs and the growing global coproduction systems, play into that process? To put it simply, are those tools disbanding the gatekeeping, or are they just new gates?

Film labs, coproduction competitions or film festival funds enable matchmaking, help directors in distilling their ideas with each participating project automatically becoming more prestigious. All those tools are crucial in shaping careers of many filmmakers – networking and professionalization that comes with labs often allow them to find their footing in the industry. Does that support and blessing from an important festival come at a price, however intangible that price may be? Aren’t films made within those pipelines formatted to fit a certain scheme? Slightly exotic (a ritual scene or two would be good), mystical (maybe a ghost story?), vaguely political (ideally depicting the depravities and backwardness of local authorities, proving that things are still bad in the Global South), and, of course, let’s not forget about nature and a unique connection the protagonist will have with it. These tropes reappear in various films because of the requirements film funds make towards them. The applicant should adhere to the expectations regarding genre, folklore, social issues, locality, and specific representation of the protagonists. Łukasz Mańkowski notices that “it ultimately is a form of neocolonial tailoring, with the West dictating cinema according to its own expectations. As a result, many films in minor sections of the festivals which come from Asian, African, or Latin American countries have something in common, because they are a representation of this practice. As a festival programmer, I am more often surprised by films which have their premieres in Busan, Osaka, Jeonju or Tokyo, rather than Cannes, Berlin or Locarno. There is an organic rawness to them. An example of that could be Edwin’s “Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash (2021).” The stifling of creativity of filmmakers can occur also in other ways according to Korbecka: “Perhaps the trickiest practice involved with labs and film funds is filmmakers’ choice to develop short film projects into feature length. This is the strategy that filmmakers choose because it seems safest if the short film had been already existing within the institutional structures, screened at events that are on top of the film festival circuit’s hierarchy.”

It’s an evergreen question that filmmakers working outside of the Western European and North American circles constantly have to answer – should they play into the stereotypes with their works? Or should they challenge them? And will they ever get the chance to do the latter? Labs and film funds exist as tools aimed at promoting diversity, but what if they in fact lead to homogenizing via promotion of cookie-cut arthouse cinema, a separate new film genre.

Whilst criticizing the tools offered to the Global South by the West, there is a trap here that should be avoided. If one expects to watch only unfiltered and authentic cinema from the whole globe, then what exactly does that expectation entail? Which films are the “authentic” ones, and which are fake? A film critic should be on the lookout for that fakeness and attempt at pandering to festival audiences – but perhaps it is only fair to look at each work individually instead of labelling every film made in the global coproduction system as cynically created for festival circuits. “It’s not a stereotype, it’s reality” could always be the filmmaker’s answer to any sort of accusation made to question the veracity of their films. It is a taboo subject, and yet any critic trying to keep track of trends in global cinema will have no problem with recognizing this issue.

Several films made as multi-hyphenate coprodoductions are presented in various sections of this year’s Berlinale. Cidade; Campo (Brazil, France, Germany, 2024), by Juliana Rojas is screened in Encounters along with Demba (Senegal, Germany, Qatar, 2024), by Mamadou Dia. In the first one the director presents two stories about displacement. Joana (Fernanda Viana) moves to São Paolo because of a dam collapse, which submerged the town she was from. On the other hand, Flavia (Mirella Façanha) and Mara (Bruna Litzmeyer) try their luck by moving into the rural region of Brazil. The link between the two strands of the film leads the viewer to a reflection on the ways in which connection to spirituality has been lost through modernization and urbanization. The film incorporates many esoteric elements, with abundant visions of animals symbolizing the past being the most literal example. Cidade; Campo touches upon many flash points of 21st century’s political discourses. Eco horror, sisterhood, gig economy and lack of corporate accountability – Rojas juggles various concepts, almost ticking boxes of what a contemporary, politically, and socially aware work of art should be. In aesthetic terms the film incorporates other devices stereotypically tied to this day’s arthouse cinema, with one eccentric needle-drop immediately springing to mind as an example. 

In Demba Mamadou Dia uses the story of the protagonist to highlight political issues of corruption and nepotism within Senegal, however these topics are treated in the background. The essence of the film lies in Demba (Ben Mahmoud Mbaw) and his complex dealings with grief. Stunning imagery by Sheldon Chau allows the viewer to fully submerge in the psyche of the protagonist. In Demba, Dia seems more interested in introspection and displaying how grief can shatter our connection with reality. There is far less attention to making overarching statements on Senegal as a country.

Disco Afrika: A Malagasy Story (France, Madagascar, Germany, 2023), by Luck Razanajaona, a first entry from Madagascar in Berlinale’s history, showcasing at the Generation14Plus section, is also a work made within the international coproduction ecosystem (like Cidade; Campo and Demba it received support from World Cinema Fund). The coming-of-age story follows Kwame (Parista Sambo) as he tries to navigate his life in the complex surroundings of the violent and poverty-stricken island. Stuck between a worker’s movement and a childhood colleague with gangster ties, the young protagonist is faced with the dilemma the dysfunctional country throws in his face. Despite the inspired performance from the young lead actor, Disco Afrika comes across as a postcard sent from Madagascar to Berlin because of its superficial treatment of the subject matter. The gangster-worker dichotomy Razanajaona explores offers little room for nuance because of its obviousness.

 Whilst these examples battle with certain stereotypical features, they are just tiny elements of a larger structure. The complexity of the issue makes the search for clear-cut answers futile. For Mańkowski the focus should be on the funding commissions and the way their current requirements stifle filmmakers: “I think we need less coherence and order to the fashion in which films are made, so that they are not produced according to one manual. It is difficult to be thrown into the unknown by a film which was made in accordance with imposed criteria. I think the producers play a very important role in ensuring that uniqueness. Funds can give a feeling of safety, but it is also important to protect that vision of the filmmaker in the process.” While these are tools that many authors have benefitted from, other options also exist, which is in line with Korbecka’s conclusion: “It is worth remembering that ultimately these opportunities are not always a must. Brilliant films can be also made outside of those structures.”