Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Nationalism, culture & representation - thoughts on Finnish cinema.

You might be thinking, what with that lofty post header, what the hell do Finnish films have to do with Indian films, the main subject of this blog? Not a whole lot, but allow me to explain.

A lot of foreign fans sometimes feel discouraged when Indians rag on their own cinema. "It's just not as good as American films", "they just steal plots from better foreign films", "the acting is so over-the-top and melodramatic!" are just some of the criticisms you might hear voiced. Some of that attitude might be rooted in internalised racist or colonialist thinking - the idea that if it's Indian, it's naturally subpar to anything that comes from outside of India; a certain lack of self-confidence in one's own cultural products. I say some, because it's not always the explanation, and I think it would be harmful to label other people's tastes as being rooted in something that they don't themselves recognise at all.

Another explanation of this high level of criticism towards cultural products of one's own culture/country is simply the question of representation - when we identify with a culture we were born and raised in, we might feel defensive or close to whatever members of the same culture produce as representations. We look at them through a different lense - it's not, "is this a good film?", it's "is this a good representation of Finnish culture/Indian (Tamil/Telugu/Kannada/Muslim/Sikh/etc) culture?". We don't choose to do this, instead it plays in the back of our heads like an unwelcome guest commenting on what you're reading over your shoulder, and it raises the standards just that little extra. It means you pay closer attention to everything, and are more quick to think about questions of accuracy. Dialogue, costumes, milieu - these all become more highlighted somehow. We also watch the film as a film, but with those raised standards, the film has also become something much, much more. It's sometimes not even so much a question of cultural representation as just the fact you want something from your culture to be good enough so you can present it to others with pride; this nationalist notion that even though you had nothing to do with the making of the cultural product, it's connected to you in some sort of way, because of this shared culture.

You can never see something from somebody else's eyes, and I think that's partly why people who have these "unwelcome guests" are often surprised to hear somebody else is watching, too, and doesn't mind the melodramatic acting or the song numbers (in the case of Indian films) or doesn't recognise the perpetual angsty male loser that so often ends up being the hero, or the clich├ęd sex scene where all you see is a naked butt but serves no purpose whatsoever (in the case of Finnish films). (Can you sense my over-critical tone from this yet?) To an outsider, sometimes a good film is just a good film. An outsider is not necessarily looking for any kind of representation, positive or negative - they just want to be stimulated by the film-watching experience.

So this is where I understand and sympathise with Indian people who just cannot fathom why anybody would want to watch some of the cinema that their culture(s) produce, because they just don't see the films as that good. Of course, there are a lot of differences between my pooh-poohing of Finnish cinema and those desi critics of Indian cinema - for one, scale and outreach. Finnish cinema has some audience outside the country's boarders, but not a whole lot; even expats would rather eat rye bread and go to sauna than watch a Finnish film to reach back into their native culture. We're a small country in terms of population. We're isolated. And most of us do end up walking out of the theatre and telling our friend, "That was okay ..for a Finnish film."

What's my point, then? Well, first of all, to say to all those who feel this way about their own cultural products - I get it, and I also get that you can't always help it. Even if you try to shut off that more critical side of your brain, it might not be possible. You are going to be paying close attention, you will be more critical than necessary perhaps, and your lived experience will define how you see the flow of dialogue, or the familiar milieu portrayed, or certain types of people characterised. That's just what film-watching entails, and in large part that's what makes discussion of film so interesting - to see how your own views of the world influence your understanding or like of a particular story, trope or character.

So you can't always shut off your inner cultural critic, but you can try to give films more of a fair chance by trying to make sure doesn't talk throughout the film. After all, what are films but stories? And stories aren't always location/time specific - at times, they're just stories. So rate them as such.

(This semi-pensive post is the 300th post in this blog. Hurrah!)


Stuart Martin said...

A really fascinating read, thanks! Sadly, it confirmed that I am an incorrigible contrarian. It made me think if 3 films from NZ that have been praised offshore, and of which I only liked one. My mother-in-law was born in Whangara, the village in which Whale Rider was set, and I really enjoyed that film and its story.

Once Were Warriors I didn't even watch, precisely because it was so authentic and credible a depiction of the part of NZ society it featured. And while watching Boy, I was struck by how believable and relatable it was in terms of being accurate and honest, but that very authenticity made the film somewhat dull to me - less like a movie, more like a mundane documentary, a re-run of lives I already know very well. There was no cultural cringe or demanding a higher standard of them for me, I simply didn't enjoy them as films.

This was interesting because NZ and Finland have similar populations and we too are isolated, much more so geographically than Finland (albeit less so linguistically). "That was okay... for a NZ film" is definitely something I've said in the past, but not for many years. More often it's a case of "why pay $15 to see the world I live in, I'd rather watch a different (un)reality, thanks!"

veracious said...

I'm kind of the opposite - I take delight when Finnish films can portray the kind of life and people I see around me. When cultural humour or cadences in language are nailed in dialogue, it's awesome.

But so often the films just lack that, or then they lack a good story, or believable characters, or fail to be entertaining. I've almost kind of stopped giving Finnish films a chance, since I can only name around 5 that I've seen that I actually enjoyed.

Filmbuff said...

Interesting read. You have been more regular in your posts of late which is good as i enjoy reading them.

I guess it could also be a case of "ghar ki murgi dal barabar" which is a kind of local idiom for familiarity breeds contempt (though I would not use the word contempt but dislike or critical look would be a more appropriate word). The literal translation of this phrase means "home raised and made chicken is equivalent to having dal - a staple diet. Don't know if my explanation makes sense here.

It is universal ie people being critical of home cinema coz of their familiarity of the cultural context and perhaps great expectations that their local cinema would reflect that.

veracious said...

Filmbuff - I love that saying! It expresses the thought I was trying to get at in a way. Everything close to you is ordinary, so you can be more critical towards it.