No Potemkin please- we prefer our Harry Potter or On the decline of the British film journalist.

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Three Guardian critics sit round discussing English-language films.


Not too long ago Britain’s foremost liberal newspaper could boast of a critic like Derek Malcolm who in his top 100 films would place a considerable number of non-anglophone films. Even though about a third of them are American films and plenty of British films can be found there too, the time when a film critic for a national newspaper in the British Isles could afford to enthuse over ‘world cinema’ are gone. And nowhere is this more apparent than in Derek Malcolm’s old newspaper The Guardian. Irritated at the fact that every time I open the Guardian film page, I will only too rarely find a single non-anglophone film being reviewed or barely a single item of news that doesn’t either relate to British or American actors or directors in some way I decided to make this point in a below the article discussion. The occasion was the Ten Best Films (so far) of 2014 article in which readers (admittedly rather than film critics) chose the best films of the year so far. Of course, one can check exactly which films the critics review and see that the situation is not that different. Sure the Guardian does occasionally cover film festivals such as Venice and Berlin but if one reads their coverage of these festivals one soon learns that the Guardian journalists are there to search for the English-speaking actors and directors and find ‘news stories’ that rarely have much relation to film criticism (or film journalism at its best). Apparently The Guardian has decided that the Rome Film festival is no longer to be covered because, in the words of Guardian columnist, Catherine Shoard “sadly there wasn’t enough there for us to continue to make that investment“. Given that the Rome Film Festival is headed by the widely-respected Marco Mueller and that during last year’s festival the world premiere of Alexei German’s Hard to be a God took place, one can only read this decision as double-speak for it didn’t have enough English-language films at the festival.

The Russian film journalist Andrei Plakhov. One of a number of Russian film writers whose tastes are genuinely universal.

One may like to compare the English-language film journalist with a Russian film journalist. Yes, there are a number of film journalists in Russia mainly interested in Russian-language titles but let’s take the newspaper Kommersant as an appropriate comparison to the Guardian. Its film pages boast the names of Andrei Plakhov, Lidia Maslova and Mikhail Trofimenkov. Both Plakhov and Trofimenkov have written various books on world cinema and their knowledge of other cinema’s is truly impressive. I’d guess that at least 50% of their reviews are related to non-Russian titles. It’s not as though Russia lacks own isolationist and even xenophobic tendencies. Indeed its Minister of Culture is well-known for his belief that European Culture is alien to Russia. Yet, thankfully, in Russia film journalists are not lackeys of their authoritarian and isolationist government. Here many film journalists are still people with an culture open to other worlds, nations and tongues (Trofimenkov, for example, was to teach in a French university). Not something you could imagine in the CV of a Guardian film journalist.

Mikhail Trofimenkov, a colleague of Plakhov’s at Kommersant newspaper. His knowledge of world cinema would put to shame any British journalist

Today I decided to look once more at the Guardian film page. Ridley Scott, Christopher Nolan, Daniel Ratcliffe bowing out of the Harry Potter films, Emma Watson as goodwill UN ambassador, Disney and Dumbo and the most-highly rated film of the page is about, wait for it, the Beatles. I can find a French comedy and a Scandinavian film being reviewed but not much else in the tens of recent titles. No wonder readers ‘choose’ as their top ten only anglophone film- they literally have nothing else to choose from if they follow the national press and established film journalists.

It seems that this hermetic splendid isolation is a theme rarely commented on in Britain. It is taken for granted. Film clubs which have the temerity of offering a good selection of world cinema soon get their slots withdrawn from nominally ‘independent cinemas’. (I remember only too well how the local Duke of Yorks management in Brighton caused the collapse of one of the most promising new film clubs in the UK). This kind and degree of marginalization of foreign influence in Russia would be denounced by liberal critics (and often is) as a return to Stalinism (even though repression and Hollywood sit hand-in-glove in Russia too). In Britain it is the norm and to give a political reading of this fact would appear to go against common sense. It is so much the norm that even well-established film-makers from abroad are often refused British visas (or made to wait for them so long that it amounts to the same thing).

Mark Kermode, Guardian and BBC journalist. Probably less than 10% of films reviewed by this critic are foreign-language films.

So the ‘voice of British liberalism’ still has a cultural worldview just as restricted as the Tory little Englander
insisting on the promotion of British values and British culture. In that soggy island called Britain there is barely anything else that ever gets talked about but mentalities and cultural objects which fit in with this cosy isolationism. The likes of Peter Bradshaw, Mark Kermode, Xan Brooks and Catherine Shoard (and journalists such as Jonathon Jones in other ‘culture’ sections) often act as the guardians at the gate making sure that nothing foreign with the exception of the token Von Trier or the latest Cannes award winner ever get past their watch.

During the next week a film festival will be taking place in the city of Odessa. In spite of the fact that the city is now in one of Europe’s conflict zones and the organizers received support from many foreign film-makers and launched its own crowd-funding scheme to help it run this year. In spite of the fact that it even often holds retrospectives of British film-makers (this year it is Stephen Frears turn). In spite of the fact that it has one of the most spectacular events in the form of a live film showing at the Potemkin Steps which attracts thousands of spectators every year. The symbolism a few years ago of tens of thousands watching Battleship Potemkin on the very steps where its most famous scene took place was only too clear for words. In spite of all this and so much more no British film journalist is likely to write of this event at least for the national press (even though a number of British film journalists have visited as guests, one who did two years ago was asked to name a Russian-language film that impressed her. She, to her shame, could think of not a single title or director.

Long live Splendid Isolation!

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About afoniya

I am a translator, language teacher, independent film scholar who is interested in many aspects of culture. I have my own blog on Russian and Soviet cinema at http://giuvivrussianfilm.blogspot.com and I have also written for journals such as Film Philosophy and Bright Lights as well as Ribbed magazine. Outside of film my interest runs to language, politics, literature and my world is centred around the Meditteranean, Russia, Southern Ukraine as well as the UK.

5 responses »

  1. “no British film journalist is likely to write of this event”
    Hi Afoniya
    I’m Neil Young. I’m a British film journalist. And I arrive in Odessa late tomorrow night! I’m on the FIPRESCI jury and will be writing about the festival for Sight&Sound, Tribune and maybe some other outlets. See you there?
    all the best
    Neil

  2. There’s a horrible chicken-and-egg situation at play, and I’m not sure whether it’s the fault of British critics for not writing sufficiently about foreign-language cinema or British distributors for not taking on a sufficiently wide variety of foreign-language films – I suspect it’s a bit of both.

    A perennial problem is that at any given moment certain countries will be either “in” or “out”. For instance, Romania is currently “in” while Poland is largely “out”, unless your name is Andrzej Wajda – which creates situations whereby two very similar filmmakers (in terms of their age, length of career and fondness for dramatising difficult recent periods of their countries’ history via decidedly dark-hued humour) like Cristian Mungiu and Wojciech Smarzowski get treated radically differently in the UK.

    I would hope that a reasonable percentage of proper British film writers would have heard of Mungiu – or, even if they can’t name him, they’ll at least recall the existence of “the Romanian abortion film” that initially made his reputation. But I’m willing to bet that the percentage that’s even heard of Smarzowski is in the low single figures – even though, for my money, ‘The Dark House’ and ‘Rose’ are every bit as good as anything that’s come out of Romania in recent years.

  3. Agree that it’s not only the critics fault. But then reporting from film festivals like Berlin, Venice (and Locarno or Rotterdam, for example) should mean that they needn’t be entirely beholden to what’s being distributed. Instead if a British critic goes to a film festival it feels as though they are most attracted in any case to English-language films. Naturally British films/actors at Cannes, say, can be part of the story but not the whole story that it is in danger of becoming.

    yes this fashionable ‘new wave’ phenomenon is tiresome. The idea is that developments must be coming from single countries and then find this token country, enthuse about them and forget them few years later (with no regard to setting even the ‘new wave’ in any historic, cultural context) all the while ignoring other countries films. This is all a symptom of how general ignorance of foreign language film is always on the search for the fashionable rather than the excellent in all parts of the globe.

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