New Book: Cinema at the Periphery (2010)

April 24, 2010 at 12:47 am

A long time in the making, “Cinema at the Periphery is finally out, published by Wayne State University Press in Detroit as part of their series on Contemporary Approaches to Film and Television, under the general editorship of Barry Keith Grant.

Our idea for this project was to explore marginal cinemas from around the world by bringing them together in a comparative perspective. Because, as we see from Iceland to Iran and from Singapore to Scotland, a growing intellectual and cultural wave of production is taking cinema beyond the borders of its place of origin and ventures into exploring faraway places, interacting with barely known peoples, and making new localities imaginable. In an array of films that are made in the context of these traditions, previously entrenched spatial divisions no longer function as firmly fixed grid coordinates, the hierarchical position of place as “center” is subverted, and new forms of representation become possible. Thus, for the project Cinema at the Periphery (first a conference in 2006 and now finally a book), we assembled criticism that explored issues of the periphery, including questions of transnationality, place, space, passage, and migration. The brief to the contributors was to examine the periphery in terms of locations, practices, methods, and themes. The volume includes geographic case studies of small national cinemas located at the global margins, like New Zealand, Denmark or Scotland, but also of filmmaking that comes from peripheral cultures, like Palestinian “stateless” cinema, Celtic-language film, Australian Aboriginal films, and cinema from Quebec. Therefore, the volume is divided into two key areas: industries and markets on the one hand, and identities and histories on the other. Yet as a whole, the project is to illustrate that the concept of “periphery” is not fixed but is always changing according to patterns of industry, ideology, and taste. Most importantly, however, Cinema at the Periphery proposes a workable approach that allows us to link the inextricable interrelationship that exists between production modes and circulation channels and the emerging narratives of histories and identities they enable. It includes some really important writing by leading authors in the field of transnational film studies.

Let me take the opportunity and make an important link here. Back in June 2006, at the inaugural conference that marked the beginning of this project, we recorded the presentations of many of our guests and made them available on-line. Some of these, like Faye Ginsburg (NYU), Mette Hjort (Lingnan), Patricial Pisters (Amsterdam), Sheldon Lu (Santa Barbara), Laura Marks (Simon Fraser), Bill Marshall (Stirling), and Duncan Petrie’s (York) talks became the basis of chapters in the current book. Others, like Dudley Andrew (Yale), John Caughie (Glasgow), Pam Cook (Southampton), Hamid Naficy (Northwestern), Rod Stoneman (Huston Film School), Kristian Feigelson (Paris), published their work elsewhere. While still others, like Lucia Nagib (Leeds), opted to participate in the book but by presenting us with texts on topics that differed from those that they presented. We also commissioned several essays that were added to the two parts of the volume (Industry and Ideology). These included contributions by all three of us — myself and David Martin-Jones (both still at the University of St. Andrews) and Belén Vidal (who since moved to take up a job at King’s College in London) — who acted as editors of the collection. We also included a specially commissioned piece by Kay Dickinson (Goldsmiths) (on Palestinian cinema in an international context). Back then, a number of reviews of the event appeared in the film press. Here is a link to the one published in Senses of Cinema.

Reviews of the book are still to materialise, and I would be most excited to see this volume reviewed internationally, at the periphery and in those locations whose cinematic cultures we aimed to discuss (e.g. Spain, Quebec, Denmark, Brazil, Morocco, New Zealand, Australia, China, Palestine, and others). If you are writing for the film journals in these (or other peripheral) countries, where there is likely to encounter particular interest to the writing included in the volume, for review copies, please be in touch with the Press’s coordinator Sarah Murphy at murphysa@wayne.edu. For the time being, we only have Ruby Rich’s lines that describe the book as a ‘collection of reflections that challenge conventional definitions of national film cultures’ that we can quote.

Australia’s ‘Touring’ Festivals

March 27, 2010 at 4:49 am

I am posting here and excerpt from our new volume: Film Festivals and Imagined Communities.

This is an exchange with Australian film critic and academic Adrian Martin on the matter of distribution entrepreneurship and cultural diplomacy, one of the areas explored in the book.

Dina Iordanova: ‘Like most other major territories,’ writes Sandy George in Screen International, ‘Australia has a clutch of festivals dedicated to spotlighting cinema from a single territory, of which the French, Italian and Spanish film festivals are the biggest’ (‘Spreading the Foreign Word’, 29 May 2009: 34). In the case of Australia, however, this seems to be an interesting case where cultural diplomacy and film distribution related to overseas cinema work together. According to George, the touring French Film Festival is organised by Alliance Francaise and the French Embassy, yet one-third of the thirty or so films that it showcases do have an existing local distributor attached, thus the event can be regarded as a specific distribution set-up. Distributors have been taking ‘a slice of all festivals receipts’ since 2006, she notes, and have recognised that festivals showings assists them in reaching out to wider audiences than the normal art house circuit. Jean-Jacques Garnier, the French Embassy’s cultural attaché, dubs as an artistic director for the festival (George 2009). Apparently, there are also a German, an Italian, and a Spanish film festival, all of which seem to tour the same range of cities (Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth, Brisbane), thus covering the territory with an array of nationally-themed film festivals, all quite highly placed within the ‘vertical mosaic’ of festivals here. I was struck to discover the advanced level of coordination of these festivals. It is only here that we so regularly see national film festivals that are listed as ‘touring’; they always seem to go to the same set of cities, and they all seem to have a web-site that is set up in a uniform way (e.g. Spanish Film Festival; Italian FF, Greek FF). So I wonder if there is any special cultural policy context in which this is taking shape with such uniformity? Admittedly, we have got some varieties of this in the UK (e.g. French Film Festival and Italian Film Festival, run by the same group, that go to a selection of cities) but ‘touring’ here usually involves a combination of mixed cities, whoever has come on board, really, rather than a showcase systematically covering the big cultural centres, whereas in the Australian case it always seems to be a cluster of the same cities. Would you like to comment about this observation?

Adrian Martin: Yes, the situation of the touring national film festivals is peculiar to Australia, and for a very specific reason. It all has to do with a distribution/exhibition company called Palace, which has been running since at least the 1980s and is still essentially a ‘family business’ run primarily by husband (Antonio Zeccola), wife, and their grown-up kids at various levels of the organisation. Palace is among the few surviving ‘independent’ distributor-exhibitors of the twenty-first century scene in Australia, partly through savvy business sense and also through their various deals with the major commercial distributors. Palace has managed to extend into several states of Australia. Hence the spread of state-venues you have noted. Palace has always had a strong connection to (mainly European and ‘old school’) art cinema. Their exhibition venues are known to the public as ‘boutique’ or ‘arthouse’ cinemas, and the actual programming mixes typical arthouse fare (Haneke, French comedies, Jarmusch, etc.) with films from the majors like Tarantino and suchlike.

So, Palace has always been involved — as a matter of Italo-Australian national pride, partly! — in certain high-profile festival-events that are very successful for them: especially Italian and French. This goes back (in my recollection) at least to the 1990s. Palace have a technique that works well for them: when they programme these festivals (by sending their own reps to Italy and by having contacts with the likes of Unifrance), to avoid problems with booking and availabilty of prints over the entire haul of the national tour around Palace cinemas, they actually buy the rights to about a dozen of these films. So they have one or two 35 mm prints that screen really only for the duration of the event (and afterwards can be made available for Australian cinematheque and other special screenings). A year or so later all the films are released on Australian DVD (‘bare bones’ style, subtitled in English but with no extras) in a ‘box set’ called something like ‘Italian Film Festival 2008’. Palace also have a relation to a music-publishing company, so there are also CDs that help to promote these events, e.g. ‘Soundtrack to the French Film Festival’, which is usually just a lot of current pop tunes with little relation to the films! But the CD sells well with the ‘world music’ crowd in Australia.

Now we come to the next part of this process, which has been occurring in recent years. Palace does its own festivals, but it also ‘hosts’ others, responding to advances from small cultural groups in the Australian, Spanish, German and other communities: a Spanish group named ‘Filmoteca’ (a monthly film society), for instance, or the Goethe-Institut. Palace becomes a partner in programming these events, sourcing prints and doing promotions and sets up the national touring, which is the big drawcard for these small groups. Palace has a say in how the event unfolds. If it has just bought, for example, The Baader-Meinhof Complex (Uli Edel, Germany, 2008) or some other new high-profile title, it will propose that it is the showcase Opening Night presentation in the German Film Festival, and Palace will bring down the actors and/or director for promotional purposes.

To sum up, this whole phenomenon is not at all a ‘cultural policy’ initiative of governments (although some of the small ethnic-interest cultural groups I have mentioned may receive various government subsidies – but nothing like what it takes to do a national film tour). It is purely an ‘enlightened business initiative’ by a company that itself started as a small, independent business and has held on to some of its cultural goals to showcase international art cinema — even if still in fairly mainstream terms.

Screen International: International Blockbusters

November 23, 2009 at 1:51 am

I am wondering what the magazine is actually covering by way of reviewing international films. Indeed, there are a number of articles discussing the dynamics in international and particularly Asian film industry lately. When it comes to reviewing concrete films, however, there is a strange discrepancy to be observed. There are always reviews of the American films that are at the top of the international box office, as well as of some of those from Europe. However, almost none of the Asian films that appear in the top forty (or, for that matter, even in the top ten) listings, are being reviewed. Over the past several months, for example, Screen International offered a somewhat belated yet adequate coverage on the Nordic hit The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a Danish-Swedish co-production, but barely any coverage on the other top-40 European films, which in most cases originate from countries like Germany, Italy, Spain, France, Turkey and Russia. One of the few box office hits from Asia to see a more detailed review was Hachiko: A Dog’s Story, the tale of the fateful dog that waited on the city train station in Shibuya for his dead ‘salaryman’-owner every day for a number of years after his dead. It is a beloved Tokyo story; the statue of the dog can be seen at this most famous intersection in the city.

However, except the brief ‘capsula’ reviews of some of these titles, endurable 2009 box office hits from Asia, such as South Korean Haeundae and Take Off, Indian Kambakkh Ishq, Kaminey, Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahani, or the Japanese 20th Century Boys and April Brides were not written about.

The most endurable Asian presence in the global top ten box office of this past summer (2009), the Japanese baseball drama Rookies, which made nearly a hundred million from its very limited territorial distribution, was not covered either. It is interesting to note that at the time of this writing it appears there is no entry for the film at the IMDb, either. It only lists the TV series on which the film is based.

In my view, the function of the magazine which bills itself as ‘trade’ would be to serve the trade by bringing information on what is hot and what sells. If I am a distributor, I may be particularly interested in knowing more about films that made tens of millions of dollars elsewhere, as they clearly have got commercial potential. Instead, the review section of Screen International offers reviews of small festival films that are regularly assessed as lacking adequate commercial potential. On the one hand, there is information on the performance of global blockbusters but no information on the actual style/content of those. On the other hand, there are reviews of artistically worthwhile (or sometimes disappointing) films that lack in commercial potential. Ultimately, the message as I receive it, is: Only commercial cinema from the US merits coverage and attention, this is the only sphere where money can be made; the only aspect of international cinema that deserves our consideration includes arthouse and indie films with no popular appeal.

© Dina Iordanova
23 November 2009

Screen International: International Box Office

November 17, 2009 at 12:46 am

This post has been removed on request from Screen International, as per the comments below. See also post dated 25 November.

© Dina Iordanova
17 November 2009

International Film Festivals Workshop, Part II: The Event

April 24, 2009 at 12:28 am

So here we are, having finally convened for what proved to be a really interesting day of discussions on matters of film festivals. This is the ‘scene’ of the event, at the Lawrence Levy studio on the top floor of the Byre theatre in St. Andrews. Seated in the picture are, from left to right: Lucy Mazdon, David Slocum, Janet Harbord, Skadi Loist, Marijke de Valck, Richard Porton, Dina Iordanova, Nick Roddick, Ruby Cheung, Michael Gubbins, Irene Bignardi, Lindiwe Dovey and Nuria Triana-Toribio. Stuart Cunningham, who had initially sat on this side of the table, had moved to the audience side as he found the lights too bright (same for me, I wore Nick Roddick’s sunglasses while moderating the first session). The man whose back faces the camera, is John Orr who had come for the day from Edinburgh. Another twenty or so people attended, such as David Archibald, Emily Munroe, Matthew Lloyd, Melanie Phillips, Apple Zhang, Dorota Ostrowska, Victoria Thomas, as well as our colleagues Leshu Torchin, Will Brown, Saer Ba, and the PhD students Yun-hua Chen, Serazer Pekerman (who took all these potos), Yun Mi Hwang and Spela Zajec. Thomas Gerstenmeyer ensured that it all run smoothly. The image on the background, which also carried information on the event’s sponsors, featured a scene from the open air screenings at Piazza Grande during the Locarno Film Festival (one of the most logistically challenges for the festival organisers, as Irene Bignardi, former director of the festival, shared — as it rains almost every night).*

As I have been quite busy with other things, it has taken me quite a long time to come round to do this second post on the Workshop. We have now moved on. The Film Festivals Yearbook I: The Festival Circuit will be out in May 2009, bringing many of the ideas discussed here into the public space and containing a detailed report by William Brown that focuses on the workshop specifically. There are also reports on the workshop forthcoming in Film International, Senses of Cinema, Scope and probably Screen, so it will be covered extensively for those who are interested to read more of the ideas that were discussed during the day (the photo here shows, left to right, Marijke de Valck, Richard Porton and myself, during the workshop). So I have decided not to write a report on the event, especially as I was so involved in it that it would take me quite a long time to cover all aspects. Having read some of the forthcoming reports, however, I thought there is one aspect that needs mentioning here. Namely, the issue that was brought up by Lucy Mazdon and David Slocum on the matter of defining what IS the film festival, or probably coming up with some taxonomy of film festivals, as this would naturally be a good starting point for building the field.

Here are some thoughts on the taxonomy of festivals, mostly triggered by matters related to the incessant proliferation of film festivals nowadays. I thought this could be linked with my view of the festival circuit as consisting of a number of parallel smaller circuits that function independently from each other (they also can be taken as the basis of a possible taxonomy of festivals). We wondered what would it be if festivals were to suddenly stop taking place. What would such collapse mean?

If some key festivals were to fail entirely or in part, such collapse may indeed have dismal consequences for the industry itself, including people and businesses, but it would not really affect much the other festivals, because their modus operandi is not part of a structured network. Similarly, the current proliferation of festivals does not seem to crowd the festival calendar in any troublesome way. It is more about escalation in festivals of parallel type, mostly taking place outside the group of large competitive festivals, not within it. The events that constitute these parallel circuits form pronounced networks between themselves. Thus, while highly ‘porous and perforated’ (Elsaesser), we are also looking at a structure where some parts can easily exist without the others. There is a clear division between the different circuits, and they follow parallel and overlapping cycles over the globe and around the year.

These parallel circuits are so many that it is difficult to even begin listing them. For example, the global circuit of festivals of the Soviet sphere during the Cold War (Moscow, Karlovy Vary, Tashkent, Havana, etc.) existed for decades without much interface or interference with the system of festivals in the West. A list of various parallel circuits could include networks of type (short film, ethnographic film, animation, documentary), genre (comedy, mountain films), target audience (children, seniors), or social concern film festivals (human rights, women’s, gay and lesbian). Then there are festivals of local survey (Brazilian film in Paris), regional survey (East Asian, Eastern European, Mediterranean), diasporic festivals (Bosnian film in Chicago, the network of Jewish Film Festivals around the world), or even events following their own idiosyncratic agenda, like my favourite one in the tiny sardine-factory town of Douarnenez in Brittany, France, which has persisted over more than three decades with its interest in minority cultures from around the world. There are festivals with significant commercial activity (Cannes, Berlinale, Sundance), festivals of festivals (Toronto, London), commercial showcase festivals (Deauville’s American Film Festival), thematic festivals (slow food, fashion), tourism-enhancing festivals (Bahamas, St. Barth, Marrakech), festivals promoting cinephilia (Pordenone, Telluride), festivals promoting film professionalism (cinematography in Bitolja, Macedonia; screenwriting in Cheltenham, England). Wherever there are networks, they are formed around specific agendas that revolve around fostering and showcasing (and not distributing) a certain type of cinematic product.

© Dina Iordanova
25 April 2009

* Another interesting note regarding the open air screenings at Locarno was that they usually attract not the well-to-do high class tourists who frequent the Ticino area of the festival (near Lago Magiorre in Switzerland) but the poorest backpackers. Thus, the claim that film festivals give a boost to local tourism as they bring significant revenues from visitors was put to the test: Bignardi was far from sure that the potential revenues from backpackers would offset the cost of setting up the free screenings on the Piazza.

Film International Special Issue on Film Festivals (Vol. 6, Issue 4)

August 19, 2008 at 12:24 am

I recently guest edited a special issue of Film International on Film Festivals, which has just been published as Issue 34 (Vol. 6, issue 4). It features articles and interviews on the international festival circuit, authored by contributors who are based in Spain, South Korea, the Netherlands, the UK, Canada, Germany, the US and Norway. The journal is available for sale at Borders bookshops; in the UK it is priced at £3. It can also be purchased on-line from the Intellect at http://www.intellectbooks.co.uk/ or by e-mailing orders@intellectbooks.com


Opening Night at Pusan IFF; photo courtesy Kay Armatage.

Here is the Table of Contents:

Dina Iordanova. Editorial.

Sergi Mesonero Burgos, A Festival Epidemic in Spain.

Marijke de Valck, “Screening” the Future of Film Festivals? A Long Tale of
Convergence and Digitization.

Soo Jeong Ahn. Re-imagining the Past: Programming South Korean Retrospectives at
the Pusan International Film Festival.

Kay Armatage. Screenings by Moonlight.

Kay Armatage. Sidebar: Traveling Projectionist Films.

Jeffrey Ruoff. Ten Nights in Tunisia: Les Journées Cinématographiques de
Carthage.

Julian Stringer. Genre Films and Festival Communities: Lessons from Nottingham,
1991-2000.

Peter Stanfield. Notes Toward a History of the Edinburgh International Film Festival, 1969-77.

Erika and Ulrich Gregor. An Interview with Dina Iordanova: Every Time the Curtain is Going Up, We are Hoping and Longing.

Bjørn Sørenssen. Le giornate del cinema muto: Pordenone.

From Bollywood to You Tube

August 1, 2008 at 12:54 am



Below is the text of the Press Release that the University’s Press office did on the occasion of the large Leverhulme award I recently received.

From Bollywood to YouTube, an academic at the University of St Andrews is to investigate the ways in which non-mainstream film reaches the masses.

Professor Dina Iordanova, St Andrews’ first Chair of Film Studies and a leading international authority in her field, will receive a prestigious grant from The Leverhulme Trust to carry out the study “Dynamics of World Cinema: Transnational Channels of Global Film Circulation”.

The innovative project will examine the circulation of global cinema by comparing the four main channels: the system of global Hollywood, the international film festival circuit, various alternative production centres like Bollywood as well as internet-enabled channels such as YouTube.

Professor Iordanova said, “We know a lot about Holywood’s global operation, and we have all sorts of box office data and charts on them. But we know next to nothing of the other side of the equation, of those films that are not in the blockbuster sphere, that are distributed via less visible channels but are still popular.

“In the course of our study, we will establish how much money non-Hollywood films actually make and are likely to reveal that they enjoy a growing domestic and international commercial success.

“The study will examine the phenomenal growth of film festivals around the world and will assess if they indeed have become an independent distribution circuit. We will also explore the film distribution for ethnic minorities (for example, Bollywood imports), and reveal that it is an operation of astonishing commercial success.

“Finally, we will also assess the impact that new internet-enabled channels such as YouTube, online forums and download sites, have on the changing dynamics in world cinema.”

The £240,000 grant will allow Professor Iordanova to undertake the pioneering two and a half year investigation into the ways film travels nowadays to reach a growing and increasingly diverse community of viewers that are interested in getting more specific content than the blockbuster playing at the cinema around the corner.

She explained, “What makes us distinct in relation to earlier studies is that we will correlate all those diverse strands of film circulation that are extremely active nowadays but somehow remain below the radar. By putting all information into comparative perspective and by revealing patterns of interaction, we will show the real dynamics of world cinema. We expect to bring to the attention traditionally ignored aspects that will undermine the view of Hollywood’s undisputed global dominance.”

Originally from Bulgaria, and having worked in Canada, the US, and England, Professor Iordanova’s background is in philosophy and aesthetics. Soon after acquiring her PhD in 1986, she realised she needed images to come along with the theoretical concepts. She made a profession out of her habit of seeing a movie a day, and switched to the new field of film studies in 1993. Today, she has numerous publications on in international cinema to her credit. She has recently edited a special issue of Film International dedicated to film festivals, and is now working on a book chapter about recent Asian epic cinema.

She continued, “This is a radically interdisciplinary project, which brings together transnational film and media studies, globalisation and diaspora studies, political economy and humanistic scholarship. Given the Trust’s interest in major issues of contemporary culture, The Leverhulme was the best organization to fund it. We are truly grateful for their recognition.”

Professor Stuart Cunningham from Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, a leading specialist in the area of creative industries, is co-investigator on this unique and innovative project. He will spend a month in St Andrews during the second phase of the research. Two post-doctoral fellows, one from Hong Kong and the other one from New York City, are joining the team set to start work in October.

ENDS

NOTE TO EDITORS:

Professor Iordanova is available for interview on di1@st-andrews.ac.uk or at 01334-467-474 (by appointment).
Her current work is showcased at www.DinaView.com

NOTE TO PICTURE EDITORS:

IMAGES ARE AVAILABLE FROM THE PRESS OFFICE – CONTACTS BELOW.

Issued by the Press Office, University of St Andrews
Contact Fiona Armstrong, Press Officer on 01334 462530 / 462529, Mobile: 07730 415 015 or Email: fa12@st-andrews.ac.uk
Ref: Leverhulme film 240708
View the latest University press releases at www.st-andrews.ac.uk

Snoop Dogg, Akshay Kumar and Singh Is Kinng (2008): More Transnational Film Professionals

July 29, 2008 at 2:02 am

View here Snoop Dogg’s and Akshay Kumar’s video for the still-to-be-released Indo-Australian Singh Is Kinng (2008), posted by johalballin on YouTube. Like is the practice in Bollywood, the music is released before the film to create hype and momentum.

Not just an encounter between Bollywood and Hollywood, the film is yet another prime example of the transnationalisation of highly skilled labor in filmmaking which I have been covering over the past few days. A look at the ‘below the line’ sections of the crew reveal whole teams of non-Indian assistant directors, art designers, and special effects people, who come with background from productions like Inspector Gadget or the Australian Western, The Proposition. The stuntspeople have been not only in Australian and US productions, but also in films made in China, Japan and other Asian hubs, and many of the miscellaneous crew members have Bosnian or Croatian-sounding names, reminding me of the forced dispersal of families from former Yugoslavia to all parts of the world nearly fifteen years ago, just about the time needed for their children to grow up and get entry level jobs in transnational filmmaking.

See also Part I and Part II of Transnational Class of Film Professionals.

© Dina Iordanova
29 July 2008

Transnational Class of Film Professionals II

July 28, 2008 at 12:57 pm

Valley of the Wolves: Iraq (Kurtlar vadisi – Irak) is a Turkish action film made in 2006, set in the conflict zone in Iraq near the Turkish border. The film opens with a reenactment a real incident from the summer of 2003 (pictured), where a group of Turkish border guards are arrested in their own headquarters and publicly humiliated by American troops, who are officially their ‘allies’. The incident leads to the suicide of one of the border officers who feels he has been dishonored by such treatment on the very territory he is supposed to guard and protect. Opening with a set up that clearly questions the nature of the American ‘allied’ involvement with Turkey, the rest of the film pictures in truly dark shades the travails of various shady American figures and mercenaries operating in Iraq, and the resistance they encounter from brave undercover Turkish patriots. There are many action scenes, weddings that end up in bloodshed, blown-up minarets, spectacular fights, suicide explosions, as well as reconstructions of scenes that remind of the notorious Abu Ghraib pictures, smartly interwoven into the plot.

The film made quite a splash internationally, and even though it has not been shown in America, it has been extensively discussed as a work of anti-Americanism. A discussion on NBC even mentioned that American troops stationed in countries where the film was screening have been explicitly prohibited from seeing it, out of fear that they may become subject of attack by enraged audiences. And even if the film was not distributed in the US, the two American actors who were cast in it, Billy Zane and Gary Busey, were publicly denounced for taking part, and declared anti-patriotic racist mercenaries, like in this image seen at a blog-site called ‘Villagers with Torches‘.

It is not my intention to go into this controversy here, as I have discussed it elsewhere (BBC World Service, December 2006). My interest in Valley of the Wolves is in relation to the emerging transnational class of film professionals, and it is this film that gives me the chance to most powerfully illustrate my point. The stunts, for example, were handled by a group of Czech-born professionals, who mostly work in Hollywood but also have regular international outings. Dusan Hyska, the stunt coordinator for the production, comes with credits from films such as Stephen Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, and has worked on productions by directors like James Cameron (Titanic) and Scorsese (Gangs of New York). His fellow-stuntsman Jiri Horky was in Van Helsing, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and, more recently, in the second installment of the Chronicles of Narnia (2008) while Jan Petrina, Billy Zane’s stunt double, has also been in Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down (2001). If we move on to the special effects department led by industry veteran Mark Meddings, one discovers a wealth of overlaps with key American films by directors Ridley Scott, Stephen Spielberg and Oliver Stone. Employed on Valley of the Wolves as coordinator of special effects, Meddings comes with credits as senior special effects technician on Saving Private Ryan (1998), and has to his credits films such as Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000) and Black Hawk Down (2001), Anthony Minghella’s Cold Mountain (2003), and Oliver Stone’s Alexander (2004). The project that immediately preceded his involvement with Valley of the Wolves was Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven (2005), a film showing the clash of Christian and Islamic civilizations.

Here is a clip of the film. The Hollywood touch shows; the style seen in this sequence is reminiscent of the bazaar scene in Indiana Jones (I believe it was in Raiders of the Lost Ark), mixed with sequences from Black Hawk Down.

In the ‘bonus’ section of Valley of the Wolves DVD, Meddings and his colleagues are seen setting up scenes of destruction with dummies, bloody body parts, artificial severed limbs and a variety of other props and prosthetics. Watching the ‘Making of’ documentary I could not help a feeling of a ‘deja vu’, thinking of many other similar ‘Making of’ documentaries found on the DVDs of Hollywood action epics, showing teams of equally committed special effects professionals engaged with setting up the pyrotechnics, the stunts, and the prosthetics for each new film. The plastic severed limbs and the little pumps that splat blood used in the Valley of the Wolves clearly have their prototype in the well-familiar bloody body parts and guts scattered all over Omaha beach in the famous scene that created the memorable heart-wrenching reaction on seeing Saving Private Ryan‘s opening scenes.

The bottom line is that the creative specialist force behind this epic entertainment is the same, and it operates transnationally. The same people whose skills and ingenuity helped create the unforgettable visceral images that enhanced American patriotism in Saving Private Ryan can happen, on occasion, to apply those same skills and wit in the context of productions that may encourage a very different view of the world. It is not realistic that the special effects profession or the stunts people, many of whom may be working in Hollywood but are often not even Americans, could be bound by patriotic loyalties or political allegiances that would bar them from taking on assignments across the world. It is an aspect of globalization that needs to be acknowledged and reckoned with.

For Part I of his post, click here.

© Dina Iordanova
29 July 2008

This entry is part of my investigation into international epic cinema, which also includes entries on other films from China (Hero, House of Flying Daggers, Curse of the Golden Flower), Thailand (Suryiothai), Kazakhstan (Nomad), India (Asoka, Jodha Akbar), and elsewhere (Mongol).

Transnational Class of Film Professionals I

July 27, 2008 at 12:17 am

Russian director Sergei Bodrov, Chinese cameraman Fei Zhao, Czech cameraman Igor Luther

The emerging class of transnational film professionals consists of American and other international specialists who have gravitated around Hollywood but who regularly contract on productions from various countries, and of specialists who are based in a range of other countries, but whose dispersal does not prevent them from grouping and regrouping in various team configurations, again to work on a wide range of productions made internationally. It is in the context of epic cinema that this highly skilled labour is most easily seen and discovered, maybe because it is these large-scale productions with their sizable crews of below the line personnel that create the need of outsourcing arrangements that would bring in professionals that offer their services in the sphere of transnational filmmaking.

It is about stunts specialists, special effects people, the folks engaged in CGI, the musical effects department, and so on. As this is a highly-skilled and well-paid workforce that needs to be kept employed on an ongoing basis, the companies that employ these specialists often take on assignments coming from international sources. The result is that, no matter if the film is billed as Chinese or American production, its underlying stunts, special effects, sound effects, and CGI are often generated from within the same group of transnational professionals. Even though most of the crew who worked on House of Flying Daggers are Chinese, the sound and visual effects were outsourced to American companies, and ended up being handled by people who were also involved in productions such as Moulin Rouge, Lord of the Rings, 300 and The World Trade Center. It is only Indian superproductions for now who manage to source all departments entirely from within their own workforce.

Of course, the talent working above the line are more often than not transnational professionals themselves – like Russian director Sergei Bodrov, who worked for the Kazakh government on Nomad and who then made Mongol as a Kazakh/German/Russian/Mongolian production. Mongol used a Japanese star, a Russian and a Dutch cinematographer, an Icelandic editor, and a Finnish composer, as well as scores of Chinese, Koreans, Germans and Russians employed in ‘below the line’ roles. The Chinese cinematographer of The Emperor and the Assassin, Fei Zhao, also shot films for Woody Allen. Czech cameramen worked on Suryiothai one of whom, Igor Luther, has worked across Europe with directors like Andrzej Wajda and Volker Schlöndorff. It is more of less the same like in Hollywood, which is used to cherry-picking international talent in putting together multinational crews, where Oliver Stone’s Alexander had a team comprising of a Mexican cinematographer, a Greek composer, an editor who mostly works in the Arab world and an editor who mostly works with Luc Besson.

It is still too early to say to what extend this pragmatic transnationalism, often driven by pure practicalities and matters of convenience and often remaining behind the scenes and below the line, impacts on the look and feel of epic films, if at all. In the second part of this post, I will discuss an example where I saw it clearly pronounced and deployed in an interesting context.

© Dina Iordanova
27 July 2008

This entry is part of my investigation into international epic cinema, which also includes entries on other films from China (Hero, House of Flying Daggers, Curse of the Golden Flower), Thailand (Suryiothai), Kazakhstan (Nomad), India (Asoka, Jodha Akbar), and elsewhere (Mongol).