On 20 October, UNESCO, the UN body that oversees culture, education and science, passed a near unanimous and inarguably historic resolution allowing individual nations greater control over preserving cultural heritage. They did this by, in effect, classifying films, music, and TV as outside the realm of normal trade. The specific language states that national governments can “maintain, adopt, and implement policies and measures they deem appropriate for the protection and promotion of the diversity of cultural expressions on their territory”.
At first glance this appears to be a significant victory for global cinema. The US accounts for an 85 percent share of international box office receipts and, in 2004, Hollywood studios earned over $16 billion (US) in this market. These numbers aren’t surprising; any town with a movie theater will be well versed in the dominance of Hollywood films. The only real surprise (the US and Israel were, predictably, the only dissenters to the resolution) is that it’s taken the rest of the world so long to fight back. As a move to hopefully wrest the prevailing notion of cinema away from Los Angeles and reinvigorate the medium as a cultural artform, UNESCO’s act looks promising. But on closer inspection and away from these broad brushstrokes, there’s little to suggest it will herald a new era in world cinema.
The US argues (cynically but perhaps correctly) that by vesting nations with this regulatory power and encouraging them to turn inward, the UN has unwittingly advocated the potential suppression of free speech. By labeling film, along with other commercial mediums like music and television, as beyond the normal parameters of trade, the seemingly open door to Hollywood product is now slammed shut. For a country that has built its unilateral hegemony on the exportation of oversized culture, it must be worrying to think that Brad Pitt may only spend seven actual weeks in Tibet.
The greatest uncertainty surrounding this vote stems from the ambiguity of the next step. If governments do opt to take advantage of the newfound power, then a number of options seem viable. The most obvious would be a quota system based on screens. South Korea has been running a controversial 40 percent screen quota system since 1967. It has been under consistent fire from the West.
Forcing other theaters into a similar move is seen as the most likely step for nations interested in pursuing this new opportunity and it certainly makes logistical sense. Other options would be to subsidize local features with tax and funding incentives or limiting the scope and infiltration of foreign pictures. Similar initiatives for local music spring to mind, but broadcasters simply don’t work with the same scale and stakes as the film industry.
Whatever scheme is used, however, there are definite concerns over the impact of such a move. As much as we may wish it to, the world (much less the economic sphere) rarely runs in concrete terms and the absence of foreign films won’t automatically transfer the audience to a locally made product. Popularity, it is said, is defined by exposure and access as much as content, but one has to wonder over the potential ramifications of such sweeping changes. Taking Canada as an example, critically admired independents like Atom Egoyan and Guy Maddin may not benefit at all simply because their films, by virtue of an esoteric approach, don’t appeal to the majority of cinemagoers. Author Jonathan Rosenbaum suggested that it was possible to break down this impenetrability with reform in Movie Wars. But a black and white depression-era quasi-musical with no discernable stars is unlikely to become a hit regardless of the passport the director holds. Almost everybody who wants to see these films already seeks them out.
The most likely outcome is a compromise between the two extremes: art and entertainment. While this resolution comes with a clear independent bent, the apparent goal is the establishment of local industries to rival, and mirror, the Hollywood template. The reality is that we’ll be seeing French versions of Con Air or more Italian takes on the buddy cop formula. It may sound presumptuous, but the post-Star Wars landscape has all but drained the appetite for non-blockbuster film at the kind of economic levels that this new direction will demand.
Given the undeniable dominance of US-made product, any fledging industries will have to make do with substantially savvier approaches. Speaking as a New Zealander, this is all too familiar. Most readers are aware of the Lord of the Rings phenomenon and its role in establishing the nation as a viable cinematic alternative. The result, however, is much less weighty than that single, nine-hour epic.
Other New Zealand films have, in this decade alone, been nominated for major Oscars (Whale Rider), played to festivals the world over (In My Father’s Den) and brought some of the industry’s biggest names to the country (Samantha Morton and Kiefer Sutherland in River Queen, Sir Anthony Hopkins in The World’s Fastest Indian and Gwyneth Paltrow in Sylvia). Taken as a whole, it seemingly represents the ideal; that is, the evolution of a localized scene to the point of mass exposure and visibility.
Except that very few of these films are valuable artistic achievements. The overriding temptation in New Zealand is to connect American-centric indications of success Oscars and big stars with a progressive creative movement. In lieu of the money to make blockbusters (Lord of the Rings was funded with American dollars), our industry revels in the pursuit of the middlebrow. They’re the kind of films that are known in North America as Oscarbait: aesthetically conservative, traditional narratives and, most importantly, inherently accessible. Over a decade after Jane Campion’s The Piano shared the Palme D’or with Farwell My Concubine, New Zealand is yet to produce another auteur to advance the local scene, let alone play a role in the development of world cinema. Our new moniker is Wellywood.
Granted, this is a limited example. New Zealand is an ex-colonial, Christian, English speaking nation with many established cultural links to both the US and Britain, but the trend is evident elsewhere, too. France recently selected the lightweight Joyeux Noel as its official submission for the Academy Award’s Foreign Film category, mystifying critics and ignoring eligible works from Michael Haneke, Andre Desplechin and Jacques Audiard. There’s a certain irony in this odd decision. In light of the UNESCO decision, one wonders how closely a contained French culture would compensate for the absence of American entertainment.
There are other concerns too, not least of which is the dubious acknowledgment of a unanimous national culture. Cinema and nationalism have had an uneasy history stretching back to the Second World War. By vesting control of cultural expression in national governments, UNESCO is for all intents and purposes arguing for the existence of cultural catchments. Regardless of what you think of the UN, it’s misguided to think of any nation as homogenous. Rather than using cinema and art to highlight existing and very possibly threatened cultures, this direction can lead only to the appropriation of these mediums in the pursuit of a single national ideal. That’s not what art is about, and certainly not what makes it wonderful.
So where, then, does this leave dissenting, minority or unconventional filmmakers? Arguably, in much the same place. It’s unlikely that theatres or producers will suddenly embrace works that threaten to disrupt the status quo. Rather than freeing local directors to explore wider social questions, the competition to secure newly freed screen space or government funding will drive many gifted artists towards the middle ground, as well as stranding the few who remain in the shadows in isolation and obscurity. The only solution would be for governments to play a much wider role in the industry and the UN resolution offers nothing to suggest that. It is the theaters and producers that, almost world over, aspire to the Hollywood example. That means, in a word, control.
Make no mistake, this is first and foremost a trade step; any appeals to art are only as merchandise. Will some circumstantial good come of it? Probably, but the central development will almost certainly paint a less than ideal picture. While a lot of it will come down to how individuals view cinema and its role within society, what is definite is that increasing exposure will bring increasing limitations. Only time will tell if Hollywood comes to resemble Disneyland and its many international offshoots or simply retain a much more tangible hold on international cities. If this vote is sincere, the latter appears almost inevitable. By attacking the giant in nothing more than vague terms however, UNESCO may have just opened the door for unlimited copycats.