The Dumbing Down of International Films (So You Don't Have to Think)

Like a nosy parent who swears only they know what's best for you, Harvey Weinstein is once again telling established, award winning filmmakers what HE believes an American audience will tolerate.

The makers of movies in other parts of the world have a bigger problem than Harvey Weinstein. Their work, often far superior and riskier than what Hollywood hopes will connect with the great unwashed, barely gets a release beyond their borders, the allure of exciting subject matter and approaches trumped by a general dislike of subtitles and a feeling that foreign films are nothing more than the same old tired Tinseltown takes with a decidedly different vocabulary. Still, Weinstein is also a thorn in said cinema's side. He is a ruthless businessman and a protracted fan of such arthouse fare, or so he would have you believe. Yet, recently, a notorious nickname associated with the former Miramax chief has come back to haunt him -- "Harvey Scissorhands" -- and it's a reminder that, aside from differing dialogue, international efforts have a bigger barrier to aesthetic acceptance.

You see, Weinstein believes that modern movie viewers are dumb. He thinks they can't process simple plot mechanics, especially when having to do so with some nonsensical gobbledygook passing for language going on in the background. In his mind, it's bad enough you have to read everything that's happening between the characters, why do you have to think about what they are doing as well? To this extent, he has developed a notorious reputation as a distributor. While acknowledged as one of the leading champions of obscure cinema worldwide, he's also earned a rep for fiddling with movies before he releases them. There are dozens of past examples, but in the last few months, at least two have had foreign film aficionados up in arms.

Just this past weekend, his company released The Grandmaster by famed auteur Wong Kar-wai in a truncated version demanded by Big Harv himself. Similarly, the latest from Bong Joon-ho, a sci-fi effort entitled Snowpiercer, is poised to have 20 minutes of narrative removed so, as Weinstein puts it, people in Oklahoma and Iowa "get" it. In the case of Wong's martial arts epic, a look at Ip Man and his kung fu mythos, such changes have been part of an ongoing process that the director actually embraced (for the most part). When it premiered in China, the film clocked in at nearly 130 minutes, a reduction from its initial four hour run. For the Berlin Film Festival, Wong got the time down to 122. Weinstein, on the other hand, challenged the filmmaker to make the movie more "US friendly," and via the addition of certain scenes, the dropping of a subplot, and a final running time of 108, the mogul got what he wanted.

The situation with Bong and Snowpiercer is a bit different. According to those who've seen it, the story isn't that complicated (a group of dystopian dissidents riding in the back of the train decide to revolt and head, car by car, toward the front) and light on complicated future shock-isms. Bong has stated that Weinstein doesn't want to mess with the plot so much as remove characters beats and backstory, turning the multi-dimensional thriller into something akin to The Raid: Redemption on a locomotive. Those in the know suggest that Weinstein is convinced the only way this movie will play in Peoria is by turning it into a straight ahead action movie instead of letting Bong expand on his speculative universe. Others have also pointed out that the movie is relatively dark, and that perhaps Weinstein is hoping to "lighten it up" by trimming it down.

Again, this is nothing new. While at Miramax, Weinstein worked his weird sort of contempt of such noted titles as Princess Mononoke, Shaolin Soccer, and Cinema Paradiso. Behind the scenes, those in the business commend his desire to see a film be successful, and to do anything required to have it connect to an audience. Considering the cost of securing these rights, it makes smart business sense...and there's always DVD and Blu-ray for the eventual release of the filmmaker's original vision. Weinstein wants these movies to play, but the question becomes, at what cost? Many still smart from the inclusion of horrific English soundtracks, badly dubbed voices working their minimal magic on the original actor's sentiments. But there is something a tad more sinister here, a desire on the part of one man to dictate what the Western portion of the film fanbase get to see.

Imagine, if you will, a man, sitting in an office, somewhere in New York, who goes out looking for your next Summer movie tentpole. And for the moment, say that man has access to all the possible popcorn hits out there. He picks through them, sizes up the one's he believe will make the big bucks, and then buys up the ability to distribute them. So far, so normal. Now, let's add in that this man believes he knows best for the audience. He knows better than you do. He doesn't care what you prefer or what you want (or even what might breach your already assumed staunch frame of reference). Instead, he goes to the makers and says, "Add more giant robots! Take out the love story. Emphasize the fart jokes!" Since there is no other avenue for the film's release, he holds all the cards. He also controls the content in a way few in today's Hollywood would even tolerate.

It's the same old argument everyone has with George Lucas and his original Star Wars films. Once he was done fiddling with them, he made it very clear that Episodes IV, V, and VI would never be seen in their previous incarnation ever again. Devotees got all lathered up when they learned that they could never experience the adventures of Luke, Leah, and Han the way audiences first saw them decades before. It was the same debate we had in the '80s when colorization threatened old classics while upstart companies promised parents a home theater experience sans sex, violence, and curse words. Terms like "artistic integrity" and "original vision of the filmmaker" were bandied about, but in the end, it was commerce that turned the tide. Viewers mostly rejected these novelties, turning back to the intended incarnation and making such a preference known.

Weinstein doesn't have to worry about such blow back -- at least, not now. Those who he is insulting are in the minority, since many he is catering to with his editorial expertise have no clue who Wong Kar-wai, Bong Joon-ho, or Stephen Chow are and could care less if their see their films intact. Instead, we find ourselves with another confirmed case of Idiocracy-ism. Mike Judge's movie about the gradual dumbing down of our society and culture has become more and more prescient as the years have gone by -- and the film is only seven years old. It's not just a question of challenging your own personal aesthetic. Like a nosy parent who swears only they know what's best for you, Harvey Weinstein is once again telling established, award winning filmmakers what HE believes an American audience will tolerate. If it was about artistic intent, it might be acceptable. Since it's about the artifice of making a buck, it's everyone involved.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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