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Culture Shock: Confessions of an Amateur Film Festival Movie Critic
by Alyssa Cirelli

It is fair to say that I am a movie fan. I am typically up-to-date on the current releases, my DVD collection is not exactly modest, and my speech is peppered with quotes from the classics. When the opportunity arose to join the Film Group of the AWCH, I jumped at it. But does the fact that I am a self-proclaimed “fan” make me in any way qualified to share my opinions with the public? I figure an international film festival is a good testing ground to see if I have the right stuff.

Just before the start of the Filmfest Hamburg, I picked up my press packet. Slipping that badge around my neck was a power trip for sure, but that confidence began to fade as I dove into the program. How should I choose which movies to see? Especially if I do not want to be guilty of judging a book by its cover, or in this case, a movie by its poster? And what about the fact that most of these movies depict stories from other cultures. Faced with a list of movies from 38 diverse countries spanning the globe, I wonder… Is it possible to leave my Red, White & Blue tinted glasses at home? Can I simply be a film critic? Or will I always be an American film critic?

Can we be entertained by a movie from a different culture?

At the very least, the answer to this question is not a blanket “no”. While humor was somewhat of a rarity at this year’s festival, there were plenty of laugh-out-loud moments in the Belgian film L’ Iceberg, for example, and I would venture to say at least some of that humor was culturally based. And while Americans may grumble and groan at British humor, generally speaking, we can usually be entertained by it. On the other hand, do I enjoy a movie like Der Fischer und Seine Frau, a distinctly German film, because I am more familiar with the culture?

Do films play into stereotypes?

I had no idea what to expect from an Iranian film, but if I had allowed myself to form some preconceptions, I probably could have predicted what I would see in the film Iron Island. This film was billed as a microcosm of Iranian daily life. Did I see these stereotypes only because somehow I expected to? I liked this movie (3 stars), but it is difficult to say if I took away the same things from it that an Iranian would have.

What are we missing? Given the fact that sometimes we “just don’t get it”, should we be allowed to judge it?

Categorically and across the board, it is fair for me to say that I do not understand the point of French cinema. French filmmakers, like those of La moustache, for example, seem content with the pointlessness of their movies. In The Ring Finger as well, there is no resolution in the film, and all interpretation is left open to the viewer. Interpretation is fundamentally and inescapably influenced by the viewer’s culture. Can an outsider, then, reliably and reasonably critique such a film? The left side of my brain says absolutely not.

Lest I be accused of being simply anti-francophile, I have another example, this time from Japan. In the film Bashing, I assume that there was a cultural justification for the ostracism of the main character. The filmmakers took for granted that the audience would understand this and therefore spent no time giving any background information. I just did not get it and therefore could not appreciate the film. However, because my distaste results from a missing cultural link, my opinion feels somehow invalid.

Does it help when we have a more relatable character as a guide to the rest of the subject matter?

In two of the films that I saw, Free Zone from Israel and Brides from Greece, an American character played a major role. For me, the lazy film viewer, these Americans could act as cultural ambassadors, and honestly, I appreciated the spoon-fed resolutions of any cultural conflicts.

However, before I become too critical of filmmakers and audiences for being unable or unwilling to bridge cultural gaps, let us examine the idea that in a universally great film, cultural gaps simply do not exist. Take the Chinese film Electric Shadows as the perfect example. The premise of this film is so fundamentally grounded in human experiences and relationships that skin color, language, religion – none of these cultural elements – are even relevant, in spite of the fact that the characters are virtually opposite from me in every respect.

In general, I was disappointed with the selection at the Filmfest from an “enjoyment” point of view. But every day I had a glimpse (or two or three) into other people’s lives, and that was an incredibly enriching experience. I do not think that my opinions of the films I saw will influence anyone’s decision whether or not to see them, but I hope that these confessions of an amateur critic will encourage more people to go out to the movies and have these experiences for themselves.