Great films don’t only entertain me, they’re an assault on my imagination! They stimulate my intellect, fuel my quest to understand. Film has long been a magical medium offering an unusually intimate look at many a place I may never visit. Like great novels, when done well, cinema plants the desire to see with my own eyes, places I’d often not previously considered visiting.
Film feels powerful because the immersion in another place is shallower than a book, but quicker. 90 minutes earlier, I’d barely heard of El Salvador (the South American immigrant community is comparatively small in London), now I’ve seen Innocent Voices; I know a lot more about one kid’s story, his life amidst a civil war, and the horrors of child soldiery. I’d love to learn more.
September has well and truly landed: Walking around Ladbroke Grove yesterday, I was hard-pressed to connect it to the place where days ago Machel and Blaxx and Kerwin and Destra had me dancing like it was 1999 through the streets of the Royal borough while it rained and rained and rained. London’s Notting Hill Carnival has finished. For lots of people, summer’s finished. Holidays are but a memory: School’s back. Work’s back. Next party/carefree season : Christmas. Boo.
But before the depression gets too comfortable recall that, as I argued in Holidaying Vs. Travelling, going travelling is a state of mind! International travel may be as distant a dream from my reality, as the lands which pique my curiosity are from where I am now, but it doesn’t prevent me from glimpsing at how other people live, dream and die.
Have you ever tried to travel through film? Watched two or more films from a country you don’t know, to try and get a sense of what the place might be like?
This is a list, in no particular order, of films that have transported me to another country on the cheap. ‘Cheap’ when I compare the price of a DVD to a plane ticket. Great films that stand up against other great films. Most of them are multiple award winners and/or critically-acclaimed, but I’ve chosen them because I think they will enhance your life. Irreversibly.
These are not films ‘shot on location’ they’re ‘of’ location. All the films below are written and directed by people from the place they’re set. Like a friend from someplace else with the most amazing to story to tell you about her or his hometown. There are no documentaries, nor do they claim a monopoly on truth about that place, they are simply brilliant films.
Close out the world, turn up the volume and to maintain that holiday feeling just a little bit longer, let these great films whisk you away to another place and even time.
1) Lebanon: Sukkar Banat/Caramel (2007)
A motley group of girlfriends navigate life together in contemporary Beirut. A film featuring women young and old supporting each other through women-specific issues, like whether or not to get your hymen sewn, or how to combat any physical evidence that 25 was a while back to get that acting gig, is exactly my kind of film. That Caramel takes place primarily in the beauty salon where the women work, the characters are a combination of fully human, interesting, lovable and hilarious, and the backdrop is the lovely but troubled city of Beirut makes Caramel this female traveller’s ultimate travel-by-sofa film. Lebanese lady director Nadine Labaki created an incredible homage to her hometown and its inhabitants in Caramel. Don’t miss this.
2) Germany: Goodbye Lenin! (2003)
Dude’s mum has a near-fatal heart attack when she sees him get arrested while protesting, and under doctor’s orders must not be put under any further strain – it might just kill her. As if that’s not tough enough for a young man to cope with in 80s East Germany, while his mum was in a coma, the Berlin wall came down. More offbeat than maudlin, Goodbye Lenin! centres around the comedy in trying to keep the seismic changes in their world out of their little Berlin apartment. Check out communist Germany’s final days through the lens of a young man trying to do right by his beloved ailing mum if you’re capable of any degree of human emotion.
3) Martinique: Les Rues Cases Negres/Black Shack Alley/Sugar Cane Alley (1983)
The oldest pictures in my family albums are black and white photos of dark-skinned black people in frilly lace white outfits in the Caribbean. There’s loads of them, kids and adults alike often looking quite uncomfortable in front of the camera.
This was before the advent of the selfie you understand.
I loved Rue Cases Negres pretty much from the opening scene because José, ‘the kid’ and main character, was dressed in a white frilly ensemble in a Caribbean setting. It was like seeing my family albums come to life. Set in 1930s Martinique, Rue Cases Negres is a coming-of-age story set post-slavery but pre-the full french citizenship Martinicans enjoy today. It’s also the only film I know of which depicts that fascinating period in Caribbean history from the point of view of the black people who lived through it; the oldest people were born into slavery, the most ambitious of the youngest have dreams of being considered the equals of white people.
In the film, we see the kids of Black Shack Alley spending the summer holiday mischieviously roaming the plantation while their parents break their back cutting sugarcane all day. Then when school starts, which kid goes where, and the hows and why offers an insight into the human consequences of a plantocracy’s everyday injustices. Or in the words of father-figure Medouze, the legacy of when the overseer became the boss. Euzhan Palcy would later go down in history as the only woman to ever direct Marlon Brando, and to be the first black woman to direct a film produced by a major hollywood studio. In Rue Cases Negres, her debut, we have a potent one-film reminder of what Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie termed The Danger of a Single Story. For a glimpse into contemporary life in the French Caribbean check out Neg Maron (it’s got Kassav’s Jocelyn Beroard!).
4) England: Dirty Pretty Things (2002)
A British film without Hugh Grant or Keira Knightley??? Shocking I know but it’s true. Panic not though, it doesn’t lack faces you’ll recognise. Though the faces might be all you recognise; post-Amelie Audrey Tautou and pre-12 Years A Slave Chiwitel Ejiofor starred with Sophie Okenedo in an unflinching look at London’s unspoken Other Side. The London inhabited when your ‘papers’ don’t permit your presence in London and no one in London cares you’re there. Immigration law in the UK, the legislative response to the fear of being invaded by foreigners, was born at the height of British imperial power, which is perhaps my favourite of History’s Greatest Ironies. This film examines the (in)human consequences a 100 years later for two illegal immigrants. Colleagues in a posh but seriously dodgy hotel, they grow to trust and need each other, but a love story this ain’t. A scary but utterly believable tale of the arbitrary nature of survival and the many faces of evil, English winter is not the only cause of a chill in Dirty Pretty Things. Stephen Frears depicts the London Richard Curtis will never show you.
5) Sweden: Tillsammans/Together (2000)
A battered housewife flees with her two kids to her wouldn’t-hurt-a-fly brother’s house. Straight forward enough. Except this is Sweden in the 70s. Bro lives in a socialist commune called Together and there’s quite a cast of characters for the burgeoning teens to encounter as they readjust to life with a part-time dad and separated parents. And a commune. And everyone else’s two cents on it all.
Life’s not so easy for mum either; she knows that the commune probably can’t accommodate them in the long-term, and has some thinking about the future to do. As if being taken under the wing of the resident lesbian feminist wasn’t eye-opening, the slow-if-egalitarian and democratic decision-making in the house is also a new experience, while the antics of the curtain-twitching neighbour is a constant reminder of the conventional life left behind. What’s a woman to do? This is a warm-hearted ensemble piece about an experimenting imperfect collective of individuals trying to be happy living together.
6) Inner-City France: La Haine (1995)
It’s so famous it’s cliché but I’d be remiss in not putting put this classic on the list. La Haine is a simple ‘Day in the Life’ type tale, except the day in question is the day after a riot in one of Paris’ banlieues or ghettoes.
Three friends, sons of the soil, piece together yesterday’s events, and we, like them, can but wonder what tomorrow will bring. It’s the random beating of their friend Abdel by police that started the riot and as Abdel fights for his life in hospital, one of the trio vows to murder a police officer if he dies. La Haine is hard-hitting but it’s full of witty dialogue, excellent cinematography and fully human characters. If you didn’t know that Paris wasn’t all chic white people cycling along the Seine at sunset, hopefully the 90s hip-hop soundtrack will soothe your shocked spirit.
If you haven’t seen La Haine yet, I won’t judge you. But if you haven’t seen it by December, ask Santa/whoever for it. It’s black diasporan cinema 101 as the Americans say. The main actors – Vincent Cassel, Said Taghmaoui, Hubert Kounde -and writer-director Matthieu Kassowitz all went on to other amazing films. There are a gazillion and one references to this iconic film but my personal favourite is at the beginning of coming-of-age at an HBCU/dance film Stomp the Yard. You know the one, with pre-Scandal Colombus Short and Meagan Good. Without spoiling anything, the graffiti ‘the brother’ sprays just before ‘it happens’ in the opening scene is an homage majeure to La Haine.
Also see: L’Hexagone, Les Indigenes/Days of Glory, Le Dernier Metro/The Last Metro
7) Mexico: Rudo y Cursi (2008)
Two Spanish-language films – both Mexican – crashed into my life when I was at uni, Amores Perros and Y Tu Mama Tambien. Masterpiece Amores Perros earned a space in my top 5 Favourite Films Ever as the final credits rolled. That my friend, is gripping, dramatic storytelling at its best, just buy it. However for the next three years ‘everyone’ knew Y Tu Mama Tambien was a brilliant film: ‘Amazing!!’ was the unanimous review. Disdainful was the facial expression if you hadn’t seen it. Which I hadn’t. When I did, I begged to differ. It’s not a bad film but I didn’t get the hype. I say all this because, ironically, it’s the reunion of Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna who starred in Y Tu Mama Tambien which gets a spot on this list.
In Rudo y Cursi they play two brothers from a nice small town in Mexico, whose lives are turned upside down when one of them is signed to a top Mexican football/soccer club. Suddenly money, fame, (good) groupies and gangsters (bad) come into play and the brothers’ relationship and integrity is put to the test. When the other brother is signed to a rival club, the game they love takes over their lives.
This film blew me away! I laughed so hard I cried. The brothers’ chemistry is inimitable; despite their constant CONSTANT bickering, these are two dudes who really love each other, and their larger-than-life adventure sucks you in. The showcasing of Mexico’s natural beauty and small-town life in Rudo y Cursi is also in sharp contrast to the corrupt urban wasteland often offered as representation of Mexico which is why this, rather than Amores Perros is on the list. Written and directed by ‘the other’ Cuaron brother only gives this story of sibling rivalry further edge. My advice? Be good to yourself, don’t miss this film. Please.
8) Ivory Coast: Aya de Youpougon/Aya of Yop City (2013)
Youpougon is a working-class area of Abidjan nicknamed Yop City by its inhabitants, who think it sounds like they live in a cool American film. Aya is a young woman determined not to fall victim to the epidemic of messy love lives which seems to characterise her area because Aya is going to be a doctor. Much to the dismay of the men who chase her constantly and her father who just wants a quiet life. And unlike her two best friends who dream of having their own hairdressing salon and being a housewife respectively, but for now are content with being at the best parties with the must-have guys. This is after all Abidjan in the 70s, and without the right connections, it’s even tough for men to get good jobs.
Aya de Youpagon literally illustrates the trials and tribulations of being a young woman with a dream – and the options and opportunities for young women in the Ivory Coast’s bustling capital back in the day. In addition to the funky music and fashions, the chaotic, and later scandalous intersection of families and communities with Youpagon’s nightlife(!) and dating scene makes for a feel-good film with belly laughs all round. If you’ve never seen a film from French West Africa, Aya is a great place to start. Move on to Ousmane Sembene’s Xala.
9) Iran: Persepolis (2007)
The other animated feature on the list is the semi-autobiographical story of what British people affectionately call ‘a right little madame’. Marjane is also describable as a pleasant young girl with an unusually strong personality doing her growing up before, during and after the 1979 revolution in Iran. Through this bubbly, curious child’s eyes – especially a child with such an interesting family history – you get to watch one of the twentieth century’s most loudly reverberating dramas play out from the front row. The simply exquisite animation is reason enough to watch this, but the wily granny, 80s music and our heroine’s awkward journey into womanhood are among the many factors that make Persepolis an experience of which you should not deprive yourself! Check out Zahra’s Paradise (also a graphic novel) to catch up with 21st century Iran.
10) Inter-war France: Le Crime de Monsieur Lange/The Crime of Mr Lange (1936)
Grand Maestro of cinema Jean Renoir’s 1936 classic isn’t easy to come by but it’s worth the effort. Made before his more-famous masterpieces La Regle du Jeu, and La Grande Illusion, Le Crime de Monsieur Lange quite unapologetically depicts how much better off the workers in a small publishers are, and how much better the product is, after the boss ‘dies’.
Capturing the spirit of the radical Popular Front of 1930s France on celluloid is no mean feat but with both the artistic (son of painter Auguste and 10 years into film-making) and political chops (he was a member of the movement), Renoir made it look easy. Le Crime de Monsieur Lange is a film which will haunt the imagination of any young idealist, cough cough. Part love story, part social commentary, the characters are interesting and engaging and the concepts of law and order are fascinating from today’s vantage point. Make sure you see it before you die.
11) Brazil: Cidade de Deus/City of God (2002)
I don’t believe you haven’t seen this. But just in case you haven’t seen, it’s on the list.
‘A really young photographer captures the gang warfare in the Brazilian favela he calls home in the 60s and 70s. An angsty teenager at heart, everything he witnesses is vividly conveyed in full technicolour and accompanied by the most appropriate and present soundtrack ever and with an unusually personal investment in this atypical action-led story’ would not do this film justice. An ensemble piece with a cast of non-professional actors have not produced something this powerful since Ladri di Biciclette. Or maybe they have and I just haven’t seen it. Very possible.
Growing up is hard. When it’s done by the forgotten in extreme poverty and with a backdrop of escalating, senseless gang warfare outside the US it’s rarely captured on film so beautifully. Working together in seamless harmony to create the Film of the Millennium for me are lots of good-looking Brazilians, a story that is as unpredictable as it is fantastic, an unforgettable cast of characters not caricatures, creative narrative choices and cinematography that literally taught me the meaning of the word:
Me – breathless: but, but it’s just looks so beautiful! How do they do that?
Boyfriend – film society member: It’s called cinematography darling
He may also have patted my head at this point.
City of God. If you really haven’t seen it yet, put this at the top of your films to see ASAP. Surely I’m not the only one with one of those?
Then watch : Carandiru. It’s not as good, but nothing will ever be as good as City of God.
DISCLAIMER: There are 11 films on this list. That means most eligible films are missing and whole continents are skipped off. Like any ‘best of’ it’s hugely subjective and based on films I have had access to over the years which I liked.
Is there a film whose absence personally offends you? Put a link to the trailer, scene or synopsis in the comments! I love to travel through film and if it fits in with my vibe, and I haven’t seen it yet, I’ll be eternally grateful to you for bringing it to my attention. Even if it’s not subtitled in English.