Cinema is an art: perhaps our most complex art, it involves aspects of visual and clothing design, music, performance, writing, and a host of technical jobs that often go overlooked but which are vital to the outcome of a production. A film, like a dream, reflects the unspoken hopes and fears of the day. It both reflects on and feeds back into local and international culture.
At the same time, cinema is an industry. The marketing budget alone for Solo: A Star Wars Story was around five times the GDP of Tuvalu.
And the moving image is more political than ever. A century after propagandists such as Sergei Eisenstein and Leni Riefenstahl created stunning avant-garde films in the name of repellent dictators, deep fake technology is being used to falsify news events in real time – and the tools of production and distribution are available to all. A critical understanding of the language of moving image media is an essential skill for navigating today’s socio-political landscape.
But let’s not forget that cinema, first and foremost, is an audio-visual spectacle. French new wave icon Jean-Luc Godard may have said that "film is truth 24 times a second,” but he gave original pulp fiction director Samuel Fuller a cameo to describe cinema thus: “Love. Hate. Action. Violence. Death. In a word: emotion.” If you’re passionate about the films you love, cinema studies is an opportunity to know and understand them more deeply than ever, and to discover cinematic riches you never knew existed.
Indeed, cinephilia – the love of cinema – is a journey rather than a destination. While some of the bigger countries for film production have excellent cinema studies programs to pursue, there’s nothing like immersing yourself in a lesser-known culture to find a fresh perspective on life and art. While Hollywood runs out of things to blow up, film art and industry in Asia, Africa, and elsewhere continue to produce surprising stories and awe-inspiring aesthetics.
Here’s a look at some exciting alternative places to study cinema.
If Nollywood flicks are little recognized outside of Africa, they represent a deep and complex culture in their homeland. In fact, it's that local focus that makes the films so compelling and relevant to Nigerian audiences.
When your national film industry ends in ‘-ollywood’ you know you’re onto a good thing. The Nigerian movie industry earned the nickname ‘Nollywood' by producing over 1,000 films a year – fewer than Bollywood but more than Hollywood. They are mostly local stories created on an unglamorous budget, which are devoured by home cinema audiences on DVD and videotape. Few are getting rich off the industry (popular actors earn around US$1000-3000 per movie), but low costs and high sales make it a quietly thriving business.
Budgets and distribution could be about to rise since Netflix started to dabble in Nollywood a couple of years back. The streaming giant wants to change the way Nigerian audiences make and consume films. At the moment, internet access is too sketchy for downloads to have much of an impact locally, but as Nigerian ex-pats around the world log-in to stream Nollywood pictures from home and Netflix begins to invest in production, it will be interesting to see if the industry can retain its unique flavor.
Europe’s busiest film industry forms a strange and wonderful fabric. Balanced on a cultural precipice between east and west, the tension between narrative and aesthetics, action and contemplation, poetry and humor, is the thread that holds Turkey’s great movies aloft.
Turkish cinema enjoyed its own mid-twentieth century golden age. Films such as the elegantly absurd Sevmek Zamanı (Time of Love, 1965) – in which a man falls in love with a portrait of a young woman but feels indifferent towards the woman herself – feel like they couldn’t have been created anywhere else. More recently, auteurs such as Cannes-winner Nuri Bilge Ceylan have produced sophisticated personal stories with darkly humorous undertones.
And there's another vital facet to Turkish cinema history: the mockbuster!
In the 1970s and ‘80s, with the country politically isolated and copyright laws lax, the nation’s filmmakers paid the highest possible tribute to Hollywood’s big bucks blockbusters. They remade them. Without permission, and often including scenes from the original when the special effects were too costly to reproduce locally. Today, Dunyayi Kurtaran Adam (1982 - also known as Turkish Star Wars!) is considered just as much a classic as Time of Love among a certain niche of b-movie fans.
3. The Czech Republic
Everybody’s heard of the French New Wave. But film students have to dig a bit deeper to find out about the Czech New Wave, which took place at the same time and was far, far weirder!
In fact, as with French cinema, Czech cinema was already well-established by the 1960s – and that’s one reason its young rebels felt it needed shaking up. Following a vibrant silent era and a period of grim social realism brought about by the Communist Party’s control of the industry, attitudes began to relax. Filmmakers were able to build on an unlikely strand of surrealism found among those gray movies of the 1950s and often hid critical anti-government meanings in new wave films that amounted to modernist fairytales for adults.
Names such as Jiri Menzel and Vera Chytilova remain sacred to film scholars today, while the movement’s most famous son, Milos Forman, would eventually exile himself to the US, where he directed films such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) and The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996). Today, many an international production alights in the Czech Republic to shoot a few scenes at its fantastical locations.
For all this talk of historic new waves and golden ages, Chinese cinema’s moment is now. As in so many industries, Chinese film is reaching a hand to the wider world, and capitalizing on the nation’s unique socio-economic circumstances (not least its massive population) to do so.
While part of this cultural thaw involves the onboarding of American movie conventions, the traffic goes both ways - with more and more Chinese money invested in Hollywood pictures, the “soft power” of achieving favorable representation in internationally-mainstream movies is a low-key phenomenon.
In terms of the actual movies, home-grown blockbusters are driving the resurgence of the industry. Last year saw a 20 percent increase in production and a 9 percent rise in box office takings, 62 percent of which was from domestic movies. Apocalyptic science-fiction flicks serve a range of purposes for the industry: they're immediately familiar to international audiences, they’re much cheaper to produce in China than in the US, and they introduce the world’s cinema audience to new Chinese heroes. Plus, the stories are fresh and unfamiliar while American blockbusters recycle the same plots again and again.
The casualty in all this has been the cinema of Hong Kong. Prior to the transfer of sovereignty of the island back to China in 1997, Hong Kong boasted a disproportionately productive and influential art and genre-movie industry, which has now dissipated under the cultural and economic influence of the mainland. But Hong Kong’s film history – including Wong Kar-Wei’s woozily romantic arthouse pictures and three decades of philosophically-inclined action movies – is there to be studied, and its influence is reflected in a healthy subculture of small-scale Chinese art film production today.
5. The Nordic Countries
Beyond their own borders, the countries that make up the Nordic region are known more for isolated movements and movie-makers than for a general culture of great cinema or moviegoing. From Sweden’s prolific and highly influential Ingmar Bergman, to the one-man industry of Finland’s deadpan king Aki Kaurismäki, to Lars von Trier and his subversive Dogme95 movement in Denmark, film lovers are more likely to note individuals than to praise the national cinema in the same way as, for example, French or Japanese cinema, Hollywood or Bollywood.
But that could be about to change as Nordic film industries begin to demonstrate that they are as broad as they are tall. A solid decade of quality television production has put the genre of Scandi crime on the map. Yes, these cinematic TV shows have been remade Stateside – along with award-winning Swedish movies Force Majeure and Let The Right One In – but only after they became hits in their own right.
And while filmmakers such as the Danish Nicolas Winding Refn make a mark in Hollywood, and film crews from around the world make use of the unique landscapes of Iceland and Finland, it is Swedish cinema that leads the world in one noteworthy aspect: it boasts equal funding for female directors and similar levels of representation in Swedish cinemas. If the future of cinema is a voice for all, the Nordic region could be where to hear it first.
Where will you study cinema?
The cinematic arts have a rich and varied history. And while cinema-going has lost some of the romanticism of the ‘Golden Age,’ new generations of movie fans are inventing new forms of film appreciation - whether exploring previously inaccessible archives or cutting up today’s blockbusters to make critical video essays and posting them on YouTube.
Your taste and fascination in cinema are as instinctive and personal as any other facet of life. Falling in love with a particular nation’s film culture is a good indicator that you’ll enjoy studying in that country – whether you devote your studies to the national cinema that inspires you or choose to study cinema, in general, using one of these exciting locations as your base.