Saturday, December 30, 2017

The year without documentaries or foreign films

I've written a couple times on this blog about the paucity of "legitimate" documentaries released this year. By that I mean documentaries released in such a way that they distinguished themselves from run-of-the-mill documentaries on lesser platforms and crossed over into the public consciousness/discussion. In fact, I seem to write some variation on this post about every six months.

What hadn't struck me until recently was how few foreign language films have gained any traction in the zeitgeist this year.

Because I assumed they had just eluded me, I asked the members of my Flickcharters Facebook group what they were looking at as their 2017 foreign language films. They didn't have any either.

Or really, they had some, but they were ones I ranked last year because that's when I saw them at MIFF.

They came forward with suggestions like After the Storm and The Lure, films I was glad to see attaining a certain prominence after I'd ranked them both high on my list last year. They also mentioned films I was a bit less high on, like The Salesman and Graduation, which I also saw at MIFF 2016. (Guess that was a pretty good MIFF.) Then there were those that I saw at this year's MIFF, like The Square, which I do indeed have on my current list. There were a few assorted others but I tend to think of them as stretches to qualify as "prominent." The one exception may have been the French film BPM, an award winner at Cannes. But that may be the only exception.

What gives?

As always, we should blame Netflix.

In addition to siphoning off legitimate films and making them seem somehow less legitimate -- or at least, removing any fanfare from their release and reducing them to "just another thing to watch on Netflix" -- the company also creates a platform for low-level foreign films, the type that might otherwise not make a dent anywhere except their country of origin. While this seems like a good thing, it also helps make the greater market more murky. We find it hard now to tell the difference between foreign movies that might have once crossed over and been marketed it to us as international phenomena, the type we should see in the theater, and "just another foreign film."

Funny, that's kind of the same as what they've done to documentaries.

Of course, whether to truly blame Netflix for this, or just to acknowledge that they were the best to capitalize on an inevitable trend, is a matter of debate. I do think, however, that the effects can be seen rippling outward and having an impact on areas such as this one. Whether anything Netflix has done has actually crippled the market, or the perceived market, for foreign language films is unclear. It does seem clear that the wider-ranging impact of the Netflix business model is not yet known, and may not be known for some time.

I also wonder if it can be explained by the fact that foreign directors no longer stay in their own countries, or at least not to the extent that they used to. Twenty seventeen saw new releases from Zhang Yimou, Yorgos Lanthimos, Tomas Alfredson, Olivier Assayas, Nacho Vigalondo, Ana Lily Amirpour, Luc Besson and Niels Arden Oplev, but all of their films had English as the dominant language. That's to say nothing of directors like Guillermo del Toro and Lasse Hallstrom, who have been entrenched in English language films a lot longer. Foreign films are becoming a victim of the success of their directors.

All I know is, when I want to go to the movies to see a foreign language film, there ain't much on to see.

Here's hoping it's just a statistical aberration, a function of the random nature of release dates and the fickleness of public tastes. I don't want my future as a consumer of foreign films to be sifting through all the "just another film"s available on Netflix.

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