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Parasite and the Oscars: Can a Middle East Film win cinema's top award?

A foreign feature finally winning Best Picture shows that there is a large audience for non-Hollywood cinema
South Korean director Bong Joon-ho's feature Parasite was the first foreign film to win Best Picture at the Oscars (Curzon 2020)
By Joseph Fahim in Los Angeles, US

Four years ago, during a small family gathering in California, a white American relative asked me for some film tips. At that time, the Oscar-nominated sensation, Toni Erdmann, was the toast of the art-house world, and being a largely accessible proposition, I couldn’t help recommending it to him. Yet the mere suggestion of watching a German comedy was deemed outlandish for my relative. “Can’t you recommend something without subtitles? Something normal? Something… American?” he said, laughing.

The comment, as casual as it was, was very telling of the post-millennial American culture: a largely isolationist bubble where non-American art has been pushed to the margins. The hegemony of Disney and superhero flicks over the film market, coupled with rapidly changing cultural values, including the commodification of art, has led to the demotion of cinema from an art-form to mere entertainment embarked on primarily for escapism and distraction.

 Parasite tells the story of an unemployed family whose life is upturned when the son lands a lucrative tutoring job (Curzon 2020)

Non-American films, no matter how accessible their narratives, were automatically categorised by audiences under the vague notion of the “art-house” with no wider cultural impact whatsoever. New York and San Francisco emerged as the last surviving havens from the neoliberal hurricane that has changed the face of American culture.

Spanish-language and Bollywood films continue to make decent profits in the shrinking American film mart, targeting the still devoted immigrant communities craving for a taste of home. But none of these managed to enter the cultural discourse in the way that TV show binge-watching has done repeatedly over the course of the past decade.

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The still dizzying, miraculous triumph of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite earlier this month at the Oscars might not change that reality, but it might be the kiss of life American and global film culture thoroughly need. And for Middle Eastern cinema, it could prove to be far more significant than the recent major successes from the region.

The evolution of Korean cinema

Apart from a handful of martial arts Asian blockbusters (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Hero), and the occasional Spanish hit (Pan’s Labyrinth), foreign films have seen diminishing returns at the American box-office over the past 20 years, constantly cast into niche cinemas and failing to reach a wider audience.

A seismic shift in how American audiences consume their filmed stories have occurred in the past few years, thanks primarily to the advent of streaming services. As many observers have pointed out, a significant proportion of content on the likes of Netflix - still the biggest streaming service in the US - is in non-English languages. The massive success of German series, Dark, Narcos from Colombia, and La Casa de Papel from Spain, has proven that non-American stories do have a wide appeal for different demographics inside and outside the US.

Language, in other words, may no longer be the stern barrier it has been in the past 20 years. But what about cultural barriers? Now that’s an entirely different ball game.

Parasite 7
Han Jin-won (left) and Bong Joon-ho (right), celebrate winning the Original Screenplay award for Parasite at the 92nd Annual Academy Awards on 9 February 2020 (AFP)

The success of Parasite was not borne out of nothing, nor was it the blip several commentators said it was. Korean cinema has been making waves the world over for nearly a quarter of a century. The Korean New Wave of the late 80s emerged as a reaction to the growing rebellion against the military dictatorship that ruled the country since 1961.

Addressing a variety of hot-button issues as they navigated their way through censorship, the Korean New Wave may not have left much of a mark internationally, but they paved the way for a new generation of local filmmakers to arise, while setting up an infrastructure for an industry that has persisted till this very day. This acclaimed next generation sprang up in the mid-90s, in the waning days of military rule and the start of a freer, and richer, Korea.

Middle Eastern cinema... has never managed to transcend the fundamental obstacles of censorship, industrial economy and colonialist pull

The backdrops of the stories were inherently local, yet both the aesthetics and narratives were drawn from myriad influences, including American cinema.

Instead of tackling their country’s bloody past head-on with the habitual realist approach, filmmakers such as Park Chan-wook, Lee Chang-dong, Jee-woon Kim, among several others, used various genres to tell hybrid stories rooted in the present but with strong reverberations of the past.

The collapse of censorship, the growth of the local market, and the establishment of a robust industry substructure were the key factors that led to the advancement of Korean filmmaking into an autonomous industry with great international appeal.

Parasite was a byproduct of this evolution - a film informed by a distinctive vision, deeply entrenched in Korean culture and realised in a highly acerbic narrative that deviates from commercial norms yet with a sentiment and emotional drive that are easily translatable.

Middle Eastern cinema, by comparison, has never managed to transcend the fundamental obstacles of censorship, industrial economy and colonialist pull. The international acclaim afforded to Iran, the most successful cinema of the region, was drawn simultaneously from fascination with a culture inaccessible to most of the western world, and a sympathy for the cause of the oppressed citizens of the Islamic Republic.

Nadine Labaki's Capernaum is a brutal, unflinching portrait of Syrian refugees in Lebanon (Mooz Films)

Despite its double Oscar win for Asghar Farhadi (A Separation, 2011; The Salesman, 2016) and the Palme d’Or for Abbas Kiarostami (Taste of Cherry, 1997); Iranian cinema failed to break out of the shackles of social realism that has defined its foreign exports for the past quarter of a century.

Egypt continues to possess the strongest, most lucrative market in the region - one of the few cinema sectors in the world where local productions hold the bigger share against Hollywood products. The lack of experience in festival strategising, coupled with dated aesthetics and crippling censorship that reached its apex last year with the monopolisation of the entertainment industry by the government, have curtailed Egyptian cinema from reaching a wider global audience.

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Unlike Korea, the schism between the serious-minded and the mainstream has always been wide in the region, with each group relying heavily on proven formulas that yielded safe but highly predictable results.

The various established and budding cinemas of the region have constantly oscillated between the two extreme models of Egypt and Iran. The expansion of local markets - with more cinemas opening across the region and more local mainstream fare catering for the masses - has led to the proliferation of commercial films. Although these were largely un-exportable, they helped grow a local homegrown audience.

In spite of its colossal success in China and elsewhere, Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum (2018) certainly does not provide a good example for Middle Eastern filmmakers to follow. Its quality and social significance aside, Lebanon’s second Oscar nominee follows the characteristic social realism template most foreign producers, distributors and audiences identify Middle Eastern cinema with. The rigid cinematic model it presents confirms prejudices instead of subverting them. The film is a brutal, unflinching portrait of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. It is effective and sincere, but it doesn’t break away from the habitual subjects Middle Eastern cinema is associated with.

And yet, there’s still plenty to be hopeful about for the expansion and growth of Middle Eastern cinema.

'Colossal success' of Middle Eastern films

The leap Middle Eastern cinema has made over the past 15 years has been colossal. Geographic representation has become, for better or worse, a key factor in the programming of the world’s top film festivals. And international programmers are increasingly making bold choices when it comes to Middle Eastern cinema, with genre and experimental fare figuring in prominently.

More state grants are being offered across the board, especially in the Maghreb countries, where some of the most exciting productions have emerged from in the past few years. More grants have been available across Europe, and more foreign co-producers are taking on non-traditional projects from the region.

Mounia Meddour's Algerian debut, Papicha, met with resounding success in the French market (The Ink Connection/High Sea Prod/Tayda Film)

The commercial success of Capernaum was not a one-off. The Insult from Lebanon, Papicha from Algeria, Omar and Paradise Now from Palestine, 678 from Egypt, and Wadjda from Saudi Arabia - and nearly all of Asghar Farhadi’s films from Iran - have proven that Middle Eastern cinema has a steady leg to stand on when competing at the box office.

The rise of Saudi and Sudanese films have proven that the region’s cinema is not a finished article, while the headway of Saudi exhibition spaces has shown a potential for a substantial regional market growth.

The proliferation of Middle Eastern talents in Europe and America on the other hand helped to distil this undiminishing orientalism

Middle Eastern cinema is still viewed through a lens of exoticism, an exoticism reinforced by the lingering colonialist prejudices of funders, producers and distributors who continue to expect and force prescribed narratives from the region. This, in addition to a number of filmmakers who cater their stories for what they expect the funders and programmers want to see.

The rise of identity politics and the proliferation of Middle Eastern talents in Europe and America on the other hand helped to distil this undiminishing orientalism.

More than any time in history, America has embraced Middle Eastern talents, thanks mainly to the growth of streaming services and online media that have presented non-white talent with fresh opportunities inconceivable in the past.

Aside from the rise of second-generation immigrant Middle Eastern stars (Rami Malek, Mena Massoud, Sam Esmail) in North America, the popularity of television shows such as Ramy, by Egyptian-American comedian Ramy Youssef, have helped break some of the aforementioned cultural barriers and bring Middle Eastern stories to a wide, diverse audience.

The Oscar dream

The coronation of Parasite at the Oscars did not solely rely on the strength and accessibility of its storytelling, however. The Cannes Palme d’Or win was certainly a key factor in the film’s success, proving that the Cannes brand remains a major draw for film professionals and viewers alike.

Marketing was another, in bringing attention not only to the film, but to Korean cinema in general. Millions of dollars were spent in campaigning by the film’s American distributors, Neon, to position the social satire as a serious awards contender in the minds of the progressive Academy members. These in turn pushed to make a statement in bestowing its top prize to a foreign film over some of the worthy American contenders.

I spoke to some of the Academy members who explicitly told me that they voted for Parasite for that specific reason: to “internationalise the Oscars” as one voter put it to me.

And in giving a Korean film with no recognisable stars the highest honour in cinema, the Academy - which has often gone for safe and exceedingly white choices along its contentious history - has pulled off the exceptional feat of introducing a brand new audience to cinema they’ve never been subjected to before.

The Cave
Feras Fayyad’s The Cave was one of two Syrian documentaries to be nominated for an Academy Award this year (Danish Documentary Productions)

The great bump Parasite received in the wake of its Oscar win at the box office has been astonishing, proving that the oldest awards in the industry remains a hugely effective marketing tool. In setting this precedent, Parasite has become that rare film penetrating the cultural discourse the world over.

Middle Eastern filmmakers shall take great encouragement from the Parasite fairytale; the Oscar dream is no longer a far-fetched fantasy.

The epidemic problems that have stood in the way for the development of the region’s cinemas remain largely intact: censorship is still as staunch as ever, funding is inadequate, local markets remain small and not self-sufficient. Most pressing of all, most scripts are still lacking, with few succeeding in fulfilling the potential of the intriguing premises they’re built on.

It will be a long way before a Middle Eastern film is likely to replicate the success of Parasite, but the ground has indubitably been prepared.

The recent flurry of Middle Eastern Oscar nominations and wins (The Salesman, The Insult, Capernaum, The Cave, For Sama, Brotherhood, to name a few) has placed the region’s cinema under the radar. The modest box-office receipts speak of the indie film market as a whole, and not necessarily of the translatability of Middle Eastern stories per se.

Even before Parasite, various Middle Eastern filmmakers had begun to shatter formulas and break free of the shackles of social realism. Some of the most exciting projects in the pipeline are genre hybrids, blending different temperaments and narrative modes with strong political commentaries.

The missing refinement is substituted by increasingly daring aesthetic choices that point towards a determination from younger filmmakers to defy conventions and experiment. Some of these are Ala Eddine Slim’s Tlamess, Amin Sidi-Boumedine's Abou Leila, and Narimane Mari’s Le fort des fous.

The future of cinema globally is still on the cards, but the success of Parasite has shown that there is a large audience for non-Hollywood cinema, including Middle Eastern movies the world over. It just needs to be tapped.

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