The last film by the Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad, Head of the Jury, International Competition at Jio MAMI 21st Mumbai Film Festival with Star, was The Mountain Between Us, where a surgeon and a journalist battle it out in the wilderness after a plane crash.
Despite the high-profile cast (Idris Elba, Kate Winslet) and a much-feted filmmaker (his earlier features, Paradise Now and Omar, received Oscar nominations for Best Foreign Language Film), this survival drama was received with a modest shrug. Could it be the same issue that plagued, say, Asghar Farhadi, who made the rapturously received A Separation and The Salesman (Farhadi is one of a handful of filmmakers who’s won two Academy Awards for Best Foreign Film) before underwhelming the world with Everybody Knows, starring Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz? This was Farhadi’s first film shot outside his native country, Iran, and in Spanish, to boot. Similarly, Abu-Assad’s earlier films were about Palestinians. The Mountain Between Us was his first English-language feature.
Is rootedness — in terms of milieu and language — a necessity for filmmakers to make memorable cinema? Bong Joon-Ho would vehemently say no. The South Korean auteur’s first English feature, Snowpiercer, was a stylish, fascinatingly bizarre and utterly original dystopian thriller that earned some of the best reviews of the year. Newsday called it “a summer movie with a social conscience”, which is the highest kind of compliment in this templated, Marvel/DC-oriented, tentpole-movie era. After his acclaimed Europa trilogy, Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier turned to English in Breaking The Waves, which won the Grand Prix at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival and showcased his Dogme 95 manifesto — the filmmaking philosophy which demands practically no artifice; it could loosely be described as the love child of the documentary and neorealist cinema — to stunned art-house patrons around the world.
You could name a few more such filmmakers, most famously Alfonso Cuarón, with A Little Princess, and Ang Lee, whose Sense and Sensibility was so English an adaptation of a beloved Jane Austen story that many critics were amazed that man behind it was a filmmaker from Taiwan. He had just made The Wedding Banquet, whose drama, similarly, arose from stifling social mores. (It’s about a gay Taiwanese man who marries a woman to placate his parents. It’s something Austen might have written had she been born in modern times: Gay Pride and Prejudice.) Plus, the producer Lindsay Doran said that Lee was the only one among the 15 or so directors she interviewed who really got Austen’s humor. So it would seem that more than rootedness in milieu and language, what matters is the filmmaker’s — if you’ll forgive me — sense and sensibility.
But many great directors have found this cultural barrier insurmountable. Wong Kar-wai’s My Blueberry Nights was a huge bomb. In an interview to Independent Film Channel, he said, “Creatively, for me, because it’s not my own language, my vocabulary and references are limited. I realized that, at the very beginning, you feel a certain stiffness, a (self-consciousness) about this process.” The film, sadly, proved how much of a deterrent this could be. Perhaps the most famous of such flops is Ingmar Bergman’s The Touch, which the Swedish maestro made for a subsidiary of American Broadcasting Company specializing in non-mainstream fare. Bergman hated what he’d made. In his autobiography, he moaned, “I feel ashamed of or detest (only) a few of my films for various reasons. This Can’t Happen Here was the first one; I completed it accompanied by violent inner opposition. The other is The Touch. Both mark the very bottom for me.”
But why? “The intention was to shoot The Touch in both English and Swedish. In an original version that doesn’t seem to exist anymore, English was spoken by those who were English-speaking and Swedish by those who were Swedes. I believe that it possibly was slightly less unbearable than the totally English-language version, which was made at the request of the Americans.” It’s not hard to imagine why Bergman or anyone else would take up such a project. Every filmmaker needs financing — you go where the money comes from. Plus, it could be the challenge: Can I pull this off? Can I show a large studio that I am more than just this arty little guy in an arty little corner of the world? Can I prove that I can command large crews and handle huge budgets and work with big movie stars? Imagine you are Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. You’ve just made The Lives of Others, a superb chronicle of a cruel time that’s also a superb character study and a superb thriller. You win the Oscar for Best Foreign Film and then Hollywood comes calling. You get Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp. You get $100 million. Would you say no?
And we return to Hany Abu-Assad. He wanted to shoot The Mountain Between Us in the actual wilderness, and when you get a Hollywood budget (for his earlier films, he had to put together the financing himself), when you can delegate others to hire the helicopters and obtain permissions for this and that, it makes things so much easier. He told The Times of Israel that he could now focus on just the filmmaking, on executing his vision with sharp single-mindedness. He said something that I found enormously touching. “Life is bigger than you. Now I’m a sellout to Hollywood, I have to think about my $30 million budget film, I have to please so many people, but it’s not necessarily negative. You can’t just show your talent to your fellow directors, you have to connect to regular people.”