Once again, the notion of ‘achievability’ in the Understanding Cinema process, led me to think about what sort of stories should we be encouraging students to tell with their films? How can we make the best of limited resources, to tell stories that translate across cultural boundaries when they are shown to UC participants elsewhere in the world?
What started as a question of pragmatics quickly became a fundamental question of content. Thinking about the international nature of the Understanding Cinema program, and also the early cultural associations of the long take, I came to focus on the notion of ‘dialect’. Roberto Rosellini described the event of neorealism as the entry of ‘dialect’ into Italian cinema, by which he meant a movement towards the specific, the local, the individual, the ‘authentic’, and the ‘real’, and thus away from the generalised, the standardised, the falsely ‘cohesive’, and the falsely ‘universal’. Neorealism has often been seen as a response to Italian fascist cinema in the 40s, which tried to construct grand universal narratives of a unified Italy, papering over the cracks of cultural difference, and whitewashing social problems. The project of neorealism was thus to look for voices that were not being heard – as Christopher Wagtstaff has said, the ‘sermo humilis’, or lowered voice – the shoeshine boys, or men who put up cinema posters (in the films of De Sica and Zavatinni) or the people of the Po Delta or the rubbish sweepers (in the early short documentaries of Antonioni).
On a literal level, dialect refers to a particular, ‘peculiar’, localized form of a language. Dialect has connotations of place, and class; of particular communities, and particular identities. Consider the great Glaswegian poet Tom Leonard’s poem bbc.in/19J3r0f ‘The Six o Clock News’, which shows dialect not only to be a specific question of language, but a wider issue of representation, and the viability of self expression. Leonard’s poem presents a defiant statement of identity, in the face of standardisation. It asks, why is my voice not valid or valuable? Why am I excluded?
As a metaphor, the notion of ‘dialect’ is one with powerful connotations for filmmakers, particularly those with limited resources. Taken metaphorically, dialect is not only relevant to the representation of particular communities, but also of particular identities. It could be said that every person’s life has its own dialect; its own tensions, its own priorities, its own emotions, its own cast of characters, its own geographical scope. Every life is riddled with narrative tension, no matter how seemingly ‘mundane’. As the films of Terence Davies illustrate, the ‘poetry of the ordinary’ is just as, if not more powerful, than the expressive language of Hollywood.
Perhaps one of the leading assumptions about cinema, particularly for children making films for the first time, is about the importance of spectacle; of fantastic places, and fantastic events; of large casts, amazing stunts and big explosions. 2013’s Hollywood blockbusters seemed to compete to see who could render the most abject devastation upon Manhattan (or similair): between Avengers, Transformers, Man of Steel, Pacific Rim and countless others, one could be mistaken for thinking that destroying cities in a loud, expensive (and ultimately very boring way!) represents the peak of cinematic achievement!
I would argue that there is something to be gained from actively countering the glitzy associations of Hollywood filmmaking, with an emphasis on dialect, and neorealism; the notion that the stories arising from every life are of value, that every voice is worth being heard. As Ken Loach has said, drama is not the preserve of one particular group of people.
The core question I have been asking my students (stemming from that evergreen maxim ‘write what you know’) is ; what story can you tell which noone else can tell? How can students look into their own lives – to what is important and significant to them, what makes them feel tense and worried, or happy and at peace – to find stories they want to tell? And there is a pragmatic gain to this as well! ‘Dialect’ driven stories are likely to revolve around more easily accessible locations, and not include any wild stunts or ambitions! Looking ahead to the moment when the Scottish films from the Understanding Cinema program are shown to other participants around the world, it would be wonderful if our films had a real local flavour and texture to them; if they spoke specifically of the lives of kids in Edinburgh, Prestonpans, North Berwick, and everywhere else where the Understanding Cinema program is taking place.
Shane Meadows, a filmmaker who epitomises the use of use ‘dialect’ in cinema, once said that, to say something universal, you have to start somewhere very specific. So why not encourage students to look at their own lives, to see what stories only they can tell?