World Cinema - Posters

World Cinema: One Film Per Country

Around the World in 102 Films

From the riches of Europe to the remote island nations of Polynesia, the list aims to shift the world’s focus on North American cinema back to the many other equally rich, yet underappreciated film industries around the world. This world cinema list is a true and authentic celebration of foreign cinema. Sparkling with diversity, we offer you 102 of the best foreign films ever made, one film per country.

To write this article, we spent years watching and re-watching every film mentioned in this article; exceptions being those films considered “lost”. Still, our article features merely the top of the iceberg of all the foreign cinema output we watched to compose this list. To make sure each country on this list is represented by an authentic, locally produced film of the highest quality, we’ve watched over 3,000 non-U.S. films in the past two decades.

Pick a Country

AfghanistanAlgeriaArgentinaAustralia AustriaAzerbaijanBangladeshBelarusBelgiumBosnia and HerzegovinaBotswanaBrazilBulgariaBurkina FasoCambodiaCanada ChileChinaColombiaCook IslandsCubaCzechoslovakiaCzech RepublicDenmarkEcuador EgyptEl SalvadorEstoniaEthiopiaFinlandFranceGeorgiaGermanyGreeceHong KongHungaryIcelandIndiaIndonesiaIranIraqIrelandIsraelItalyIvory CoastJamaicaJapanJordanKazakhstanLaosLebanonLithuaniaMacedonia MaliMauritaniaMexicoMongoliaMoroccoMyanmarNepalThe NetherlandsNetherlands AntillesNew ZealandNicaraguaNigeriaNorth KoreaNorwayPalestineParaguayPeruThe PhilippinesPolandPuerto RicoQuebecRomaniaRussiaRwandaSamoaSaudi ArabiaSenegalSerbiaSloveniaSomaliaSouth AfricaSouth KoreaSoviet-Union SpainSri LankaSwedenSwitzerlandTaiwanThailandTunisiaTurkeyUkraineUnited KingdomUruguayUnited States of AmericaVenezuelaVietnamWest-GermanyYugoslaviaZambia

Lists of the best foreign films in the world

While in the past there have been some attempts to create lists with the best foreign films of all time, each one of those lists made our film scholar souls cringe. They either listed a film like Dracula (1992) as an entry for Romania or featured the Outback-drama A Town Like Alice (1956) as an Australian film, failing to recognize that these films were produced and directed by foreigners, starred foreigners, and said very little about the country they attempted to display. You’ll find no such entries on our list!

Travel the World Through Cinema

Over the course of this list, we will travel across the continents to explore the world’s splendorous cinematic landscape. We will highlight hidden gems produced within each geographical region, one film per country. From the famed film industries of France and Italy to the virtually non-existent industries of Myanmar and Saudi Arabia and the now-defunct countries of West-Germany and Yugoslavia; you’ll find them all in the list.

During our cinematic journey across the globe, we will offer you a historical outline of each country’s local film industry. Additionally, we reflect on the socio-political factors that shaped the countries’ cinematic landscape, which resulted in the production of the films we recommend.

The Best Films of Europe

The Best Films of Africa

The Best Films of Asia

The Best Films of Oceania

The Best Films of the Americas

Browse Films by Geographical Region

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South American Cinema (The Milk of Sorrow)

Cinema of South America

Explore the very best movies from South America, based on a selection of over 8,500 films.

Join us in shifting the world’s focus on American cinema back to the many other equally rich, yet underappreciated film industries around the world. In this article series, we highlight several hidden gems produced within a certain geographical region, one film per country, from the riches of Europe to the remote island nations of Polynesia.

As a bonus, we will make a donation to the welfare of wild cats, and the preservation of their habitats, for every film purchased through this site.

Table of Contents

Pick a Country

ArgentinaBrazilChileColombiaEcuador ParaguayPeruUruguayVenezuela

The History of South American Cinema

Early South American cinemas depended heavily on the import of European and North American providers. Local production, much like in Central America, remained focused on creating documentaries. During the 1910s, the film industries of Brazil and Argentina saw rapid growth, which solidified them as the main suppliers of other South American film industries.

Together with Mexico and Spain, the two South American nations extended financial support to local film companies across Latin America. Most South American countries were unable to compete with American films, as they struggled to adopt new technologies such as sound and color film. Co-production deals often demanded a certain number of cast and crew members from each participating country to be working on a film. This meant that as a whole, the Latin American film industry became an international, culturally diverse landscape where actors and directors from different nations would freely work together.

In the 1930s, Brazil started the production of so-called “chanchada” films; melodramatic movies that exaggerated the themes and narrative styles of Hollywood films. This would eventually lead to the creation of “pornomiseria” films. Pornomiseria films were dramatic features showing the poverty and social struggles of the people of Latin America. Though the films were lauded abroad, local critics panned the films, as they misrepresented the true financial and social state of Latin America. Both the chanchada and the pornomiseria paved the way for the now world-famous South American telenovelas.

South American Cinema (The Milk of Sorrow)
(Credit: The Milk of Sorrow / La Teta Asustada, Peru)

Political unrest in Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, Chile, and other countries forced many actors and directors to leave their home countries. Setting up small production companies in both North America and Europe, these exiled artists continued to create political films criticizing the problems troubling their home countries.

Around the late 1980s, most of the military dictators which had ruled South America were ousted, paving the way for democracy. From the late 1980s onwards, a new wave of highly critical social and political films introduced the world to the issues South America had been dealing with under authoritarian rule. Having already established a solid film industry, Brazil and Argentina diversified their output with comedies, horror, and action films.

The Best Films from South America

Enter South America through diverse Colombia, and traverse the jungles of Venezuela to get to vibrant Brazil, before traveling down the west coast crossing the equator in Ecuador, and heading into Peru to explore the country’s less touristic rural regions.

Colombia: Maria Full Of Grace

Director: Joshua Marston, 2004.

World Cinema 094 - Colombia (Maria Full Of Grace)
(Credit: Maria Full Of Grace)

Soon after the introduction of film in Colombia in 1897, a civil war known as the Thousand Days’ War broke out. The war led to a severe economic crisis, and the nation continued to battle with governmental instability. Due to this, very few films were made in Colombia. Before the now lost fiction film María (1922) came out, only documentaries were made.

Colombia’s early feature films were mostly based on folklore and nationalism, though some films addressed political issues, such as Garras de Oro: The Dawn of Justice (1926), in which the main focus lies on the separation of Panama from Colombia. Criticizing both the separation as well as the role of the United States in the event, director P. P. Jambrina made some bold choices in the film. Due to a severe lack of funds, and the rising popularity of foreign films among the Colombian public, the only Colombian film of note before 1940 was To the Rhythm of the Guitars (1938).

Writer Gabriel García Márquez and painter Enrique Grau attempted to rekindle the Colombian film industry in the 1950s with their surrealistic short film The Blue Lobster (1954). It wasn’t until the 1970s, however, that film production efforts really picked up again. Many films produced in Colombia, Venezuela, and Brazil during this period were known as “Pornomiseria” films: films that exaggerated and exploited the idea of poverty and human suffering in South America. The films gained critical acclaim at festivals around the world, but misrepresented the reality of life in Latin America.

Later, more authentic films like The Snail’s Strategy (1993), The Rose Seller (1998), and A Ton of Luck (2006) would be lauded both locally and internationally. The co-production Embrace of the Serpent (2015), a film about a journey through the Colombian Amazonian jungle, was the nation’s first film to be nominated for an Academy Award.

Another film to gain attention was the crime drama Maria Full of Grace (2004), which was co-produced by the United States. Though many foreign films had already been made about the Colombian drug trade, many of these had focused on spectacle and action. Maria Full of Grace, on the other hand, focused on the desolate life of María Álvarez, a seventeen-year-old girl who is tempted to work as a drug mule.

A pregnant Colombian seventeen-year-old in desperate need of money is tempted to become a drug mule.

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Venezuela: My Straight Son

Director: Miguel Ferrari, 2012.

World Cinema 095 - Venezuela (My Straight Son)
(Credit: My Straight Son / Azul y no tan rosa)

Following Brazil, Venezuela became the second South American country to witness the newly invented medium of film. In January 1897, the first locally produced documentary-style films came out, and over a decade later, the first feature film The Lady of Cayenas (1913) followed. Though Venezuelan cinema had an early start, film production stagnated and Venezuela became one of the least prolific filmmaking countries in South America. Outside of producing a handful of fiction films and documentaries, the industry remained dormant.

In the 1940s, with the support of the Mexican and Argentine film industries, the Venezuelan film industry finally flourished. While some studios focused on co-producing films with Mexico to finances films, other studios tried to commercially exploit successful Mexican films by copying their themes and style. Both Mexico and Argentina required Venezuelan actors to appear in their local films, and vice versa, to agree on shooting co-productions. This gave Venezuelan cinema an international feel, which suited the interests of the nation’s public. Soon, Mexican and Argentine film pushed out American films at the cinema.

The Venezuelan government started funding films in the 1970s. This led to the production of several local films which became international successes, such as I Am a Delinquent (1976) and The Smoking Fish (1977). Unfortunately, due to the country’s dependency on exporting oil, Venezuela entered a period of economic downfall after the prices of oil dropped in 1983. The film industry coped with this by co-producing films with Spain and other Latin American countries hit by the Latin American financial crisis.

Like Colombia and Brazil, many “Pornomiseria” films were produced in Venezuela before the local film industry started to paint a more authentic picture of contemporary Venezuelan life. While crime dramas such as Sicario (1994) and Secuestro Express (2005) still focused on poverty and crime, depicting a negative presentation of Venezuela, later films would do the country more justice. Beautiful examples of these later films are My Straight Son (original title: Azul y no tan rosa, 2012) and Bad Hair (2013). The two controversial films explore homosexuality and the idea of sexual freedom in a repressed society. In turn, The Solitude (2016) reflected back on life during the economic crisis in a more realistic and thoughtful manner.

Fashion photography Diego, who’s in a relationship with surgeon Fabrizio, is visited by Diego, his insecure heterosexual teenage son from an earlier relationship.

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Ecuador: Chronicles

Director: Sebastián Cordero, 2004.

World Cinema 096 - Ecuador (Chronicles)
(Credit: Chronicles / Chrónicas)

Situated right on the equator and world-famous for the splendorous wildlife of the Galápagos Islands, Ecuador has been a popular destination for documentary filmmakers since the dawn of cinema. Early local productions included a host of documentaries, news programs, and travelogues.

Following the country’s first fiction feature Atahualpa’s Treasure (1924), not many films were produced, as it was difficult for local directors to compete with the advent of “talkies”. Like many of its surrounding countries, Ecuador sought the help of Mexico to continue producing films. It wasn’t until the late 1980s that the Ecuadorian film industry began to grow. Fueled by international successes such as the countryside drama The Tigress (1990) and crime drama Rodents (1999), the cinematic output of Ecuador was placed on the world map.

Ecuadorian director Sebastián Cordero, who had previously made Rodents, continued to direct several successful films. His suspense thriller Chronicles (original title: Crónicas, 2004), was a typical example of Latin American cinema: though the film was locally made, it was a co-production between Ecuador and Mexico, featuring Spanish actress Leonor Watling and Mexican actor José María Yazpik alongside an Ecuadorian cast.

A sensationalist reporter from Miami travels to an Ecuadorian village to cover the story of a mysterious serial killer who targets children.

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Peru: The Milk of Sorrow

Director: Claudia Llosa, 2009.

World Cinema 097 - Peru (The Milk of Sorrow)
(Credit: The Milk of Sorrow / La Teta Asustada)

Like in many other South American countries, Peruvian cinema started in the late 1890s, and its cinematic landscape was heavily characterized by the production of documentaries for several decades. Early Peruvian films were Water Business (1913) and Resaca (1934), the country’s first sound film.

With its massive mountain ranges and lush jungles, Peru became a popular destination for foreign directors to shoot their films. These films often included low-cost B-movies and travelogue-style documentaries, such as Italy’s Empire in the Sun (1956). In the 1950s, The Photo Cine-Club of Cuzco attempted to breathe new life into the local industry by producing a series of documentaries and several fiction films, among which the drama Kukuli (1961), set in the countryside of Cusco.

Peruvian cinema thrived with the help of government support. Both Kukuli, Cholo (1972), and The City and the Dogs (1985) managed to outperform foreign films at the local box office. Modern Peruvian films take great pride in their history, as they often explore the rich culture of Andean civilization, Amazonian mythology, and local Peruvian legends. Peru also developed a strong animation sector, with films such as Ainbo (2021) exploring the mythologies of the native inhabitants of the Amazon rain forest.

Many films from Peru are adaptations of popular Peruvian novels. Two critically acclaimed book adaptations are Don’t Tell Anyone (1998) and My Brother’s Wife (2005), both based on novels by Peruvian author and talk show host Jaime Bayly. Additionally, Peruvian cinema often focused on the country’s social and political issues and the country’s violent internal conflicts. A beautiful example of a Peruvian film dealing with these issues is Claudia Llosa’s The Milk of Sorrow (original title: La Teta Asustada, 2009), a film co-produced by Spain. The film paints a gorgeous picture of Peruvian society and all its shortcomings, through the story of a young woman suffering from a mysterious disease.

The young Fausta is suffering from a rare disease called the Milk of Sorrow, which is transmitted through the mother’s milk of women who were violated or mistreated during the war of terrorism in Peru.

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Brazil: Elite Squad

Director: José Padilha, 2007.

World Cinema 098 - Brazil (Tropa de Elite)
(Credit: Elite Squad / Tropa de Elite)

From its start, Brazilian cinema was heavily influenced by Hollywood. One of the country’s first big successes was Rocca & Carleto (1908), a remake of the American film The Great Train Robbery (1903). Other successful films were fictionalized reconstitutions of crimes that had made the press headlines. From the 1930s until the late 1950s, melodramatic “chanchada” films, which exaggerated the themes and styles of Hollywood films, dominated the local box office.

In spite of being one of Hollywood’s largest export markets, Brazil also managed to develop its own distinctive narrative style through the chanchada and similar productions. Gilda de Abreu’s The Drunkard (1946) is often mentioned as a typical Latin melodrama. The film drew in large crowds at the box office and sparked the development of the overly dramatized “Pornomiseria” films, and preceded the dawn of the world’s first telenovela, Your Life Belongs to Me (1951).

Though the 1964 coup d’état forced many artists into exile, Brazilian films would gradually move back towards social and political criticism in the 1980s and 1990s. Political drama Memoirs of Prison (1984), based on the unfinished memoir of Graciliano Ramos, tells the story of the author’s time in prison after he was deemed a subversive element by the government.

From the excellent City of God (2002) to the humorous The Man Who Copied (2003), Brazilian cinema would continue to make its mark on the world in the early 2000s with thought-provoking, challenging films portraying life on the edge in modern-day Brazil. As the country’s economy grows and its telenovelas are shown all over the world, it is sometimes easy to forget the struggle of the millions of citizens still living in the country’s favelas – the infamous Brazilian slums.

During the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, athletes were instructed not to visit the metropolis’ favelas. Violence resulting from the narcotics trade in the slums turned the poverty struck neighborhoods into small war zones and to this date, the struggle for life within the favelas continues. Director José Padilha’s immensely popular film Elite Squad (original title: Tropa de Elite) offers audiences a look inside the city’s favelas, through the eyes of the Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais (BOPE), the Special Police Operations Battalion of the Rio de Janeiro Military Police.

The film’s loyalties are at times unclear, shifting from the brutal struggle for police control within the favelas to detailing matters of corruption and excessive violence on behalf of the BOPE. Based on the book Elite da Tropa, written by the ex-police officers André Batista and Rodrigo Pimentel together with author Luiz Eduardo Soares, the film offers a painfully realistic look inside the Brazilian slums every tourist happily ignores.

During a brutal campaign to secure part of the favelas in time for Pope John Paul II’s visit to Rio de Janeiro, Captain Nascimento and his squad mercilessly wage war against the drug-lords that plague the city.

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The Best Films from the Southern Cone

Travel onwards through Southern America to visit the continent’s Southern Cone, where we explore ‘the heart of South America’ in Paraguay, travel down the coast of Chile, hit the birthplace of tango in Uruguay, and end our journey around the world in prolific Argentina.

Paraguay: 7 Boxes

Directed by: Juan Carlos Maneglia & Tana Schémbori, 2012.

World Cinema 099 - Paraguay (7 Boxes)
(Credit: 7 Boxes / 7 Cajas)

Compared to the film industries of other South American film industries, the Paraguayan industry took a long time to come into being. After twenty years of foreign productions being sporadically filmed in Paraguay, director Hipólito Carrón shot the nation’s first local film, Alma Paraguaya (1925). Co-produced with Argentina, Catrano Catrani’s Codicia (1955) later became the first Paraguayan feature-length film.

Being under a military dictatorship from 1954 to 1989, the Paraguayan film industry remained dormant for most of the 20th century. Things slowly started to change after the regime of Alfredo Stroessner was overthrown in 1989: no less than a year later, the Fundación Cinemateca del Paraguay was founded and new cinemas were built. Miss Ameriguá (1994), a light-hearted film dealing with a general with a dubious military past, was the first Paraguayan film to attract foreign attention.

Through light-hearted films such as María Escobar (2002) and international co-productions such as the drama Paraguayan Hammock (2006), Paraguayan cinema continued to develop. To compete with popular American and Argentinian films, the Paraguayan film industry mainly focuses on low-cost comedy films, among which the comedy-drama Capital Week (2010) and the action-adventure flick The Gold Seekers (2017).

An excellent exercise in creating a commercially viable film, while still maintaining a strong and compelling narrative with international allure was the crime film 7 Boxes (original title: 7 cajas, 2012). 7 Boxes turns what starts out as a slice-of-life drama about a 17-year-old wheelbarrow delivery boy into a suspenseful crime fill. The action of the film takes place on the hectic Market Number 4, a daily market in Asunción.

Victor, a 17-year-old wheelbarrow delivery boy, is offered the chance to deliver seven boxes with unknown contents, he unknowingly becomes involved in a serious crime.

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Chile: No

Directed by: Pablo Larraín, 2012.

World Cinema 100 - Chile (No)
(Credit: No)

The wealth of the Potassium nitrate mining industry in the north of Chile allowed early film enthusiasts to start producing documentaries in early 1897. That year, several Chilean shorts were shown in local circuses, but it wouldn’t take long before proper movie venues opened. Film production boomed in the next few decades. The first Chilean feature film, Manuel Rodríguez (1910), told the story of Chilean lawyer and guerrilla leader Manuel Rodríguez Erdoíza, who had fought for Chile’s independence from Spain. The Hussar of the Dead (1925) later recounted the same story, receiving high acclaim for its accurate portrayal of Chilean colonial society.

Despite industry incentives, the Chilean film industry came to a near standstill in the 1940s and 1950s, with only a few films like The Maharaja Diamond (1946) making a profit at the box office. Luckily, the dramas Three Views of the Street (1957) and Let the Dogs Bark (1961) managed to attract the attention of local audiences, and proved the local film industry still had something to say about contemporary society. The so-called New Chilean Cinema led to a wave of experimental films.

Though politics was an important theme in Chilean cinema during the mid-20th century, the 1973 military coup drove many filmmakers and actors out of the country. While in exile, many of them continued to make political films and documentaries criticizing the dictatorship of the country’s new leader, Augusto Pinochet. One film directly addressing the military coup was the political drama Rain over Santiago (1975).

Like in Paraguay, the end of the regime in 1989 meant the start of a new era for the Chilean film industry. To fund local film initiatives, Chile worked together with other nations to produce films. Though some efforts proved successful, Chilean movies still struggled to compete with foreign films. This started to change with the release of Cristián Galaz’s The Sentimental Teaser (1999), a film credited as a truly authentic portrayal of contemporary Chilean society.

Co-produced with Mexico, the political drama No (2012) would later put Chilean cinema firmly on the international map. The film recounts the efforts of the leaders of the opposition to win the 1988 referendum, which would eventually bring democracy to Chile.

After 15 years of oppression, military dictator Augusto Pinochet is pressured by his international allies to hold a referendum on his leadership. No follows the efforts of the general’s opposing parties to win the election and free their country.

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Uruguay: Anina

Directed by: Alfredo Soderguit, 2013.

World Cinema 101 - Uruguay (Anina)
(Credit: Anina)

Situated right next to Argentina, Uruguayan cinemas received most of its films from its prolific neighboring nation. From the first screening in 1898 until 1919, no domestic films were shown in Uruguay. The nation’s first movie, Pervanche (1919) proved unsuccessful, and in the following decade, only three more films followed. A military coup and the Great Depression further stalled the development of the country’s film industry. Though the social drama Two Destinies (1936) proved to be a moderate success, it took the financial backing of the Argentine film industry to really get started on local productions. Popular films from this era are Julio Saraceni’s version of the adventure film The Three Musketeers (1945) and Adolfo Fabregat’s comedy The Detective Goes the Wrong Way (1949).

Due to budgetary constraints, Uruguay, like most of the South American film industries, remained primarily focused on creating documentaries. The economy of Uruguay only began to recover after the reign of dictator Gregorio Álvarez ended in 1985. At the time, direct-to-video releases proved profitable as low-cost alternatives to big-screen films. The drama The Almost-True Story of Pepita the Gunslinger (1993), which saw a middle-class lady rob a number of Montevideo banks, did well in both Uruguay and overseas in Spain. From the late 1990s onwards, films were able to receive government backing. Combined with financial help from Argentina and Spain, the Uruguayan film industry flourished: films such as 25 Watts (2001), Seawards Journey (2003), and A Twelve-Year Night (2018) moved into the niche of offering viewers a ‘slice of life’ from Uruguayan society and proved relatively successful.

Moving into the territory of animation, Alfredo Soderguit’s family film Anina (2013) is one of South America’s most endearing animated films. Based on a novel by Sergio López Suárez, the film tells the story of Anina Yatay Salas, a girl who is constantly bullied over three palindromes in her name. The film wonderfully captures the life of Montevidean kids during the 1990s and incorporates many elements typical for Uruguayan society. From the school busses, streets, and houses to the then-popular hobby of collecting bus tickets with palindrome numbers, everything in Anina manages to reflect key aspects of life in Uruguay.

After getting into a playground skirmish with a bully, Anina and her arch-enemy Yisel are disciplined with a strange form of punishment: they are both given a sealed black envelope which they are not allowed to open for an entire week.

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Argentina: Nine Queens

Directed by: Fabián Bielinsky, 2000.

World Cinema 102 - Argentina (Nine Queens)
(Credit: Nine Queens / Nueve Reinas)

A shot of the Argentine flag waving in the winds, recorded in 1897, is credited as the first film made in Argentine. While like in most Latin American nations it took a while for Argentine filmmakers to move from documentaries to fiction films, Argentina proved to be very successful after doing so. Early highlights are Amalia (1914) and The Apostle (1917), the world’s first animated feature film.

Like in Mexico and Brazil, Argentina’s local film industry flourished. By the 1940s, over 40 films were produced per year. Though the booming film industry was under pressure from a large number of imported films from America, pressure from the Roman Catholic, and government censorship, the industry managed to keep a steady output. After World War II, Argentina created several international hits, among which Story of a Night (1941), Ragged Football (1949), and Thunder Among the Leaves (1958), the latter which starred future sex-symbol Isabel Sarli in her first role. Thunder Among the Leaves was a highly controversial box-office success, as it was the first movie to feature a scene with full-frontal nudity.

Much like in its neighboring countries Paraguay, Uruguay, and Chile, political unrest forced many Argentine artists to leave the country. During the Dirty War of the 1970s and 1980s, local films shied away from social and political themes. Still, the moment censorship was loosened in 1980, a flood of films covering the themes of corruption and impunity came out. Once democracy came in 1983, these films started directly addressing the issues they had only hinted at in the years before. The war comedy Funny Little Dirty War (1983) mocked the Dirty War by restaging the events of the war in a small Argentine town, and The Official Story (1985) addresses the many disappearances during the country’s military coup.

Since then, many Argentine films have been addressing both past and present socio-political issues. The film Camila (1984) tells the true story of a young socialite living in the 1840s who fell in love with a Jesuit priest, bringing down the wrath of the Catholic church on them. Military training camps came under fire in Under Flag (1997), poverty and crime were addressed in Pizza, Beer, and Cigarettes (1998), Garage Olimpo (1999) shed light on the torture dungeons used during the dictatorship, and Eva Perón (1996) attempted to paint a realistic picture of the fabled Evita.

Proving the Argentine film industry had more to offer than melodramas and political films, Fabián Bielinsky’s crime thriller Nine Queens (original title: Nueve Reinas, 2000) scored big on the international market. The film, which tells the story of two small-time con artists hoping to make it big, is both entertaining and compelling. Up until today, Argentine films are shown everywhere in Latin America, and the local film industry often aids the continents’ poorer nations in producing films of their own. Outside of South America, Argentine cinema has managed to receive both commercial and critical success. Recent successes were the Spanish-Argentine co-productions The Secret in Their Eyes (2009) and Wild Tales (2014), which were met with universal acclaim.

Two con artists take on a once-in-a-lifetime scheme, when a forged set of extremely rare stamps known as the Nine Queens comes into their possession.

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Looking for something else? Check out our recommendation for the best films from Europe, films from Eastern Europe, films from Africa, films from South Asia, films from West and Central Asia, films from East and Southeast Asia, films from Oceania and the Pacific, films from North America and films from Central America and the Caribbean.

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Central American and Caribbean Cinema (The Harder They Come)

Cinema of Central America and the Caribbean

Explore the very best movies from Central America and the Caribbean, based on a selection of over 9,100 films.

Join us in shifting the world’s focus on American cinema back to the many other equally rich, yet underappreciated film industries around the world. In this article series, we highlight several hidden gems produced within a certain geographical region, one film per country, from the riches of Europe to the remote island nations of Polynesia.

As a bonus, we will make a donation to the welfare of wild cats, and the preservation of their habitats, for every film purchased through this site.

Table of Contents

Pick a Country

CubaEl SalvadorJamaicaNetherlands AntillesNicaraguaPuerto Rico

The History of Central American Cinema

Throughout most of the 20th century, Central America and the Caribbean region have been plagued by political unrest. Since it was hard to find the funds for producing fiction films, many local industries chose to focus on the creation of documentaries. One of the leaders in the field of documentary filmmaking was the Cuban film industry. Cuban film influenced similar trends in Puerto Rico and Nicaragua, and as a whole, the countries of Central America and the Caribbean became famous for their documentary output.

To produce fiction films, co-productions with Mexico and Argentina were initiated, as well as collaborations with the region’s former colonial powers. In spite of this new development, local film industries remained in a state of arrested development until after local dictatorships were ended, and political barriers were lifted.

Central American and Caribbean Cinema (The Harder They Come)
(Credit: The Harder They Come, Jamaica)

Jamaica and the island nation of the Netherlands Antilles were an exception to the rule, as they migrated from their colonial status to becoming independent nations with relative ease. Following the passing of the Jamaica Independence Act in 1962, the island made a name for itself with the development of its reggae music culture.

Once democracy began to take hold in Central America and the Caribbean, local film industries slowly began to expand. Tackling social and political issues in their home countries, filmmakers managed to create a host of intense, personal dramas, and short films.

The Best Films from Central America

Travel the gateway between North America and South America, by exploring the cinema of Central America: witness the dawn of the film industry in El Salvador, and learn more about the social struggles of the people of Nicaragua.

El Salvador: Cinema Libertad

Director: Arturo Menendez, 2010.

World Cinema 088 - El Salvador (Cinema Libertad)
(Credit: Cinema Libertad)

Over the course of the 20th century, the Central American nation of El Salvador was plagued by political unrest and war. From the guerrilla revolt of indigenous farmers in the 1930s to the 1979 coup d’état to the Salvadoran Civil War which ravaged the country between 1979 to 1992, establishing a local film industry was the least of El Salvador’s worries.

Most films about El Salvador are produced by the United States. Set during the Salvadoran Civil War, the most famous production that focused on El Salvador was Oliver Stone’s Salvador (1986). The film features James Woods as an American journalist covering the war in El Salvador. Salvador showcases a clear bias in favor of the left-wing revolutionaries, rather than the US-supported military operating in the Central American nation. The film was a critical success and received several Academy Award nominations.

Another U.S. film covering the war was John Duigan’s Romero (1989), which centered on Óscar Romero, an Archbishop who risked his life standing up against the tyrannical right-wing parties ruling El Salvador. Romero was assassinated while delivering a sermon in 1980. During his funeral, between 30 and 50 people were killed in the chaos that ensued after smoke bombs exploded in the streets, and rifles were fired from the surrounding buildings.

Since the end of the Salvadoran Civil War in 1992, El Salvador’s economy has been reformed and social conditions have gradually improved. For the first time in years, a niche for entertainment started to form: the release of Luis Mandoki’s locally produced film Innocent Voices (2004) was met with critical acclaim. Based on writer Óscar Torres’s childhood, the film shows the Salvadoran Civil War through the eyes of a young boy.

Though the cinematic output of El Salvador remained small, several talented directors emerged from the ashes of war. One of them was Arturo Menendez, who created a series of short films starting with his debut film Wake Up (2000). Menendez’s attracted international attention with his inspirational short film Cinema Libertad (2010), which served as an ode to cinema, while reflecting on El Salvador’s ongoing social struggles.

Nacho, a boy living in an abandoned cinema, meets a girl named Ela with whom he brings back life to the abandoned movie theater and its inhabitants.

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Nicaragua: Alsino and the Condor

Director: Miguel Littin, 1982.

World Cinema 089 - Nicaragua (Alsino and the Condor)
(Credit: Alsino and the Condor / Alsino y el condor)

Film was introduced into Nicaragua in the late 1890s. Not much is known about possible efforts in starting local production, but it is said that several documentary-style shorts were made by foreign visitors. Though in the 1920s local documentary film production started, these films have not survived. Like in Mexico, most early Nicaraguan films were either damaged or lost. After budget constraints halted the production of the first Nicaraguan fiction film, it took several decades before a successful attempt was achieved: Benjamin Zapata’s El Nandaimeño (1960).

Up until the 1980s, Nicaraguan cinema mostly consisted of documentaries and political films. The films were influenced by Cuban documentary cinema. In 1982 Chilean director Miguel Littín shot what is known as the most influential Nicaraguan film, Alsino and the Condor (original title: Alsino y el condor, 1982). The film focused on socio-political issues, commenting on U.S. interventionism and Nicaragua’s quest for freedom. Co-productions with Chile, Mexico, and Spain soon became commonplace. One of these international productions was Littín’s Sandino (1991), a film on the U.S. occupation of Nicaragua in 1927. Other films co-produced with foreign nations were The President (1983), made together with Cuba, and Walker (1987), made by the United States and Mexico.

After 1984, the Nicaraguan Film Institute, which had funded many of the country’s productions during the early 1980s, could no longer continue to finance the industry as the Contra War took priority. During this period, the revolutionary war film Carla’s Song (1996) attracted attention. The film focused on a Nicaraguan exile and was produced and funded through foreign nations.

Nowadays, Nicaraguan cinema focuses on experimental shorts similar to El Salvador, an example of which is the short film Ruteados (2013). Additionally, several amateur productions saw the light of day over the course of the last two decades. These films, like Florence Jaugey’s female boxing drama La Yuma (2008), are often still co-produced with Spain, Mexico, and other foreign nations. The film has a tendency to focus on the everyday reality of Nicaraguan life.

Living with his grandmother in a remote area of Nicaragua, the young Alsino becomes engulfed in the war between rebels and government troops.

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The Best Films from the Caribbean

Go island hopping in the tropical Caribbean, where we visit the colorful street of Cuba, blaze to the reggae music of Jamaica, hit the beaches of Puerto Rico, and explore the culture and traditions of the Netherlands Antilles.

Cuba: Strawberry and Chocolate

Director: Tomás Gutiérrez Alea & Juan Carlos Tabío, 1993.

World Cinema 090 - Cuba (Strawberry and Chocolate)
(Credit: Strawberry and Chocolate / Fresa y Chocolate)

Like in its surrounding countries, the cinematographe arrived in the late 19th century. After visiting Mexico, Gabriel Veyre brought the device to Havana in 1897 to show four short films. Veyre would go on to shoot the first film on the island; a short documentary on the island’s firemen. Though in the next few decades mostly documentary films were created, a few short fiction films were produced that imitated American slapstick films and French comedies. In 1937, the first Cuban feature-length fiction film was produced.

Production of feature film continued up to the Cuban Revolution of 1959, after which the Instituto Cubano del Arte y la Industria Cinematográficos (ICAIC) was founded: a governmental institution to develop national cinema. Many of the films produced under the ICAIC were focused on anti-imperialism and the glory of the revolution, such as the contemporary drama Memories of Underdevelopment (1968) and the historical drama Lucía (1969).

In parallel with the local film industries, Cuban directors living in exile told their stories through films such as The Worms (1978). Similar local and foreign productions focused on the coming and going of Cubans in exile. Examples include the comedy Amigos (1985), which tells the story of Cuban exiles living in Miami, or Parting of the Ways (1985) and Honey for Oshún (2001), which focused on the troubled return of exiles returning to Cuba.

Throughout its history, Cuban cinema remained famous for its documentary output. Still, the country frequently produced new fiction films. Due to their strong focus on an array of social and political issues, this led to a few controversies. Alfredo Guevara was ousted from his position as head of the ICAIC due to his handling of the Cuban novel-adaption Cecilia (1982), and his successor Julio García Espinosa was retired after his film Alice in Wondertown (1991) was too critical of the bureaucracy of the government. Guevara returned to fight back governmental influence, and a few years later the controversial Strawberry and Chocolate (original title: Fresa y Chocolate, 1993) came out; the first Cuban film to be nominated for an Academy Award.

Strawberry and Chocolate was one of many Cuban co-productions with Spain and Mexico. From the 1960s onwards, international co-productions helped Cuba in the funding of its cinematic output. Co-producing films with Spain did however come with some requirements: Spain would demand a certain number of cast and crew members to be Spanish in order for them to co-finance a production. Cuba itself in turn helped other Latin American nations to produce films through technical support, as was the case with our earlier recommendation, Alsino and the Condor.

Strawberry and Chocolate tells the story of two men who are each other’s opposites in every way: when a skeptical homosexual man initiates a friendship with a prejudiced communist, both their views are challenged.

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Jamaica: Rockers

Director: Ted Bafaloukos, 1978.

World Cinema 091 - Jamaica (Rockers)
(Credit: Rockers)

After several decades of arrested development in the local film industry, the Jamaican government passed The Motion Picture (Encouragement) Act in 1948. Still, finance remained one of the largest growth barriers in the Jamaican film industry. In order to market the island as a top-ranking filming location and negotiate deals with foreign film companies, the Jamaican Film Commission followed in 1984.

Jamaica cinema’s first and most internationally recognized success was Perry Henzell’s The Harder They Come (1972). The film focused strongly on Jamaica’s vibrant culture of Reggae music. Reggae found its origin on the island, stemming from early Ska and Rocksteady music. The genre was heavily popularized by Bob Marley and the Wailers and other Jamaican musicians, and The Harder They Come led to a new wave of popularity within the genre.

In The Harder They Come, Jimmy Cliff plays Ivan, a poor and unemployed Jamaican who dreams of becoming a successful Reggae singer. Ivan soon learns the world he hopes to enter is filled with corrupt record producers and drug dealers. By coupling a strong underlying social theme with an exercise in rhythm, the film managed to bring Reggae culture to the world.

The success of The Harder They Come led to the production of several other successful local films, among which the comedy-drama Smile Orange (1976) the drama Countryman (1982), in which a young American is framed for drug-pushing by Jamaican politicians. Ted Bafaloukos’ Rockers (1978) closely followed the style of The Harder They Come in creating a musical comedy-drama marinated in Reggae culture. Like The Harder They Come, the film had a small budget, but managed to capture reggae culture at its peak. Today, Jamaica’s reggae culture is still celebrated through the Reggae Film Festival, which was started in 2008 in Emancipation Park.

Jamaican Horsemouth buys a motorcycle to make some extra money by selling and distributing records across the island, but when his bike gets stolen, things take a turn for the worse.

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Puerto Rico: Lovesickness

Director: Carlitos Ruiz Ruiz & Mariem Pérez Riera, 2007.

World Cinema 092 - Puerto Rico (Lovesickness)
(Credit: Maldeamores / Lovesickness)

The history of cinema in Puerto Rico begins with the United States’ invasion of the island in 1898. Cinema had been around in the United States for several years, and American soldiers brought cameras to record their experiences on the island. Like in Puerto Rico’s surrounding countries, cinema remained focused on the production of documentaries for quite some time. Photographer Rafael Colorado D’Assoy’s A Drama of Puerto Rico (1912) was the first fiction film to come out. Over the course of the decade, several film production companies were founded, leading to a growth in cinematic output.

A highlight within the Puerto Rican film industry was American director Jack Delan’s Los Peloteros (1953), which was based on a true story. In the film, an impoverished children’s baseball team tries to find the money to purchase baseball uniforms in order to join the little league. Other local successes during the 1950s were musicals, such as Maruja (1959).

Backed by the booming Mexican film industry, the 1950s and 1960s were a period of prosperity in the Puerto Rican film industry. In addition to Mexican films, the island hosted a large number of United States productions, such as Bob Hope’s The Private Navy of Sgt. O’Farrell (1968).

For a while, international co-productions brought money into the local film industry. While the United States continued to film many productions on the island, the 1970s did see a decline in local productions. One director who managed to stand out was Jacobo Morales, who’s multi-narrative drama …And God Created Them (1979) and the romantic drama What Happened to Santiago (1989) managed to receive critical acclaim.

From Woody Allen’s Bananas (1971) and Steven Spielberg’s Amistad (1997) to Steven Soderbergh’s Che (2008), Puerto Rico remained host to a series of high-profile American films. The continued presence of cinema on the island eventually led to a new filmmaking boom in the 2000s. Most of these local productions are seen as art-house films, as they continuously have to compete with Hollywood films in local cinemas. An exception to the rule was Carlitos Ruiz Ruiz and Mariem Pérez Riera’s three-part romantic comedy-drama Lovesickness (original title: Maldeamores, 2007), which became a big box office success.

Maldeamores takes a look at the ironies of love through three stories involving a middle-class family, a hostage situation, and an elderly couple.

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Netherlands Antilles: Tula: The Revolt

Director: Jeroen Leinders, 2013.

World Cinema 093 - Netherlands Antilles (Tula - The Revolt)
(Credit: Tula: The Revolt)

As a successor to the Dutch colony of Curaçao and Dependencies, the Netherlands Antilles came into being in 1954. The Netherlands Antilles consisted of six islands and was a constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands until it was dissolved in 2010. The Antilles have their own distinct culture, as is evident in their cinematic output. Though only a handful of films were produced within the island nation, those films did thrive to showcase local culture. Most of them were co-produced with the Netherlands, either through technical direction or through funding.

A notable example of Antillean cinema is Sander Burger’s The Panman: Rhythm of the Palms (2008), a co-production between the Netherlands and the island of Sint Maarten. The film tells the story of the rise and fall of the steel drum pan player Harry Daniel, a local icon of the Dutch Caribbean. The film shows the importance of the islands’ pan drum culture, and how local traditions lie under threat of foreign influences.

Hopping over to the island of Curaçao, Jeroen Leinders’ Tula: The Revolt (2013) travels back in time to tell the story of one of the island’s most famous historical figures, Tula. Tula was one of the many African men enslaved on Curaçao in the late 18th century. In 1795, Tula became the leader of the island’s largest slave revolt. Tula, portrayed in the film by British actor Obi Abili, fought for human rights and independence long before slavery was eventually abolished in the Antilles in 1863.

Out of the six islands within the Netherlands Antilles, Curaçao is the largest. As there are more resources available to produce films on the island, the Curaçao film industry is by far the most prolific. Bridging the dissolvent the Netherlands Antilles, a recent film in the Papiamento language from Curaçao is Buladó (2020). Set in Band’abou, in the island’s countryside, the film centers on two men, each following their own believes: while rational police officer Ouira prefers to keep a clear mind, Weljo values the exploration of the spiritual believes of the people of Curaçao.

In 1795, a slave named Tula working on the island of Curaçao in the Dutch East Indies, stands up against his oppressors and leads a revolt to give his people back their freedom.

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Looking for something else? Check out our recommendation for the best films from Europe, films from Eastern Europe, films from Africa, films from South Asia, films from West and Central Asia, films from East and Southeast Asia, films from Oceania and the Pacific, films from North America and films from South America.

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North American Cinema (Casablanca)

Cinema of North America

Explore the very best movies from North America, based on a selection of over 9,100 films.

Join us in shifting the world’s focus on American cinema back to the many other equally rich, yet underappreciated film industries around the world. In this article series, we highlight several hidden gems produced within a certain geographical region, one film per country, from the riches of Europe to the remote island nations of Polynesia.

As a bonus, we will make a donation to the welfare of wild cats, and the preservation of their habitats, for every film purchased through this site.

Table of Contents

Pick a Country

Canada QuebecMexicoUnited States of America

The History of North American Cinema

The output of the American film industry reaches almost every corner of the globe. While most film production companies started business in New York, close to the theatrical spectacles of Broadway, many movie makers moved west in the early 1910s. Director D. W. Griffith’s In Old California (1910) was the first film shot in Hollywood, then a small village north of Los Angeles. Financial benefits and the promise of excellent weather conditions year-round eventually led to the migration of the American film industry. Both Canadian and Mexican actors and filmmakers came to Hollywood to make their name, and back in their home countries, film production started to thrive as well.

With Spain and most of Latin America controlled by fascist governments, local film production struggled to take off during the first half of the 20th century. Meanwhile, the Mexican film industry flourished. The country had a wide network of distribution for its cinematic output and became a major player in the South American market.

North American Cinema (Casablanca)
(Credit: Casablanca, U.S.A.)

After World War II, American films flooded the European markets. Impoverished by the war, most of the European nations had no resources to restart local film productions and up until today, Hollywood dominates Western European cinemas. Down South, Mexico is still equally strong, producing films for the entire Latin American market. Canada, meanwhile, found a strong niche in producing high-quality local films, with an international appeal.

The Best Films from North America

Live the American dream through the cinematic output of the United States of America, bask in the beauty of the northern lights in Canada, and explore the uniqueness of French Quebec, before moving south towards Latin America, where Mexico once dominated the entire film industry.

United States of America: Plan 9 from Outer Space

Directed by: Edward D. Wood Jr., 1958.

World Cinema 085 - United States (Plan 9 from Outer Space)
(Credit: Plan 9 from Outer Space)

Which movie were you hoping to find? The Shawshank Redemption (1994)? The Godfather (1972)? Sorry, but no. For a country producing over 800 films a year, it’s not very realistic to single out one great movie to represent all of its cinematic output, and pretending to be able to do so would be laughable at best. The franchise-producing, local-industry-wrecking juggernaut known as Hollywood churns out more films than any other country in the world, offering more new films within a single week than most countries do in an entire decade.

Movie stars treading red carpets, cameras flashing… The glitter and glamour of Hollywood all began in the early 20th century, not long after the introduction of cinema. In the 1910s, America’s major film studios moved from New York to Los Angeles to be less dependent on weather conditions for shooting their film productions. This decision led to a wave of growth within the industry, turning the small, west American community of Hollywood into the birthplace of the world’s most dominant film industry.

Following the shift from silent films to talkies as brilliantly displayed in Singin’ in the Rain (1952), Hollywood films became an international phenomenon. Producing classics such as The Birth of a Nation (1915), Gone with the Wind (1939), and Citizen Kane (1941), the United States reached what is now known as “the Golden Age of cinema” around the 1940s. During World War II, import embargos prevented American films from entering Europe. Once the war ended and import embargos were lifted, Hollywood flooded the European markets with its stockpile of content. Due to its crippled economy, Europe was unable to (quickly) re-establish its own national film industries. Meanwhile, the United States continued to increase its cinematic input, and developed the industry through the introduction of sound, color, and widescreen film. Unable to compete with the big-budget American motion picture industry, many European nations started the production of small-scale art house films instead.

Back in the States, different decades saw different genres peak, with musical productions peaking in the 1930s and 1960s, and Westerns in the 1950s and 1960s. After a period of increasingly adult dramas, such as The Graduate (1967), family films spiked after the release of Star Wars (1977). During the 2000s and 2010s, superhero films became the driving force at the box office. All the way up until the Space Race of the 1960s, science fiction films were quite popular as well. Though many artistic gems were produced, the genre also perfectly lends itself for the production of cheap exploitation films. In 1958, when the genre was already considered as good as dead, director Ed Wood created his masterpiece Plan 9 from Outer Space (1958).

Plan 9 from Outer Space represents the cream of the long-expired crop. Though the term “worst movie ever made” is distributed left and right for titles ranging from The Room (2003) to Birdemic: Shock and Terror (2010), the master of bad form, slithering at the bottom of the barrel, will always be the illustrious Edward D. Wood Jr. Dead serious in his attempt at cinema, Wood failed in every way but one: his films are considered wildly amusing due to their inherent lack of quality, and have a strong cult following.

When it comes to American cinema, it really doesn’t get much worse than this. Wood’s entire repertoire gave Americans enough lessons in ‘what not to do’ for decades to come, making Plan 9 from Outer Space an essential piece of cinema to watch for anyone who thinks they know and love American films.

A tale of flying saucers, aliens, and zombies, Plan 9 from Outer Space tells the story of a group of aliens invading Earth by animating an army of zombies to do their bidding.

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Canada: My Life Without Me

Directed by: Isabel Coixet, 2003.

World Cinema 086A - Canada (My Life Without Me)
(Credit: My Life Without Me)

Several icons of world cinema traveled to Niagara Falls in 1897 to film the magnificent waterfalls on the nation’s southern border. Production companies Lumière, Edison, and Biograph each documented the spectacle of Niagara Falls, ushering in the era of cinema in Canada. The first true Canadian film was made in the same year, by local documentarist James Freer. The short adventure film Hiawatha, the Messiah of the Ojibway (1903) marked the start of fiction film production, and the drama Evangeline (1913) became the country’s first feature film.

In 1927, the British government set a strict quota for the number of British films that had to be shown in British cinemas. Like all other nations in the British Empire, the Canadian and Australian film industries benefitted greatly from the act, as it expanded their distribution market. The British Cinematograph Films Act, however, demanded that only films made by and shot in Great Britain would be accepted as being part of the quota. The Act greatly reduced the Canadian film industry, and over the next few decades, local studios had to come up with inventive ways to fund their new productions.

Neighboring the United States and sharing their language as well as many of its cultural aspects, both Canadian films and Canadian actors are often mistaken for American ones. Famous Canadian actors who found their fame in Hollywood are Ryan Reynolds, Jim Carrey, Pamela Anderson, Michael J. Fox, Michael Cera, and Leslie Nielsen.

American distribution became a large part of the Canadian film industry’s financial strategies. Due to competition from their southern neighbor’s studios, however, local cinema didn’t thrive as well as films in other British territories such as Australia. Canada became a country of small films, which would sometimes turn into great hits. The teen sex comedy Porky’s (1981), made on a budget of $4-5 million, became the most successful Canadian film of all time, earning back $136 million. Still, it wouldn’t qualify for this list as Porky’s was neither directed by a Canadian nor shot in Canada.

Other small films that hit it big were the screwball comedy Meatballs (1979) and the mysterious sci-fi film Cube (1997). Like many European countries, the Canadian film industry also turned towards the production of art-house films to find success. The bilingual Bon Cop, Bad Cop (2006), a police comedy covering a murder on the Ontario-Quebec border, and the romantic drama My Life Without Me (2003) were great examples of the country’s artistic output. More than any country, Canada has proven the value of quality over quantity.

Upon finding out she is terminally ill, a modest 23-year-old mother decides to keep her illness a secret and compiles a list of things to do before she dies.

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Canada (II): Incendies

Directed by: Denis Villeneuve, 2010.

World Cinema 086B - Canada (Incendies)
(Credit: Incendies)

To honor Quebec’s distinctive cinema, we’ve added an additional (French) Canadian film to our list: Incendies. Though the first film in Quebec was screened in 1896, it would take 60 years before the French-speaking region of Canada could properly establish its film industry. During the first half of the 20th century, the Catholic clergy heavily censored the French Canadian motion picture industry. Early commercial films such as Le père Chopin (1945) and Tit Coq (1953) were only moderately successful.

After the French branch of the National Film Board of Canada was established in 1959, production started to pick up. Quebec’s censorship bureau was replaced by a modern film rating system in 1967, and government subsidies allowed a wider release for locally produced films. Over the next decades, Quebec managed to produce several critically acclaimed international art house films, such as My Uncle Antoine (1971), The Decline of the American Empire (1986), and Jesus of Montreal (1989).

In 2006, the action-comedy Bon Cop, Bad Cop overtook the English Canadian film Porky’s as the most successful Canadian film at the Canadian box office. The film revolved around the concept of Canada’s mixed cultures and languages and explored the relationship between the French-speaking Quebec and the English speaking Ontario through the film’s main characters: two police officers – one Ontarian and one Québécois – who reluctantly join forces to solve a murder.

The 2010s marked many successes for Quebec cinema, as three of its films were nominated for Academy Awards. Denis Villeneuve’s compelling yet devastating family drama Incendies (2010) placed Quebec within the framework of the modern world, telling the story of an Arab immigrant family living in Canada.

After her mother passes away, Jeanne journey to the Middle East to find the biological father and brother of her and her twin, Simon.

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After her mother passes away, Jeanne journey to the Middle East to find the biological father and brother of her and her twin, Simon.

Mexico: Instructions Not Included

Directed by: Eugenio Derbez, 2013.

World Cinema 087 - Mexico (Instructions Not Included)
(Credit: Instructions Not Included / No Se Aceptan Devoluciones)

In 1895, Thomas Edison’s kinetoscope was used to show the first moving pictures in Mexico. The screening was soon followed by a show based on Auguste Lumière’s cinematograph projector in 1896. Though the Mexican film industry itself started off during the silent era of film, not many of the produced films have been preserved.

After the major American studios moved to Los Angeles in the 1920s, many Mexican movie stars moved to the United States to break through in Hollywood. In that time, Ramón Novarro and Dolores del Río were big names in the business; nowadays, Diego Luna, Salma Hayek, and Gael García Bernal are some of the most famous Mexican actors who found their place in the U.S. While some actors left Mexico, others stayed behind to work in the local industry, which at the time found success with the prostitution drama The Woman of the Port (1934) and the war film Let’s Go with Pancho Villa (1936).

In the 1940s, the Mexican film industry grew thrice its size; Mexican films dominated the film market in Latin America. Spanish-speaking countries that would later develop a strong film industry like Argentina and Spain were still controlled by fascist governments and posed no threat. Mexican films showcase all aspects of Mexican society, and in the 1960s, a Mexican film The Important Man (1961) was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

The dawn of other Spanish-language film industries diminished the success of the Mexican film industry, but through government incentives, a new period of Mexican cinema was entered in the 1990s. Director Robert Rodriguez entered the market with El Mariachi (1992), and Guillermo del Toro followed, directing Cronos (1993). The New Mexican Cinema explored Mexican culture through the lens of small-scale, underground dramas such as the harsh Love’s a Bitch (2000) and the coming-of-age road movie And Your Mother Too (2001).

Modern Mexican cinema widened the spectrum, with the dark fantasy film Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), comedy-drama Instructions Not Included (original title: No Se Aceptan Devoluciones, 2013), and the acclaimed drama Roma (2018). Our Mexican entry Instructions Not Included shares similarities with our Czech entry, Kolya: both film feature a man forced to take care of an unwanted child. Still, the style, execution, and plot of Instructions Not Included are different enough to create a unique, heartwarming family epic.

Playboy and womanizer Valentín is forced to create order in his dissolute life, when a former American fling leaves their love baby on his doorstep and takes off without a trace.

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Looking for something else? Check out our recommendation for the best films from Europe, films from Eastern Europe, films from Africa, films from South Asia, films from West and Central Asia, films from East and Southeast Asia, films from Oceania and the Pacific, films from Central America and the Caribbean and films from South America.

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Oceanian Cinema (Mad Max)

Cinema of Oceania and the Pacific

Explore the very best movies from Oceania and the Pacific, based on a selection of over 9,100 films.

Join us in shifting the world’s focus on American cinema back to the many other equally rich, yet underappreciated film industries around the world. In this article series, we highlight several hidden gems produced within a certain geographical region, one film per country, from the riches of Europe to the remote island nations of Polynesia.

As a bonus, we will make a donation to the welfare of wild cats, and the preservation of their habitats, for every film purchased through this site.

Table of Contents

Pick a Country

Australia Cook IslandsNew ZealandSamoa

The History of Oceanian Cinema

Over the course of the 19th century, the many islands in Oceania were under constant threats from British, Spanish, French, Dutch, German, and American ships. With most of Oceania being under colonial control to some extent in the early 20th century, cinema on the Pacific Islands, as well as in Australia and New Zealand, was heavily influenced by Europe. In spite of most nations being granted independence by the mid-20th century, many film productions taking place in Oceania were still produced by foreign industries.

Up until the 1950s, for example, many films shot in Australia were produced by either the United Kingdom or the United States, even when they were adaptations of Australian novels, set in the Australian Outback. Still, Australia was the only country in the region that managed to compete with the flood of imported films coming from Western Europe and North America and establish a film industry of its own.

Oceanian Cinema (Mad Max)
(Credit: Mad Max, Australia)

The Lord of the Rings-films, released in the early 2000s, presented the lush and beautiful landscapes of New Zealand to the world in a way no-one had ever done before. The films sparked interest in the country as a location for shooting films, and several New Zealand directors have gathered attention at the worldwide box office since.

While production still remained virtually non-existent in the Pacific’s many island nations, recent local incentives have stimulated the interest of locals in film. Samoa and the Cook Islands now boast a handful of aspiring filmmakers, who aim to share the traditions and cultures of their people through short films…

The Best Films from Oceania and the Pacific

Get lost in the vast Outback of Australia, and scale the snow-capped mountains of New Zealand, before sailing a mōkihi to the remote island nations of Samoa and the Cook Islands.

Australia: The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

Directed by: Stephan Elliott, 1994.

World Cinema 081 - Australia (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert)
(Credit: The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert)

The production of The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906) marked the beginnings of the Australian film industry. Throughout the history of Australian cinema, the story of Ned Kelly has been a popular subject of film: there are over 10 films based on the life of the infamous bushranger and outlaw. Australia soon became one of the most prolific film-producing countries in the world.

During and after World War II, Australia produced several successful historical war dramas, such as 40,000 Horsemen (1940) and The Overlanders (1946). In the decade that followed, many popular Australian books and plays were adapted to film through co-productions with the United Kingdom and the United States, such as A Town Like Alice (1956) and Robbery Under Arms (1957). Producing films for the English-language market, Australia had a relatively secure market to operate in.

Over the years, many Australian actors were welcomed to Hollywood: George Lazenby replaced Sean Connery to play James Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), Nicole Kidman made her Hollywood debut with Days of Thunder (1990), and when Mad Max (1979) became an international hit, it turned Irish-Australian actor Mel Gibson into an international star. Additionally, British actor Hugo Weaving who resided in Australia hit all the right spots as drag-queen ‘Tick’ in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994). The film mixed the cinematographic landscape of the Outback with contemporary urban sub-culture and set Weaving on his path to star in The Matrix (1999), The Lord of the Rings (2001), and V for Vendetta (2005).

Nowadays, the 1970s and ‘80s are regarded as the “Golden Age of Australian cinema”. This period saw the release of the Outback dramas Walkabout (1971), Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) and A Cry in the Dark (1988), as well as the dark science fiction film Mad Max and the more light-hearted Babe (1995), war epics ‘Breaker’ Morant (1980) and Gallipoli (1981), and the popular romantic comedies Crocodile Dundee (1986) and Muriel’s Wedding (1994).

Though the 2000s were less successful for Australia, films such as Moulin Rouge! (2001) and Happy Feet (2006) still proved to be international hits. Another notable example of Australian cinema was Daniel Nettheim’s eco-thriller The Hunter (2011), set on the remote island of Tasmania. The Hunter combines its unique, atmospheric setting, with a terrific layered performance by Willem Dafoe as the titular hunter.

Riding Priscilla, a lavender-colored bus, two drag-queen performers, and a transgender woman travel across the Australian desert to perform their show at a resort in Alice Springs.

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New Zealand: Once Were Warriors

Directed by: Lee Tamahori, 1994.

World Cinema 082 - New Zealand (Once Were Warriors)
(Credit: Once Were Warriors)

After debuting its first feature film in 1914 following a period of exploration with film as a medium for documentary, a small-scale film industry developed in New Zealand. Unlike in its neighboring country, Australia, very few films were produced. It wasn’t until the establishment of the New Zealand Film Commission in 1978 that local cinema really found its footing in New Zealand. The island nation became an international player with the musical drama The Piano (1993) and the biographical film Heavenly Creatures (1994).

Though local Kiwi directors Peter Jackson and Taika Waititi undoubtedly put New Zealand on the map as a country of splendor with modern blockbuster films such as The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) and indie gems like Boy (2010) and What We Do in the Shadows (2014), the country also has a rich history of art films. Though American and British movies often take preference at award ceremonies based on English-language films, it would be a shame to overlook the gems sprung from New Zealand’s artistic wells.

Over the past few decades, the New Zealand government has taken a stand for the country’s Māori minorities, by allowing tribes to claim compensation for the historic injustices done to them and by supporting the preservation of their cultural heritage. Though laudable, these offers are a far stretch from improving the individual lives of those still living in poverty. In 1994, director Lee Tamahori kick-started his career with Once Were Warriors (1994), a film assessing the struggles of a lower class Māori family.

Though, sadly, the director’s career plunged downhill at a disturbing pace with lackluster commercial projects such as Next (2007) and franchise-killers Die Another Day (2002) and XXX: State of the Union (2005), his Māori drama still stands tall. The layered drama manages to display the reality of alcohol abuse and domestic violence in a brutally honest way and is superbly acted out by Māori actors Rena Owen and Temuera Morrison.

Based on author Alan Duff’s bestselling 1990 novel of the same name, Once Were Warriors tells the story of an urban Māori family struggling with poverty, alcoholism and domestic violence.

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Samoa: The Orator

Directed by: Tusi Tamasese, 2011.

World Cinema 083 - Samoa (The Orator)
(Credit: The Orator / O Le Tulafale)

Around 3,500 years ago, the Samoan Islands were first settled during the Austronesian expansion. Contact with Europeans was established in the 18th century when Dutch, English, and American ships began to arrive. Serving as a colony of Germany, and later New Zealand, Western Samoa was separated from the United States’ territory of American Samoa. Still, relations between the islands were good, and American director Robert J. Flaherty filmed the anthropology documentary Moana (1926) on Samoa, as a spiritual follow-up to his earlier film, Nanook of the North (1922).

Though the United States used American Samoa as a filming location for Return to Paradise (1953) and Pacific Destiny (1956), film production on Samoa remained virtually non-existent. Samoa gained its independence in 1962, and it would take several decades more before the country started to produce its own films. Foreign influences remained small, as the screening of films in Samoa’s only cinema was strictly censored, and many foreign films were banned.

In the early 2010s, the short films Sacred Spaces (2010) by Tusi Tamasese, and Malaga (2010) by Daniel Poleki and Robert Poleki made a splash at international short film festivals in New Zealand, Canada, and Hawaii. A year later, Tamasese directed the island nation’s first-ever feature film, The Orator (original title: O Le Tulafale, 2011). The film was shot entirely in Samoa and features a Samoan cast. Samoan chief Manu Asafo served as Tamases’s cultural advisor. The chief described the film as an attempt “to portray Samoan culture”, displaying the life and traditions of the people of Samoa.

Small in stature, the humble taro farmer Saili is forced to defend his land and family, following the ancient customs and traditions of his village to do so.

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Cook Islands: Dog Save the Queen

Directed by: Marcus Hamill, 2013.

World Cinema 084 - Cook Islands (Dog Save the Queen)
(Credit: Dog Save the Queen)

Throughout over 100 years of cinema, only two notable films were (partly) shot on the Cook Islands: Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983), and The Other Side of Heaven (2001). Like Samoa, the Cook Islands were colonized in the late 19th century and later became a dependent territory of New Zealand. Though the island nation is still part of the Realm of New Zealand, the islands gained independence in 1965.

Even though there are two cinemas in Rarotonga, it took a long time before a local film was ever shown there. In the early 2010s, Stan Wolfgramm, one of the founders of the cultural Te Ara Museum on Rarotonga, sparked the first developments in the local film industry with the launch of the project Film Raro. The project was meant to put the Cook Islands on the map as a mecca for tropical island filming, and filmmakers from all over the world were invited to hand in scripts for potential short films.

Receiving just under 2,000 scripts, Wolfgramm selected six teams of enthusiastic film-makers, who were then flown to Rarotonga. The film crews turned the island into a film studio for two weeks, mentoring locals in the art of cinema, and shooting their films. In spite of the tropical torrential rain plaguing the island on the day of the premier, close to five thousand Cook Islanders attended the event – almost 50% of the island nation’s population. Film Raro was a great success, and in the years that followed several other Samoan shorts were produced.

The six short films shown at the 2013 festival were The Seed, Dog Save the Queen, Mou Piri, Little Girl War Cry, Islands, and The Offshore Pirate (all: 2013). For our list, we’ve picked Australian director Marcus Hamill’s Dog Save the Queen. With a cast that had never been in front of a camera before, a 10-year-old Samoan boy as the main star, and an untrained island dog as his companion, the film was a wild and wonderful experiment. In the film, a young boy’s world is upside down when the British Queen traces the Royal Corgi bloodline back to his dog Cyclone, who was the product of an encounter with one of the Queen’s corgis during her visit to the Cook Islands in 1972.

Life is about to change for islander Nuka and his loyal dog: with the Royal Corgi bloodline facing extinction, the British Queen’s search for a descendant of her dogs leads her to the island of Samoa, which she once visited with her corgis in 1972.

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Looking for something else? Check out our recommendation for the best films from Europe, films from Eastern Europe, films from Africa, films from South Asia, films from West and Central Asia, films from East and Southeast Asia, films from North America, films from Central America and the Caribbean and films from South America.

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East and Southeast Asian Cinema (Kiki's Delivery Service)

Cinema of East and Southeast Asia

Explore the very best movies from East and Southeast Asia, based on a selection of over 9,100 films.

Join us in shifting the world’s focus on American cinema back to the many other equally rich, yet underappreciated film industries around the world. In this article series, we highlight several hidden gems produced within a certain geographical region, one film per country, from the riches of Europe to the remote island nations of Polynesia.

As a bonus, we will make a donation to the welfare of wild cats, and the preservation of their habitats, for every film purchased through this site.

Table of Contents

Pick a Country

CambodiaChinaHong KongIndonesiaJapanLaosMongoliaMyanmarNepalNorth KoreaThe PhilippinesSouth KoreaTaiwanThailandVietnam

The History of East and Southeast Asian Cinema

South Asia and Southeast Asia’s pop culture landscape is largely dominated by South Korea and Japan. From manga novels and anime films to Rilakkuma bears, J-pop, and Disney’s Japanese version of Lilo & Stitch, Japan is a dominant force in the entire region. South Korea’s rich pop culture adds fuel to the fire, and together with Japan, easily fights off both Hollywood and Bollywood.

Only recently has American cinema grown in popularity throughout both South Asia and Southeast Asia, namely due to the success of monster hits franchises such as Harry Potter and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but local productions, as well as Japanese, Korean and Chinese films, still stand tall.

East and Southeast Asian Cinema (Kiki's Delivery Service)
(Credit: Kiki’s Delivery Service / Majo no takkyûbin, Japan)

Aside from Japan and South Korea, China also strongly influences the cinematic nations in both geographical regions. China’s influence on its neighboring countries is of a more social, cultural, and economic nature. Throughout history, China has been an important trade partner in the eastern regions of the Asian continent. Though most of South Asia and Southeast Asia was left in peace by the various Chinese empires that came and went, parts of Vietnam, Laos, and Mongolia once belonged to various Chinese dynasties.

Southeast Asian Cinema (Good Morning, Luang Prabang)
(Credit: Good Morning, Luang Prabang / Sabaidee Luang Prabang, Laos)

The Best Films from East Asia

In East Asia, we scale the deserts of Mongolia and traverse the vast landscape of China towards the small nation of Hong Kong, before visiting both politicized North Korea as well as K-Pop nation South Korea. Crossing the Sea of Japan, we then touch shore in both prosperous Japan and on the island of Taiwan.

Mongolia: The Cave of the Yellow Dog

Directed by: Byambasuren Davaa, 2005.

World Cinema 067 - Mongolia (The Cave of the Yellow Dog)
(Credit: The Cave of the Yellow Dog / Die Höhle des Gelben Hundes)

Due to the country’s geographical positioning, Mongolian cinema has been primarily influenced by Russia, separating the industry thematically from the rest of South Asia. After the Mongolian socialist revolution of 1921, film became a tool for education. Heavily influenced by the Soviet Union, Mongolia’s educational films mainly took shape as Soviet-style propaganda films. Both documentaries and films narrated the stories of revolutionaries and focused on the heroics displayed in Mongolia’s ancient legends.

Until the 1990s many Mongolian films were co-produced with the Soviet Union. Additionally, these films were often directed by Soviet directors. When socialism came to an end in the 1990s the country’s ties with Russia weakened. Though there are still films being co-produced with Russia, such as the historical epic Mongol: The Rise of Genghis Khan, the Mongolian film industry sought out new partners to help produce films. Several examples can be found in the career of director Byambasuren Davaa. Davaa chose to follow up on her film studies in Ulaanbaatar with a degree in documentary film and communication sciences in Germany, which led to the production of two German-Mongolian documentaries and the feature film The Cave of the Yellow Dog (original title: Die Höhle des Gelben Hundes, 2005).

The Cave of the Yellow Dog was filmed on location in Mongolia and tells the story of Nansal, a young girl who, against her father’s wishes, befriends a black and white dog. Nansal is part of a nomadic family living on the Mongolian steppe. Her family leads a relatively simple life, migrating across the country and living off of their livestock. The Cave of the Yellow Dog is comparable to Kazakhstan’s slow-paced drama Tulpan, which similarly followed the rhythms of everyday life within a remote countryside setting. The Cave of the Yellow Dog combines beautiful imagery with a simple yet charming family-centered narrative, making the film a fulfilling experience counteracting the bombastic films of modern-day pop culture.

The Cave of the Yellow Dog tells the story of Nansal, a young girl part of a nomad family living on the Mongolian steppe. Conflict arises within the family when Nansal befriends a young dog, whom her father believes is responsible for attacking their livestock.

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China: Aftershock

Directed by: Xiaogang Feng, 2010.

World Cinema 068 - China (Aftershock)
(Credit: Aftershock / Tang shan da di zhen)

The Chinese box-office is one of the most influential in the world. Hollywood often awaits the returns from China to greenlight sequels to their more out-there blockbusters, offering China significant power within the industry. Both Pacific Rim (2013) and Ant-Man (2015) received the sequel-nod after China’s warm reception and, staying within the Marvel Cinematic Universe for a moment, both Iron Man 3 (2013) and Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) included scenes shot in South Asia just to tailor to Asian audiences.

China’s own film industry dawned in the early 1900s. After the violent Boxer Rebellion managed to overthrow the Qing dynasty and ended foreign influence within the country, film found its place in the newly formed Republic of China in 1912. China’s domestic industry slowly grew bigger, leading to a golden age in the 1930s. The Japanese invasion of China in 1937 halted progress within the industry, but after the end of World War II, China’s cinematic landscape once again flourished. Like in the Soviet Union and Mongolia, film became a tool for propaganda. During this time, films such as Guerrilla on the Railroad (1956) glorified the country’s Communist Party.

Film production in China came to a near stand-still between 1966 and 1976, when Chairman of the Communist Party of China Mao Zedong’s initiated the Cultural Revolution, a movement aiming to preserve the country’s Communist ideology by purging all remnants of capitalism from the nation. Following Mao’s death in 1976, economic reforms led to a revitalization of the country’s domestic film industry. During the 1980s and 1990s, many Chinese films reflected on the distress caused by the Cultural Revolution. Great examples of these so-called “scar dramas” are the films Hibiscus Town (1986) and Coming Home (2014).

Film became a form of liberation as well as a source of entertainment. The rise of China’s so-called Fifth and Sixth Generation of directors drew worldwide attention to the Chinese film industry. Dramas such as Farewell My Concubine (1993) and The Road Home (1999), as well as martial arts films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), and historical epics such as Red Cliff (2008), became famous around the world. Influential director Xiaogang Feng made his mark on the industry with The Dream Factory (1997) and went on to direct the box office hit Aftershock (original title: Tang shan da di zhen, 2010).

Heart-breaking from start to finish, Aftershock depicts the devastation of the 1976 Tangshan earthquake and its aftermath. Modern-day Chinese films such as Aftershock easily fight off foreign competition, indicating the steady growth the industry has seen since Mao’s death: in 2018, China set an all-time box office record following the release of domestic hits Operation Red Sea (2018) and Detective Chinatown 2 (2018).

Set over the course of 40 years, Aftershock tells the story of a family separated by the devastating earthquake that levelled the city of Tangshan in 1976.

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Hong Kong: Internal Affairs

Directed by: Andrew Wai-Keung Lau & Alan Mak, 2002.

World Cinema 069 - Hong Kong (Internal Affairs)
(Credit: Infernal Affairs / Mou Gaan Dou)

Up until 1997, Hong Kong was under British control. Starting out as a rural area inhabited by farmers and fishermen, the colony developed into one of the most significant financial centers in the world. After World War II, Hong Kong’s film industry flourished along with its trade industry, but split up into two different branches: a Cantonese branch producing films for the natives of Hong Kong and a Mandarin branch aimed at mainland China. Due to its enormous export market in China, the Mandarin film industry was able to work with bigger budgets than its Cantonese sibling. This led to the production of many low-budget, but wildly successful Cantonese martial arts films.

During the 1970s, the “wuxia” martial arts genre grew in scope and popularity. Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon (1973) sparked the kung fu-craze overseas and the actor played a major role in opening the world to Hong Kong films. Following in Lee’s footsteps, kung fu comedy actor Jackie Chan soon became Asia’s biggest box office star, further spreading Hong Kong films across South and Southeast Asia.

Despite not receiving any government backing, the Hong Kong film industry easily fended of the dominant force of Hollywood’s film industry during the late 20th century. This was perhaps due to the industry’s highly commercial nature, which combined the tone and style of Hollywood films with more surrealistic elements borrowed from the Chinese industry. After the 1990s, however, the country’s once-prosperous industry went into a decline and successful films became more sparse. Some films still gained international success, such as the martial arts series Ip Man (2008-2019) and the police thriller Infernal Affairs (original title: Mou Gaan Dou, 2002). Often quoted as being “The ‘Godfather’ of Hong Kong”, the latter film was remade into the Academy Award-winning The Departed (2006).

In Infernal Affairs, an undercover police officer spends a decade working from within a triad to gain intelligence, while one of the criminal gang’s members in turn works as a mole within the police department, doing the same.

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Taiwan: Eat Drink Man Woman

Directed by: Ang Lee, 1994.

World Cinema 070 - Taiwan (Eat Drink Man Woman)
(Credit: Eat Drink Man Woman / Yin Shi Nan Nu)

Film was introduced into Taiwan by the Japanese, who took control of the island in 1895. The island had been previously colonized by the Netherlands and both Chinese and Spanish immigrants had set foot on its soil. The Japanese lost control of the island at the end of World War II when China took over. Following the Chinese Civil War, China’s communist leaders expelled the nation’s ROC government, who re-established themselves in Taiwan, claiming Taipei to be their new capital. The status of Taiwan as an independent country remains disputed until today.

China’s claim on the island after World War II ushered in a time of growth for the local film industry. Japanese film had influenced the nation’s film industry for decades and many conventions from Japanese films were adopted by Taiwan’s filmmakers, who were able to produce films free of mainland China’s censorship laws. The import of films from Hong Kong and the arrival of television, however, threatened the country’s national film industry in the mid-20th century.

During the 1980s, a group of young directors managed to rejuvenate the island’s film industry. By moving away from the clichéd melodramas and action flicks of the past and focusing on the realistic portrayal of Taiwanese life, Taiwan’s new wave of directors obtained success with films such as In Our Time (1982) and A City of Sadness (1989). Following the revival of Taiwan’s film industry, a series of more fantastical films were produced, such as Ang Lee’s wuxia-revival film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and the absurdist The Wayward Cloud, in which a water shortage in Taipei makes the sales of watermelons skyrocket.

Ang Lee is perhaps one of Taiwan’s most successful directors. His down-to-earth family drama Eat Drink Man Woman (original title: Yin Shi Nan Nu, 1994) closely matched the industry’s renewed focus on social issues. Eat Drink Man Woman is a contemporary Taiwanese film, portraying the generational and cultural conflicts plaguing many modern Taiwanese families.

Each Sunday, master chef Chu ritually prepares an elaborate family dinner for his three daughters. As his daughters start to move away from their father’s traditional values, conflicts arise at the family dinner table.

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North Korea: The Flower Girl

Directed by: Ik-gyu Choe & Hak Pak, 1972.

World Cinema 071 - North Korea (The Flower Girl)
(Credit: The Flower Girl / Kotpanum chonio)

Japan’s unconditional surrender to the Allied forces following World War II also meant the surrender of the Korean peninsula, which had been under Japanese control. Korea was divided into two occupation zones, with the United States administering the southern half of the peninsula and the Soviet Union taking control of the north. Though the country was to be unified after the formation of a united government, negotiations fell through, and in 1948 civil war engulfed the peninsula. Neither the north nor the south was able to gain full control of the peninsula, which led to a restoration of the status quo set after WWII.

North Korea isolated itself from the world, shrouding the development of its national film industry in mystery. Official North Korean sources claim their cinematic output to be an “unprecedented sensation”, with Kim Jong-il having stated that the film industry’s role was to help people develop themselves as “true communists”.

North Korea isolated itself from the world, shrouding the development of its national film industry in mystery. Official North Korean sources claim their cinematic output to be an “unprecedented sensation”, with Kim Jong-il having stated that the film industry’s role was to help people develop themselves as “true communists”.

North Korea’s first film My Home Village (1949) shows the nation’s strong communist ideals, glorifying the revolution of the country’s peasants against the oppression of Japanese imperialists. Later North Korean films, such as The People Sing and The Flower Girl (original title: Kotpanum chonio, 1972) embraced a similar ideology. Like many communist films, The Flower Girl was a heavy melodrama. The film focused on a peasant girl trying to make due selling flowers to take care of her sick mother during the Japanese occupation of Korea.

Despite Kim Jong-il’s claims of cinematic prosperity in North Korea, other events tell a different story. During the 1980s, Shin Sang-ok and Choi Eun-hee, two prominent South Korean directors, were kidnapped. They were taken to North Korea and instructed to make films that would help the country “obtain global acclaim” with its film industry. It would take several decades more before North and South Korea would finally be able to peacefully produce a film together: the animated film Empress Chung (2005).

Set during the Japanese occupation of Korea, The Flower Girl follows Koppun, a young woman who, after the death of her father and the imprisonment of her brother, hopes to earn enough money selling flowers to be able to buy medicine for her sick mother.

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South Korea: My Sassy Girl

Directed by: Jae-young Kwak, 2001.

World Cinema 072 - South Korea (My Sassy Girl)
(Credit: My Sassy Girl / Yeopgijeogin Geunyeo)

After the division of the Korean peninsula following World War II, film directors in the Northern and Southern half of the nation competed to be the first to release a new film. South Korea “won” with the release of Hurrah! For Freedom (1946), which, much like North Korea’s first film, portrayed the resistance of the nation’s people against the Japanese.

Over the course of the 20th century, South Korea grew from being one of the world’s poorest nations to one of the world’s wealthiest. The South Korean film industry grew along with the country’s economy and South Korean films soon found their way into cinemas worldwide. Though government censorship held back the industry until the 1980s, South Korean films managed to earn worldwide acclaim with early highlights such as crime-drama The Housemaid (1960) and The Aimless Bullet (1961), which focused on the post-war Korean society.

Overcoming the Asian financial crisis, the 2000s saw a resurgence in the popularity of South Korean cinema abroad. In 2001, Kwak Jae-yong’s My Sassy Girl (original title: Yeopgijeogin Geunyeo, 2001) paved the way for Korean cinema at an international level. The film drew a large cult following in South and Southeast Asia and opened the world to Korean films. Acclaimed successes such as Oldboy (2003), The Host (2006), and Train to Busan (2016) were praised worldwide. In 2020, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite (2019), the first Korean film out of over 30 entries to be nominated, won both the Academy Award for both Best International Feature Film as well as Best Picture, becoming both the first film to do so.

My Sassy Girl was based on a series of autobiographical blog posts written by Kim Ho-sik, in which he described his odd relationship with his girlfriend. In the film, engineering college student Kyun-woo is shamed into assisting a drunk girl on his way home in the train. His encounter with the girl leads to one of cinema’s most quirky, off-beat romances. The film was remade in the United States, India, China, and Nepal, but none of the remakes was able to capture the odd relationship Kim Ho-sik spoke about in his blogs in such an effective way.

While commuting home by train, student Kyun-woo is shamed into assisting a drunk girl when his fellow passengers mistake her to be his girlfriend. Following the incident, Kyun-woo develops a deep sense of responsibility towards the odd – and often abusive – girl.

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Japan: Your Name

Directed by: Makoto Shinkai, 2016.

World Cinema 073 - Japan (Your Name)
(Credit: Your Name / Kimi no na wa.

Japan’s film industry is not only one of the oldest in the world, it is also one of the largest. Producing over 600 films per year, more than half of the country’s box office income hails from national film productions. In 1896 and 1897, Thomas Edison and the Lumière Brothers showcased their work in Japan. Moving pictures, however, were nothing for the Japanese. The country already had a rich tradition of using magic lanterns to create animated stories.

During the early days of cinema, the Japanese came up with a unique way of storytelling: Japanese theatres hired so-called “benshi” (storytellers), who narrated silent films while they played. People would often return to see the same film multiple times, to listen to a different beshi’s interpretation of the tale. Depending on who was narrating, a film could either turn out to be a comedy or a drama. Though the advent of sound in the early 1930s slowly pushed out the benshi, Japan kept the tradition alive well into the 1930s by continuing to produce silent films.

During World War II, film became a tool for propaganda. Though the industry suffered during the war, Japan’s national cinema quickly restored itself afterward, leading the country into a “golden age of cinema” with films such as the period pieces Seven Samurai (1954), Rashomon (1950), and Chushingura (1962), as well as the family drama such as Tokyo Story (1953) and the anti-nuclear monster-drama Godzilla (1954), which sparked an entire subgenre of kaiju (monster) films.

To fight declining box office numbers Japanese cinema continuously reinvented itself, producing increasingly violent and sexual films in the 1970s, such as In the Realm of the Senses (1976), and moving into the realms of horror with acclaimed films such as Dark Water (2002) and The Grudge (2002) in the 2000s.

Though Japan produced a score of highly acclaimed films and the country won the Academy Award for the Best Foreign Language Film more often than any other Asian country, it was the development of the anime-genre between the 1960s and 1980s that truly allowed Japanese cinema to make its mark on the world. The cinematic adaptations of manga series such as Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind (1984) and Akira (1988) cemented the genre in the world’s mind and from the 1980s onwards, anime films easily fought off competition from American juggernauts imported into the country. One of Japan’s most recent animated gems was the innovative fantasy-romance Your Name (original title: Kimi no na wa., 2016), a film in which the lives of a young girl from a small mountain town and a high school boy from Tokyo become intertwined when they wake up in each other’s body.

One morning, Tokyo-based high school student Taki is surprised to wake up within the body of Mitsuha, a high school girl living in a small mountain town. After realizing he is continuously switching places with Mitsuha, the two form an unusual bond.

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The Best Films from Southeast Asia

It’s time to explore mesmerizing Southeast Asia, traversing the jungles of Myanmar, fighting our way through Thailand, and visiting the rural tribes of Laos, before touring the ancient temples of Cambodia, taking in the beauty of Vietnam and Indonesia, and sailing towards the island nation of the Philippines.

Myanmar: Kayan Beauties (2012)

Directed by: Aung Ko Latt, 2012.

World Cinema 074 - Myanmar (Kayan Beauties)
(Credit: Kayan Beauties)

The first film from Myanmar (or Burma) was screened at the Royal Cinema in Yangon. The film was recorded in the 1910s by director Ohn Maung during the funeral of politician Tun Shein. In 1932, the first sound film followed: produced in India, director Tot Gyi shot the film Money Can’t Buy It (1932) based on a novel by the popular writer Dagon Nat Shin. Both before and after World War II, Burmese films covered a variety of social and political issues. Though, as the films were censored by the British colonial government and were mostly produced by the British Burma Film Company, not everything could be freely discussed through cinema. The country gained independence in 1948, which led to the formation of a socialist military dictatorship.

After the violent suppression of the nationwide protests against the country’s totalitarian government in 1988, the film industry became increasingly controlled by the country’s leading party. The government enforced strict rules: film stars who were politically active during the 1980s and 1990s were banned from appearing in films, directors were picked by the country’s leaders, and even the winners of the nation’s film awards were pre-decided. Nowadays, most Burmese films are produced as direct-to-video films, and very few of them tackle political subjects.

Still, Kayan Beauties (2012) was a wonderful exception to that rule: Aung Ko Latt’s film focuses on three Kayan women, and deals with themes of human trafficking and cultural exploitation. The Kayan Lahwi are a sub-group of Red Karen, and are famous for wearing a series of brass neck rings. Between 2017 and 2019, Myanmar finally saw a revival of its national film industry with international successes, such as the horror film The Only Mom (2019) and the romantic-drama Now and Ever (2019).

Three Kayan women and a young girl from a remote village in Myanmar travel to the city to sell their handicrafts, where the girl is kidnapped by human traffickers after straying from her friends at the market.

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Thailand: Chocolate

Directed by: Prachya Pinkaew, 2008.

World Cinema 075 - Thailand (Chocolate)
(Credit: Chocolate)

Not long after the Lumière brothers had exhibited their films in Siam (later Thailand) in 1897, King Chulalongkorn visited Bern, Switzerland. The royal visit was recorded by early French filmmaker François-Henri Lavancy-Clarke. Thai Prince Thongthaem Sambassatra brought the documentary back to Bangkok, along with his own camera equipment. The film sparked interest in the medium by the Thai Royal Family, and the prince himself became known as “the father of Thai cinema” due to his many cinematic exploits. Several years later Thailand produced its first feature film, Miss Suwanna of Siam (1923).

Many of the early films shown in Thailand originated in Japan, as Japanese businessmen had opened the country’s first permanent cinema in 1905. In the tradition of the Japanese benshi, silent films were narrated by entertainers and orchestras. Like in Japan, this all ended with the dawn of the “talkies” in 1928. From the country’s first color film, Sri Krung’s Grandpa Som’s Treasure (1933), up until 1942, the Thai film industry experienced its first “Golden Age of Cinema”.

After the Thai government imposed a heavy tax on imported films in 1977, Hollywood films and other foreign movies were pushed out of the cinema, leading to a second surge in locally produced films. Most of these films were low-quality, hard-hitting action films, which eventually gave rise to the production of martial arts films. The film Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior (2003) and its sequels, starring Tony Jaa, put Thai action films on the international map. One of the country’s more successful accomplishments within the martial arts genre is Prachya Pinkaew’s Chocolate (2008), which featured JeeJa Yanin as an autistic girl with powerful martial art skills, slashing her way through the loan sharks who owe her family money.

Another popular Thai genre is comedy. Thai comedies often feature Kathoey (transsexuals/transvestites) or gays as comic relief or villains. In some films, such as Iron Ladies (1996), Kathoey played the main characters. Iron Ladies is based on the true story of the Thai transsexual/transvestite gay men’s volleyball team that won the national championship in 1996.

Though the heavy taxes on foreign cinema were eventually loosened, Thai film had become a strong medium on its own. Though fewer films were produced, many international blockbusters remained relatively unknown in Thailand during the last few decades. The dawn of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and other bigger-than-life event films eventually broke open the interest of the Thai public into foreign films.

An autistic girl with uncanny martial art skills attempts to make money to pay for her mother’s medical bills, which puts her in the path of a powerful criminal gang.

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Laos: The Rocket

Directed by: Kim Mordaunt, 2013.

World Cinema 076 - Laos (The Rocket)
(Credit: The Rocket)

Unlike in its surrounding countries, cinema never really found its footing in Laos. Films were made neither during nor after colonialism, and the Laotian Civil War (1959–1975) further halted any development. The communist Laotian Ministry of Culture had a monopoly on film production; they were solely responsible for the production of feature-length films after the monarchy dissolved in 1975. Still, the first Laotian film wasn’t made until 1983. The film, Gun Voice from the Plain of Jars (1983) directed by Somchith Pholsena, was never publicly released due to censorship issues.

The first commercial film shot in Laos was Good Morning, Luang Prabang (2008). The romantic drama was directed by a Thai director, with the help of Anousone Sirisackda, a former employee of the Laotian governmental cinema department. In the film, a Thai photographer is sent to Laos by his employer for an assignment, when he falls in love with a Laotian tour guide. The success of Good Morning, Luang Prabang allowed Sirisackda – and other Laotian directors – to slowly start the production of films without the need for foreign support.

While national cinema slowly began to develop, the foreign collaboration also became more frequent. Whereas Good Morning, Luang Prabang aimed to show foreigners the beauty of Laos, Kim Mordaunt’s The Rocket (2013) chose to depict a more authentic version of Laos. The film is both uplifting and dark, offering viewers a look into the lives of the ethnic tribes residing in Northern Laos – the most heavily bombed area of Laos during the Vietnam War. Vast quantities of unexploded ordnance still remain in the countryside, maiming and killing civilians every year.

To prove he isn’t the bad luck charm everyone around him believes he is, a young Laotian boy hopes to earn his family some money by entering the most exciting and dangerous competition of the year: a local rocket-building competition.

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Cambodia: First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers

Directed by: Angelina Jolie, 2017.

World Cinema 077 - Cambodia (First They Killed My Father)
(Credit: First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers)

Cinema entered Cambodia in the 1920s when foreign filmmakers visited the country to shoot several documentary films. The Cambodian King, Norodom Sihanouk, had a great interest in films. Following his coronation in 1941, he started producing and directing films. Sihanouk completed around 50 movies between his coronation and his retirement from film in 2006. One of his most well-known films is the romantic drama Apsara (1966), which starred Cambodian Princess Buppha Devi and Prince Sisowath Chivan Monirak. At times, Sihanouk would star in his films himself as well.

Though Sihanouk’s films were considered to be of low quality, they did open up the country to cinema. During the 1950s, the film industry began to grow after several new local films were screened throughout the country. The first Cambodian-made feature films were shot by directors who had been able to study overseas due to the country’s colonial connections. The 1960s became known as the Cambodian “Golden Age of Cinema”, in which popular films such as the horror film The Snake King’s Wife (1972) were made.

Starting with the fall of Phnom Penh, the regime of the Khmer Rouge put a violent stop to cinema. Though the Khmer Rouge produced some propaganda films to screen at collective meetings, no domestic film industry was left once Vietnam invaded Cambodia and overthrew the Khmer Rouge. Cities had been depopulated, many directors and actors had been killed, and old films were destroyed.

My Mother is Arb (1980), a horror movie based on Khmer folklore, was the first post-regime film to come out. In the decades that followed, Cambodian cinema once again found its footing, producing films about the horrors of the Khmer Rouge era, as well as life under the new Vietnam-backed regime. A beautiful example of such films is the clay-animated documentary The Missing Picture (2013).

Both before and after the Khmer Rouge’s regime, Cambodia’s majestic, ancient temples, had managed to attract the attention of foreign filmmakers. The Angkor Wat temple complex was used as the backdrop of Lord Jim (1965), an adventure film starring Peter O’Toole, and the historical drama The Killing Fields (1984) became the best-known depiction of the Khmer Rouge era. Additionally, the temple of Ta Prohm was used as a filming location in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001), which starred Angelina Jolie.

Jolie was captivated by the country and adopted a Cambodian boy named Maddox. She would go on to adapt Khmer Rouge-survivor Lung Ung’s book on her memory of the Khmer Rouge Era into the film First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers (2016). The film was made in collaboration with Cambodian director Rithy Panh, and most shot entirely in Cambodia.

In the 1970s, a Cambodian middle-class girl and her family are subjected to the horrors of the Khmer Rouge, the country’s new totalitarian regime.

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Vietnam: The Scent of Green Papaya

Directed by: Tran Anh Hung, 1993.

World Cinema 078 - Vietnam (The Scent of Green Papaya)
(Credit: The Scent of the Green Papaya / Mùi Du Du Xanh)

Vietnam’s local film industry dawned in the 1920s, when a group of Vietnamese intellectuals formed the Huong Ky Film Company in Hanoi. Though the studio mostly produced documentaries, they also shot Vietnam’s first silent film, ‎A Penny for a Horse (1924). Sound films followed in 1937. The wars fought in the country from the 1940s to the 1970s slowed down film production, and most of the local films that were screened were war documentaries, such as Việt Nam on the Road to Victory (1953). While North Vietnam focused mainly on documentary and drama films, South Vietnam focused on war films and comedies.

After reunification following the Second Indochina War, film production increased significantly. Many of these films focused on the war and its heroes and the social problems of post-war reconstruction, such as the war film Season of the Whirlwind (1978). The communist suppression of all capitalist ideas led to the collapse of the economy during the 1980s, while cinema faced competition from video and television.

In the 1990s, co-productions with European countries and films directed by Việt Kiều (Vietnamese living overseas), started to revitalize local production with international hits such as The Scent of the Green Papaya (original title: Mùi Du Du Xanh, 1995) and Cyclo (1995). While the country still claims to be communist in nature, most industries nowadays adhere to capitalist strategies, including the film industry. By creating commercial drama films such as Vertical Ray of the Sun (2000), Bar Girls (2003) and The White Silk Dress (2006), local cinema once again grew in popularity.

Mùi, a young Vietnamese peasant girl living in the 1940s, is hired to work for a family in Saigon, where she meets Khuyen, an aspiring classical musician.

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Indonesia: The Raid: Redemption

Directed by: Gareth Evans, 2011.

World Cinema 079 - Indonesia (The Raid - Redemption)
(Credit: The Raid: Redemption / Serbuan Maut)

Before Indonesia gained independence, the country was known as the Dutch East Indies. The first film in the Dutch colony was shown in 1900. Several years later, in 1911, the first locally produced film – a documentary – was released. Most films shown in the Dutch East Indies were foreign films, and many of them came from the United States. The silent fantasy film Loetoeng Kasaroeng (1926), based on a Sundanese legend, was the first local production able to compete with foreign output.

The Japanese occupation of Indonesia saw a change in the local film industry. The Japanese halted all productions and consolidated all film studios into one corporation focused on making propaganda films. After gaining independence, the trend of creating propaganda was continued by producing nationalistic, anti-Imperialist films, while the government banned all foreign movies.

After 22 years in office, the Indonesian president Sukarno was overthrown by one of his generals, Suharto. This led to more changes in the Indonesian film industry. By the 1990s foreign films were allowed back into the country, which led to growing competition for local studios. Films became regulated through a system of censorship, which still holds up today: the country’s current government has each film edited to remove scenes deemed indecent. Any display of homosexuality or sexuality is edited out before the film is screened, including the mid-battle kiss Arthur and Mera share in Aquaman (2018).

More recently, the Indonesian film industry has once again stepped up its game. The country started producing colorful romantic dramas similar to Thai films, such as What’s Up with Love? (2002), popular action movies such as The Raid: Redemption (original title: Serbuan Maut, 2011) and controversial dramas such as Lovely Man (2011), a story about a gay prostitute. Meanwhile, foreign co-production also thrived, including a successful documentary film series by Dutch director Leonard Retel Helmrich. Retel Helmrich’s Position Among the Stars (2010) follows a family of three generations living in the slums of Jakarta, and would certainly be our recommended pick for watching a Southeast Asian documentary.

A S.W.A.T. team becomes dangerously trapped in a high-rise building, after being tasked to infiltrate a derelict apartment building in the slums of Jakarta to capture a notorious drug lord.

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The Philippines: The Woman Who Left

Directed by: Lav Diaz, 2016.

World Cinema 080 - The Philippines(The Woman Who Left)
(Credit: The Woman Who Left / Ang Babaeng Humayo)

The Philippines was one of the first countries in Southeast Asia to embrace the medium of film. In early 1897, the first moving pictures were screened in Manila under Spanish occupation, and the following year, local scenes were filmed by a Spanish director. That same year, following the Spanish-American War, the Philippines became a territory of the United States. Most films screened in the Philippines after the war were produced and imported by the United States. The medium was used as a vehicle for information, education, and propaganda, as well as entertainment.

When the Japanese invaded and occupied the country, they halted film production as they had done in other occupied territories. The Japanese used local Filipino studios and theaters to show their own films and create government propaganda.

Gaining independence after World War II, Filipino cinema became a mix of genres and cultures: from cheap knock offs of popular American films and genres to soft porn films and splashy musicals, commercial films dominated the local box office. Some films, such as the colonization-drama Touch me Not (1961) and the dark Subversion (1962), stood out among the many box office hits. Following the trends of the west, teenagers became infatuated with pop music, rock and roll, and the Beatles in the 1960s, leading to a slur of teen-centered romantic comedy-dramas. Additionally, films criticizing the local political situation became quite popular.

New censorship rules invoked under President Ferdinand Marcos sought to regulate films, which meant political films and soft porn films were banned. Commercial films remained successful, but became increasingly unimaginative and predictable. Television grew in popularity, budgets were shrinking, and eventually, the post-war “Golden Age” of Filipino cinema came to an end in the 1990s. Due to the changes in the industry, the 2000s saw a rise in the production of low-cost, high-quality independent films, such as the 8-hour-long adventure-drama A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery (2016) and Lav Diaz’s revenge drama The Woman Who Left (original title: Ang Babaeng Humayo, 2016).

In 1997, after 30 years of wrongful imprisonment, a woman plans to take revenge on her former lover, while reuniting with her daughter.

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Looking for something else? Check out our recommendation for the best films from Europe, films from Eastern Europe, films from Africa, films from South Asia, films from West and Central Asia, films from Oceania and the Pacific, films from North America, films from Central America and the Caribbean and films from South America.

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West and Central Asian Cinema (Mustang)

Cinema of West and Central Asia

Explore the very best movies from West and Central Asia, based on a selection of over 9,100 films.

Join us in shifting the world’s focus on American cinema back to the many other equally rich, yet underappreciated film industries around the world. In this article series, we highlight several hidden gems produced within a certain geographical region, one film per country, from the riches of Europe to the remote island nations of Polynesia.

As a bonus, we will make a donation to the welfare of wild cats, and the preservation of their habitats, for every film purchased through this site.

Table of Contents

Pick a Country

AzerbaijanGeorgiaIranIraqIsraelJordanKazakhstanLebanonPalestineSaudi ArabiaTurkey

The History of West and Central Asian Cinema

The film industries of West and Central Asia – also referred to as the Middle Eastern film industry – are largely dominated by the sizeable motion picture industry of Iran, Turkey, and Egypt. Most of the countries in the region are primarily Islamic, which includes adherence to the Qur’an’s Shari’a law. Some countries are more liberal in nature than others, with Turkey and Lebanon leading the way to a more Western way of thinking, while others, such as Saudi Arabia and Yemen strictly adhere to the Shari’a law.

West and Central Asian Cinema (Mustang)
(Credit: Mustang, Turkey)

In accordance with the Shari’a law, cinema is deemed un-Islamic. The law prohibits gender mixing, listening to music, and the public exposure of women, making it difficult for film to find a place within society. Recently, however, even Saudi Arabia lifted its ban on cinema, slowly allowing the nation’s film industry to start grinding its gears.

Many films produced in the Middle East tackle the region’s social and political struggles, reflecting on social pressure, the influence of Communism, armed conflicts, and the dark side of Islam and its strict Shari’a law.

The Best Films from West & Central Asia

It’s time to journey eastwards into West Asia, taking a cultural trip in Turkey, crossing the aspiring nation of Georgia into rural Azerbaijan, from where we move into the Middle East to explore the booming film industry of Lebanon and examine the politically charged relations between Israel and Palestine.

Heading further into the heart of the Middle East, we traverse the desolate deserts of Jordan on our way to Saudi Arabia on the Arabian Peninsula, before crossing war-torn Iraq and prosperous Iran on our way to the steppes of Kazakhstan.

Turkey: Mustang

Directed by: Deniz Gamze Ergüven, 2015.

World Cinema 051 - Turkey (Mustang)
(Credit: Mustang)

The Turkish film industry goes by the name Yeşilçam, meaning ‘the Green Pine’. As in many other countries around the world, the first movie projected in Turkey – then part of the Ottoman Empire – was a film by the Lumière Brothers in Istanbul in 1896. Before World War II, the Ottoman film industry (and after 1923, the Turkish film industry) followed the same path as many of Europe’s small film industries: local production was low and import numbers were high. After the war, however, local production increased drastically, leading to what is now known as the ‘Yeşilçam era’.

Similar to Nigeria, the dawn of TV and home video caused a decline in ticket sales in Turkey during the 1970s and 1980s, lowering the number of films produced to around 10-15 per year. The decline wasn’t halted until the cinematic boom of the 1990s, which revitalized many of Europe’s national film industries. Over the course of six decades, more than two dozen Turkish films were submitted for the Academy Awards, but none was ever nominated. Turkish films are known for their diversity: from historical epics such as Fetih 1453 (2012) and crime dramas such as The Bandit (1996), there is no genre the Turkish film industry doesn’t tackle.

One of Turkey’s most famous films was the political drama Yol (1982), which caused much controversy in Turkey due to its reflection on the 1980 coup d’état and the fate of the country’s Kurdish minority. In 21th century Turkey, Turkish filmmakers continue to address controversial topics, such as in Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s drama Mustang (2015).

Mustang is set in a remote Turkish village and depicts the lives of five young orphaned sisters growing up in a conservative society. The film excels in showing the constant sexual projection on women within the country’s traditional patriarchal system. Mustang’s storyline extends to a great part of the Middle East, where anything a woman does, says or shows can be seen as sexually provocative, and should, therefore, according to the system, be repressed.

When five orphan sisters living in northern Turkey are seen playing with a couple of boys on the beach, their conservative guardians confine them to their house, slowly transforming their family home into a prison.

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Georgia: In Bloom

Directed by: Nana Ekvtimishvili & Simon Groß, 2013.

World Cinema 052 - Georgia (In Bloom)
(Credit: Bloom / Grzeli Nateli Dgeebi)

In the early 20th century, Georgian cinema developed strongly under the tutelage of the Soviet Union, which had invaded the country in 1921. Noted for its unique sense of cinematography, the Georgian film industry thrived for several decades. When Georgia declared its independence in 1991, right before the collapse of the Soviet Union, the country’s film output struggled to continue its winning streak. Though the 1990s saw Georgia’s first and only Academy Award nomination with A Chef in Love (1996), it took a while before the country’s film industry resurged.

Georgia’s lush, mountainous landscape and its incredibly friendly population – the country hosts a nationwide ridesharing system through which strangers commute on a daily basis – is currently boosting the country’s tourism industry, opening up new opportunities for the nation’s national film industry. The country’s efforts to join both the European Union and NATO strengthened its relations with Europe, leading to several strong European co-productions. One of Georgia’s most captivating films, co-produced with France, is 13 Tzameti (2005), written and directed by Georgian director Géla Babluani.

While Babluani’s suspenseful film focuses on the struggles of Georgian emigrants living in France, living in the director’s home country can be equally troublesome: directors Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Groß were internationally lauded for their co-production In Bloom (original title: Grzeli Nateli Dgeebi, 2013). The film depicts the lives of two teenage girls living in Tbilisi in 1992, a year after the country gained independence from the Soviet Union. In Bloom borrows heavily from Eastern Europe’s modern cinematic output, in which storylines often center on the struggles brought on by (the fall of) communism.

Set in Tbilisi in 1992, fourteen-year-old best friends Eka and Natia enter adolescence, while coping with their turbulent family lives.

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Azerbaijan: Nabat

Directed by: Elchin Musaoglu, 2014.

World Cinema 053 - Azerbaijan (Nabat)
(Credit: Nabat)

As an oil-producing company, Azerbaijan has a long history of attracting foreigners. Soon after the Lumière brothers premiered their first motion pictures in Paris, the brother’s cinematograph showed up in Azerbaijan, starting off the Azerbaijani motion picture industry. Azerbaijan’s first film productions were short documentaries shot by Frenchman Alexandre Michon, who filmed everyday life in Baku. Many of the country’s first feature-length films were then directed by Soviet director Boris Svetlov, who was responsible for creating films such as In the Kingdom of Oil and Millions (1916) and The Cloth Peddler (1917) in the 1910s.

In April 1920, the Red Army invaded Azerbaijan, proclaiming the country as a Soviet Socialist Republic soon after. From then on, Azerbaijani cinema was dominated by a strict Soviet ideology. Like in all other former Soviet countries, cinema finally became independent again after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Azerbaijan continued the development of its national film industry and declared August 2nd to be an official holiday for filmmakers.

Between 2007 and 2017, Azerbaijan submitted no less than 7 films for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Unfortunately, this has not yet led to a nomination. One of the submitted films was director Elchin Musaoglu’s Nabat (2014), a drama set during the Nagorno-Karabakh territorial ethnic conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia. The film focuses on Nabat, an old woman taking care of her ailing husband. When enemy troops approach the village and the Azerbaijani Armed Forces evacuate the village, Nabat stays behind to continue nursing her husband, who is too old to travel.

When enemy troops slowly approach a poor Azerbaijani village, an elderly couple is left behind after the Azerbaijani Armed Forces order the villagers to leave.

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Lebanon: Where Do We Go Now?

Directed by: Nadine Labaki, 2011.

World Cinema 054 - Lebanon (Where Do We Go Now)
(Credit: Where Do We Go Now? / Et maintenant on va où?)

Cinema in Lebanon has existed since the 1920s. Closely related to the film industries of France, Egypt, and Syria, Lebanon was able to produce a great amount of film during the 20th century, in comparison to its neighboring countries. After gaining independence from France in 1943, Lebanese cinema showed a narrative shift: local filmmakers began examining the country’s own culture and folklore, depicting life in the countryside and utilizing local music.

Lebanon’s geographic position as well as its relations to the West allowed the country to develop itself to become a liberal, open-minded nation. The country’s liberal nature – being considerably more open towards the West than other Arabic nations – is reflected in its cinematic output, often challenging old-fashioned ideas and concepts still held sacred in the Arabic world. Female director Nadine Labaki’s Where Do We Go Now? (original title: Et maintenant on va où?, 2011) – co-produced with both France and Egypt, as well as Italy – depicts the absurdity of war as well as the spirit of the nation’s women.

Set in a tiny mountain village, Where Do We Go Now? displays a community in which Christians and Muslims have lived peacefully together for many years. When a religious civil war outside their secluded community threatens to influence life within the village, the village’s women band together to prevent their husbands and sons from taking up arms against each other. Labaki approaches the dramatic storyline with a sharp sense of humor, crafting an entertaining, intelligent, and charming film challenging gender roles in time of war.

Having lived peacefully together for many years, relations between Christians and Muslims in a small Lebanese village are challenged by escalating conflicts between religious groups outside their community. To prevent tragedy, the village’s women band together to keep their men safe from harm.

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Israel: I Love You Rosa

Directed by: Moshé Mizrahi, 1972.

World Cinema 055 - Israel (I Love You Rosa)
(Credit: I Love You Rosa / Ani Ohev Otach Rosa)

Before the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948, very few Israeli films were made. After gaining independence, several privately funded films were released in the country. Then, from 1954 onwards, the Israeli film industry started receiving government funding. This led to steady growth in the number of films produced during the 1960s and 1970s. In 1964 director Ephraim Kishon’s Sallah (1964) became Israel’s first submission for the Academy Awards. Though the film received a nomination, it did not win. Since then, Israel has submitted a film for the Academy Awards almost every single year to date.

Israel’s 1972 submission I Love You Rosa (original title: Ani Ohev Otach Rosa, 1972) highlights one of Judaism’s most interesting aspects: the concept of Yibbum, or levirate marriage. In Jewish religious law, this meant that the brother of a deceased man was obliged to marry his brother’s widow in order to rebuild his brother’s family. I Love You Rosa takes place in the late 19th century and tells the story of Rosa, who visits her husband’s grave with her grandson Nissim, the namesake of her deceased husband.

The story’s main narrative shifts the story to the past, recounting how Rosa met her late husband and showing the struggles she went through after the passing of her first husband, Rafael. Left a childless widower, Rosa is soon promised to marry Rafael’s younger brother Nissim. Nissim, however, is still only 11 years old and deemed too young to marry. I Love You Rosa focusses on the changing relationship between Rosa and Nissim as they wait for Nissim to reach marriageable age. Israel has seen a gradual decline of Yibbum during the 20th century, but I Love You Rosa does a good job of reflecting on the social consequences of the ancient tradition.

When 20-year-old Rosa is left a childless widower, Jewish law expects her to marry her late husband’s younger brother once he reaches marriageable age.

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Palestine: Paradise Now

Directed by: Hany Abu-Assad, 2005.

World Cinema 056 - Palestine (Paradise Now)
(Credit: Paradise Now/ Al-Jannah Al’an)

Situated at a strategic geographical region between Africa, Arabia, and Syria, as well as being the birthplace of both Judaism and Christianity, Palestine’s (former) region has a long, tumultuous history. Film production in Palestine is believed to have started around the 1930s with the arrival of several documentary films. Following the end of World War II, however, Palestine gradually began to lose its land to Israel. When in 1948 over 700,000 Palestinian Arabs fled the country during the Palestinian exodus, the nation’s sprouting film industry was equally ruined.

The status of 1948’s refugees and their families – and whether Israel will grant them the right to return to their former homes – is one of the main issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is still ongoing today. Nonetheless, most Palestinian films are produced with either Israeli (or European) support. An example of such a film is Hany Abu-Assad’s Paradise Now (original title: Al-Jannah Al’an, 2005). Co-produced by Palestine and Israel, with the help of several European countries, the film offers a glimpse into the lives of two Palestinian men recruited to carry out a suicide attack in Tel Aviv.

Paradise Now became the first out of two Palestinian films to be nominated for an Academy Award, after Divine Intervention (2002) failed to do so on the grounds that Palestine’s status as a sovereign state was still disputed. Paradise Now has been widely recognized as a contemporary political piece of art, humanizing the players caught up in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Two Palestinian childhood friends from the West Bank are recruited for a suicide bombing attack in Tel Aviv, Israel.

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Jordan: Theeb

Directed by: Naji Abu Nowar, 2014.

World Cinema 057 - Jordan (Theeb)
(Credit: Theeb)

The Arab state of Jordan lies between Israel and the Arabian Peninsula. The country has a 26-kilometer shoreline on the Red Sea, but is otherwise landlocked, consisting mostly of desert terrain. Though desolated and barren, the country’s deserts became a large asset to Jordan’s national film industry. Jordan’s Wadi Rum desert served as a filming location for films such as Lawrence of Arabia, The Hurt Locker (2008), Rogue One (2016), and Aladdin (2019), while also dubbing for Mars in Red Planet (2000) and The Martian (2015). After 1962’s release of Lawrence of Arabia, the country’s tourism industry equally grew.

Still, it wasn’t until the early 2000s that Jordan started to boost its own film industry. In 2003, the government of Jordan formed the Royal Film Commission of Jordan. The commission was tasked with promoting Jordan as an important filming location for Middle Eastern productions. Since then, filmmakers from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine have traveled to Jordan to safely shoot their films. The RFC was equally tasked with encouraging national film directors to shoot their own productions. This led to the production of several Jordanian shorts and films, among them Captain Abu Raed (2007), Theeb (2014), and 3000 Nights (2015), Jordan’s first three submissions for the Academy Awards.

Naji Abu Nowar’s Theeb was the only one to receive a nomination. Set in the Wadi Rum desert – this time portraying itself rather than a foreign country or planet – during World War I, the film focuses on Theeb, the son of a Bedouin pilgrim guide. When Theeb’s brother Hussein is asked to guide a British officer and his guide through the desert, Theeb disobeys his orders not to follow them into the desert. Riding off on camelback, a perilous journey begins in which danger lies around every corner.

A young Bedouin boy living in the Ottoman province of Hejaz during World War I embarks on a perilous journey through the desert.

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Saudi Arabia: Wadjda

Directed by: Haifaa Al-Mansour, 2012.

World Cinema 058 - Saudi Arabia (Wadjda)
(Credit: Wadjda)

Saudi Arabia, the largest country on the Arabian Peninsula, has a fairly small film industry. The country’s legal system is firmly based on the Islamic Shari’a law, derived from the Qur’an. Though up until the 1970s many movie theaters were still operating in Saudi Arabia, this came to an end when the government banned cinemas, deeming them un-Islamic. Only one theatre remained open: an IMAX theater showing educational films.

In the past decades, Saudi Arabia did manage to produce a small number of films on foreign soil, such as Izidore Musallam’s How are You? (2006), which was filmed in the United Arab Emirates and featured Saudi Arabia’s first actress Hind Mohammed. Despite being Saudi Arabia’s first big-budget film, How are You? was only shown to Saudi audiences through pay-per-view television. Wadjda (2012) took things one step further: not only was it directed by a woman, it was also the first feature film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia itself.

Wadjda is a wonderful little film detailing the efforts of a young Muslim girl aiming to collect enough money to buy herself a bicycle. Protagonist Wadjda lives in the Saudi capital Riyadh, which is placed under strict Shari’a law. Women are not allowed to reveal their skin, drive or speak in public (“a woman’s voice is her nakedness”). Whenever men are seen anywhere near Wadjda’s primary school, she and her friends are forced to go play inside. Growing tired of living up to the rules of the adult world, Wadjda hopes to break at least some of her community’s social rules by enjoying the pleasure of riding a bike – just another one of the many things a woman shouldn’t be doing.

10-year-old Wadjda, an enterprising Saudi girl, hopes to raise enough money to buy herself a beautiful green bicycle to race her friend Abdullah.

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Iraq: My Sweet Pepper Land

Directed by: Hiner Saleem, 2013.

World Cinema 059 - Iraq (My Sweet Pepper Land)
(Credit: My Sweet Pepper Land)

Before World War I, Iraq was part of the Ottoman Empire. After the British came out victorious during the Mesopotamian Campaign, the empire was divided up, not taking into account the different ethnic and religious groups living in the country when drawing up the region’s new borders. This caused a particularly difficult situation for the Kurds and Christians living in the north of primarily Islamic Iraq. Meanwhile, the Iraqi film industry started taking shape. After World War II, Iraq produced a series of Indian-style musical romances set in Iraq’s rural villages with the support of British and French production companies.

When King Faisal II was overthrown in 1958, the new government started using cinema as a tool for propaganda. In the same period, conflict broke out between the Iraqi government and the Kurds. Saddam Hussein’s rise to power in 1979 subsequently embedded the country in war. During his reign, Iraq invaded Iran and Kuwait, leading to the Gulf War as displayed in British director Mick Jackson’s Live from Baghdad (2002). Saddam’s war drained national resources and crippled the nation’s budding film industry, though in 1980 Iraq did release the propaganda film Long Days (2018), glorifying Hussein’s role as a revolutionary.

Due to the ongoing wars fought in Iraq – from the U.N.’s invasion to the civil war – very few films were produced in the country. The Iraqi-film My Sweet Pepper Land (2013) was thus co-produced by France and Germany, helping Iraq in making the country’s struggles known to the world.

Filmed in Iraqi Kurdistan, the film details the attempts of Kurdish patriot Baran to govern a small village on the border of Iraq with Turkey and Iran. In the village, Baran is confronted by Aziz Aga, a corrupt tribal chief controlling the area. Meanwhile, Govend, a young school teacher from Baghdad, returns to the village aiming to educate its children in spite of the ongoing armed conflict in the region. My Sweet Pepper Land sheds light on the desperate situation at the Kurdish Iraqi border, where, ever since the British sliced up the Empire, regional disputes have plagued the lands.

War hero Baran is sent to the border of Iraqi Kurdistan to govern a small village ruled by a corrupt chief, while a young woman returns to the same village to re-open the local school.

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Iran: The Past

Directed by: Asghar Farhadi, 2013.

World Cinema 060 - Iran (The Past)
(Credit: The Past / Le Passé / Gozašte)

The first filmmaker from Iran – then also known as Persia – was Mirza Ebrahim Khan Akkas Bashi, the royal photographer of the Shah of Persia. On the order of his king, Akkas Bashi obtained a camera in Paris in 1900 to film the Shah’s visit to Europe. The country’s first film school was established in the 1920s, leading to steady growth in productions. By the 1960s, Persia was already producing up to 25 films per year, making the nation’s industry one of the largest in the region.

The 1979 revolution saw the transformation of the Persian monarchy into the Islamic Republic of Iran, leading to increased censorship within the nation’s film industry. To promote its domestic films abroad, censorships eased after 1987, leading to a new wave of Iranian films. From the 1990s onwards, Iran submitted a film for the Academy Award almost every year, including the wonderful, good-natured drama Children of Heaven (1997). Producing around 200 films annually, the Iranian box office is now dominated by domestic films.

Within five years time, prolific Iranian director Asghar Farhadi won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film twice with A Separation (2011) and The Salesman (2016). With his films, Farhadi sheds light on the emotional struggles within everyday life in modern-day Iran. Beautifully written, the director’s distinctive way of storytelling is felt throughout all of his movies.

The Past (original title: Le Passé, or: Gozašte, 2013) was released in between Farhadi’s two Academy Award-winning films. Like most of Farhadi’s movies, The Past can perhaps best be compared to an onion: every scene peels back another layer of the onion, revealing more details about the characters and their backgrounds, until, in the end, there’s nothing left for them to hide. By slowly allowing his audience to dive deeper into the sorrows of his characters, Farhadi allows viewers to become equally consumed by their emotions.

Unlike his other films, The Past received only limited international coverage. Yet, as a skillfully composed art film and a prime example of modern Iranian cinema, The Past deserves all the attention it can get.

The Past tells the story of Ahmad, an Iranian man, who – after an absence of four years – returns to France to finalize his divorce with his wife Marie. During his time abroad, Marie became romantically involved with Samir, whose wife resides in a coma.

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Kazakhstan: Tulpan

Directed by: Sergei Dvortsevoy, 2008.

World Cinema 061 - Kazakhstan (Tulpan)
(Credit: Tulpan)

Though claimed to have “placed Kazakhstan on the map” by Kazakh ambassador Erlan Idrissov, the Sacha Baron Cohen-produced mockumentary Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006) is in no way related to the Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan. Filmed under controversial circumstances in the heart of Romania, featuring Romani people interacting with a British comedian, Borat merely used Kazakhstan as its background setting. Though the Kazakh film industry had no involvement in what became the most famous film “featuring” their country, the industry itself has produced a number of films over the course of time.

The Kazakh film industry finds its origins in the production of documentaries in Almaty, the former Kazakh capital previously known as Alma-Ata. Being part of the Soviet Union until December 1991, Kazakhstan’s own film industry is relatively young. However, due to the threat of war in Moscow and Leningrad during World War II, the main Soviet film studios Mosfilm and Lenfilm both relocated to Alma-Ata to safely produce films.

During the post-war period, Alma-Ata further grew its (own) cinematic landscape, operating a fully established film industry once independence dawned. Due to Kazakh cinemas preference to rely on Hollywood films for its income, Kazakhstan’s own cinematic output struggled to find its place after the declaration of independence. In response, Kazakhstan produced several big-budget films to challenge Hollywood’s steady stream of blockbusters; among them, the Academy Award-nominated Mongolian co-production Mongol: The Rise of Genghis Khan (2007).

While small films such Tulpan (2008) fared well in Europe, at home they were largely overlooked. Tulpan was the country’s fourth submission to the Academy Awards. Though it didn’t manage to receive a nomination, it did win the Asia Pacific Screen Award for Best Film. Tulpan takes a look at the harsh life of a small family living on the remote Kazakh steppe. Returning home after being discharged from the Russian Navy, Asa dreams of becoming a herdsman and marrying his neighbor’s daughter Tulpan.

After returning home from a stint in the navy, Asa returns to the draught of the Kazakh steppe, where he hopes to lead a simple life as a shepherd.

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Looking for something else? Check out our recommendation for the best films from Europe, films from Eastern Europe, films from Africa, films from South Asia, films from East and Southeast Asia, films from Oceania and the Pacific, films from North America, films from Central America and the Caribbean and films from South America.

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South Asian Cinema (Straight from the Heart)

Cinema of South Asia

Explore the very best movies from South Asia, based on a selection of over 9,100 films.

Join us in shifting the world’s focus on American cinema back to the many other equally rich, yet underappreciated film industries around the world. In this article series, we highlight several hidden gems produced within a certain geographical region, one film per country, from the riches of Europe to the remote island nations of Polynesia.

As a bonus, we will make a donation to the welfare of wild cats, and the preservation of their habitats, for every film purchased through this site.

Table of Contents

Pick a Country

AfghanistanBangladeshIndiaNepalSri Lanka

The History of South Asian Cinema

South Asia’s cinematic landscape is largely dominated by the massive Indian film industry. Producing over 1,500 films per year, the industry’s influences can be felt across the Asian continent. The country’s masala films (musical films that combine song and dance with romantic storylines), as well as its more serious productions, have entertained audiences around the world and have reached universal acclaim.

As in African and Middle Eastern cinema, religion plays a crucial role in the narratives of South Asia’s cinematic output. Though Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan are still primarily Islamic nations, two other major religions emerged in the region: Hinduism and Buddhism. Islamic films from South Asia often deal with the role of women in society and Hindu films shed light on social restrictions, while Buddhism-inspired productions often take a more spiritual stance on life.

South Asian Cinema (Straight from the Heart)
(Credit: Straight from the Heart / Dil Ka Rishta, India)

Western imperialism in South Asia mostly affected India and Sri Lanka, which were situated on-route to the riches of Southeast Asia. British colonization in the area established English as an official language in India and led to the introduction of Pakistani English in Pakistan. Due to their popularity, as well as their English speaking abilities, several Indian stars have crossed over from Hollywood to Bollywood, among which Irrfan Khan, Deepika Padukone, Priyanka Chopra, and former Miss World Aishwarya Rai.

The Best Films from South Asia

Join us in following the Silk Road into Afghanistan, scaling the mountains of Nepal on our way to infamous Bollywood in India, before touching upon the shores of Buddhist Sri Lanka and traveling onwards to rural Bangladesh.

Afghanistan: The Patience Stone

Directed by: Atiq Rahimi, 2012.

World Cinema 062 - Afghanistan (The Patience Stone)
(Credit: The Patience Stone / Syngué Sabour, Pierre de Patience)

Though situated between the prolific nations of Iran and India and situated on the ancient Silk Road, Afghan cinema was slow to start. The first Afghan film wasn’t made until 1946. Most Afghan films produced in the following decades were either documentaries or news films, shown in cinemas before the main (Indian) features. Though the Soviet Union offered aspiring film professionals from Afghanistan a chance to educate themselves abroad, the country itself never established a proper film school. Once the Taliban took control of the country in 1996 they enforced a strict interpretation of Shari’a law, wrecking film theatres and burning films.

Following the September 11 attacks, the United States invaded Afghanistan. The country’s regime was overthrown, and soon after Afghanistan presented the world with its first post-Taliban films. An excellent example of modern-day Afghan filmmaking is Siddiq Barmak’s Osama, which follows Osama, a preteen girl living in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime. To be able to work in a nearby shop and support her family, Osama disguises herself as a boy.

Over the years, Afghan cinema slowly re-emerged, though talent is still sparse. Looking at Atiq Rhahimi’s novel-adaptation The Patience Stone (original title: Syngué Sabour, Pierre de Patience, 2012), you will instantly notice the presence of Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani. Farahani made a name for herself starring in two-time Academy Award winner Asghar Farhadi’s Iranian film About Elly (2009), as well as the Kurdish-Iraqi drama My Sweet Pepper Land by Hiner Saleem. Farahani was also the first Iranian actress to star in an American film, namely Body of Lies (2008), which she followed up with an appearance in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (2017). Due to her role in Body of Lies (2008) she was restricted from leaving her home country for six months.

Though utilizing foreign talents to complete its cast and crew, the story of The Patience Stone is still very much Afghan-based. In the film, Farahani’s unnamed character watches over her comatose husband, while most of her neighbors and family members flee their neighborhood as rivaling mujahidin fight each other in the streets. Hoping to get through to her husband, the protagonist’s monologues gradually turn into confessions, gaining a therapeutic value.

While watching over her husband who is left in a comatose state by a bullet lodged in the back of his neck, a young woman confesses the secrets she could never share with him while he was conscious.

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Nepal: Himalaya

Directed by: Eric Valli, 1999.

World Cinema 063 - Nepal (Himalaya)
(Credit: Himalaya / Himalaya: l’enfance d’un chef)

The Nepali film industry is relatively young, and still rather small. The first film produced in Nepal is the governmental informational film Mother (1964). Largely aided by India and often starring Indian actors, the Nepali film industry slowly grew between the 1960s and 1970s. During those decades, a handful of movies were produced, including several Bollywood-inspired musicals.

In the 1980s, Nepali cinema reached its ‘golden age’. The successful release of the musical Samjhana (1983) brought fame for its leading actors Bhuwan K.C. and the Indian Tripti Nadakar, whose on-screen chemistry led to the production of three more collaborations. The Nepalese Civil War, brought on by the Maoist Communist Party of Nepal, halted the sprouting film industry’s progress. During this time, however, filmmakers moved away from the Bollywood-style films and started crafting more creative, realistic films.

One of these films is French director Éric Valli’s Himalaya (original title: Himalaya: l’enfance d’un chef, 1999). Himalaya was co-produced by France to allow wider distribution of the film. The film details the story of a caravan of villagers and yaks carrying rock salt from the Himalayan mountains to the country’s lowlands. The salt is to be traded for grain in order to feed the village during winter, but inner turmoil within the tribe complicates the already very difficult journey. Himalaya is set against the backdrop of the remote, snow-covered mountain region of Dolpa and stars real chiefs, llamas, and villagers, displaying a unique aspect of Nepali life.

Himalaya details a journey of survival in the Nepalese Himalayas, where a caravan must prevail in trading salt for grain in the country’s lowlands to allow its villagers to survive during winter. The death of the local tribal chief, however, complicates matters as to who will lead the caravan through the mountains.

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India: Love Stories

Directed by: Aditya Chopra, 2000.

World Cinema 064A - India (Love Stories)
(Credit: Love Stories / Mohabbatein)

Situated in the heart of Asia, right in-between the Middle East and Southeast Asia, India is surrounded by a large number of countries that have relatively small national film industries. The geographical market that lies at India’s disposal is quite large, even without taking the country’s own population of 1.3 billion into account. Additionally, millions of Indian emigrants still chose to watch Indian films while abroad, accounting for 12% of the annual revenue from India’s film industry. It all started before the turn of the century in 1898, when Hiralal Sen, an Indian photographer, shot a short documentary film in his home country. Pioneering Indian feature film making, Dadasaheb Phalke then directed India’s first feature, Raja Harischandra (1913), paving the way for future filmmakers. The low cost of movie tickets in India further aided the growth in popularity of film within the country.

Colonial power Britain had little influence on the development of India’s film industry. After gaining independence in 1947, the country’s industry continued to grow without restrain. The 1940s ushered in the Golden Age of Indian cinema and introduced the world to the Indian masala film: musical films that combined song and dance with romantic, often melodramatic storylines. Though quite theatrical and more often than not overflowing with clichés, throwing logic out of the window for the sake of a compelling story, the films became incredibly popular and are still produced up until today. The epic masala film Mother India (1957) was the first Indian film to be nominated for an Academy Award in 1957, followed by the colonial period drama Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (2001) in 2001.

Though Hindi-language Bollywood films make up for a large share of India’s yearly cinematic output, the country’s Tamil, Telugu, and Kannada industries are also quite large. Indian films are produced nationwide, in over 25 different languages. Films are often remade several times to tailor to new audiences, such as the comedy-drama musical Munna Bhai M.B.B.S. (2003), which received Indian remakes in Telugu, Tamil, and Kannada, as well as a Sinhala version in Sri Lanka.

One of India’s modern-day success stories in the masala genre is the romantic drama Love Stories (original title: Mohabbatein, 2000), which became a worldwide critical and commercial success. Starring two of India’s most popular actors, Shah Rukh Khan and Amitabh Bachchan (as well as Indian superstar Aishwarya Rai in a supporting role), the film remains one of the most popular modern-day Hindi films. Running at 216 minutes, Love Stories is slightly longer than the average Indian film, which usually lasts around three hours. Still, aside from two seemingly never-ending monologues near the film’s end, every minute of the happy, inspiring, and heart-warming musical is worth the watch.

Three students attending an all-male boarding school ruled by the strict Headmaster Narayan Shankar fall in love with three young ladies attending a nearby school. The arrival of music teacher Raj Aryan soon sparks a battle between love and fear at the illustrious institution.

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India (II): Crematorium

Directed by: Neeraj Ghaywan, 2015.

World Cinema 064B - India (Crematorium)
(Credit: Crematorium / Masaan)

Nowadays, the Indian film industry produces over 1500 films per year; almost double the amount of Hollywood’s yearly output. Ticket sales for Indian films outpace Hollywood films around the world, selling over three times more seats than American films. Love Stories came out over forty years after the country’s first Masala film. Though the genre still stands tall, both Bollywood, as well as India’s other film industries, have slowly started moving away from the cliché-riding musical dramas of the past.

The 21st century saw the production of a series of impressive social and cultural dramas, shying away from the peppy Bollywood musicals of the 20th century. Great examples include Anurag Kashyap’s two-part crime epic Gangs of Wasseypur (2012), Ritesh Batra’s affectionate drama The Lunchbox (2013), Rajkumar Hiran’s quirky evaluation of religion PK (2014), Jeffrey D. Brown’s human trafficking drama Sold (2014) and Amit V Masurkar’s political comedy-drama Newton (2017).

In 2015, Neeraj Ghaywan directed the controversial, poignant drama Crematorium (original title: Masaan, 2015), focusing on two sensitive subjects hidden within Indian society: premarital sex and the country’s oppressive caste system. In the movie, student Devi Pathak is caught having sex with her boyfriend Piyush in a hotel, after the hotel’s staff tips off the police suspecting Devi and Piyush checked in to indulge in “indecent behavior”.

Crematorium’s second story narrates the efforts of Deepak Kumar, a young man from the Dom community, one of India’s lowest castes. Working in the cremation ghats, burning funeral pyres on the Ganges, Deepak falls in love with a high caste Hindu girl. Crematorium’s tragic story is a far stretch from Bollywood’s singing and dancing and showcases a completely different side of Indian society.

The tragic story of a young woman involved in a sex scandal intersects with that of a poor funeral pyre worker in love with a girl from a higher caste.

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Sri Lanka: Machan

Directed by: Uberto Pasolini, 2008.

World Cinema 065 - Sri Lanka (Machan)
(Credit: Machan)

The film industry of colonial Sri Lanka – known as British Ceylon – followed the conventions of Indian cinema. Gaining independence in 1948, Sri Lanka only gradually built its own national film industry. Most themes, storylines, and scripts were copied from Indian films, and original Sri Lankan films remained sparse for decades. It wasn’t until the late 20th century that a new generation of Sri Lankan directors attempted to breathe new life into the industry.

The 1980s saw the start of the Sri Lankan Civil War, which led to a decline in the country’s film industry. Though the war didn’t end until 2009, a new wave of films sharpened the industry’s focus during the 1990s, allowing it to start flourishing once again. The new Sri Lankan films moved away from Indian style productions and focused more on their country’s own social and cultural aspects. Many examples of such films centered on the civil war. Focusing on another important cultural aspect of Sri Lanka, Saman Weeraman’s film Siddhartha the Buddha (2013) detailed the history of the Nepali Prince Siddhartha, also known as Gautama Buddha. Theravada Buddhism is the religion of over 70% of the population of Sri Lanka, making it the country’s principal religion.

In 2004, Sri Lanka made headlines worldwide when its national handball team disappeared overnight while attending a tournament in Germany. Contacting Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Sport, German authorities soon discovered that the country didn’t have any handball teams, let alone a national one. Matching a hint of drama with a dash of comedy, Italian director Uberto Pasolini brought the heartfelt backstory of the false team to life in Machan (2008). In the film, Manoj and Stanley, two poor Sri Lankans in search of a better life, hope to immigrate to Germany. When they find an invitation to a handball tournament in Bavaria, the two friends decide to submit a team in order to finally get their visa applications approved.

A group of poor residents living in the slums of Colombo, Sri Lanka, decide to fake a handball team to be able to apply for a handball tournament organized in Bavaria.

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Bangladesh: Television

Directed by: Mostofa Sarwar Farooki, 2012.

World Cinema 066 - Bangladesh (Television)
(Credit: Television)

After the partition of British India, current-day Bangladesh became part of the Dominion of Pakistan and was renamed East Pakistan. This led to the Bangladesh Liberation War, sparked by West Pakistan’s military operation against the Bengali nationalist movement. Surviving 1971’s bloody genocide, Bangladesh eventually gained its independence from Pakistan. Due to its shared history with India before the partition of British India in 1947, Bangladesh’s film industry still has close connections to India’s.

Bangladesh’s Bengali film industry, nicknamed Dhallywood, is primarily based in the capital Dhaka. After Indian photographer Hiralal Sen pioneered cinema in the region, the industry rapidly expanded. Unlike in other Islamic countries, filmmaking was encouraged in the Dominion of Pakistan. This allowed the Bangladeshi film industry to prosper: by the time independence was gained, the country produced over 40 films a year; a number which has since then grown to over 60. Many post-independence films focused on the country’s period of unrest, such as Tareque Masud’s The Clay Bird (2002), but these films did not replace the many Bollywood-style films that were being produced.

Heavily influenced by India, Bangladeshi films are often colorful, melodramatic musicals akin to the Indian masala genre. Additionally, the Bengali film industry often remakes Indian films for the local market, starring a new cast enacting the literal translations of scripts written for the Indian market. What makes original Bangladeshi film productions stand out is their uniqueness: Bangladeshi films copy the vivid colors and comedy of Hindi cinema, but often focus on the restrains and restrictions dictated by Islam. An example of such a film is Mostofa Sarwar Farooki’s Television (2012), in which Islamic Chairman Amin, the leader of a water-locked community, bans every kind of image in his village, including television. Deeming “riding the horse of imagination” a great sin, Amin does everything in his power to keep photography, television, and cell phones out of his secluded community.

In Television, Islamic Chairman Amin, the leader of the local community situated on a small island, bans the use of photography, television and cell phones, claiming them to be sinful. Tension rises within the village when a local Hindu man is reluctantly allowed to own a television, given that he does not allow his Muslim neighbors to watch.

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Looking for something else? Check out our recommendation for the best films from Europe, films from Eastern Europe, films from Africa, films from West and Central Asia, films from East and Southeast Asia, films from Oceania and the Pacific, films from North America, films from Central America and the Caribbean and films from South America.

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African Cinema (Timbuktu)

Cinema of Africa

Explore the very best movies from Africa, based on a selection of over 9,100 films.

Join us in shifting the world’s focus on American cinema back to the many other equally rich, yet underappreciated film industries around the world. In this article series, we highlight several hidden gems produced within a certain geographical region, one film per country, from the riches of Europe to the remote island nations of Polynesia.

As a bonus, we will make a donation to the welfare of wild cats, and the preservation of their habitats, for every film purchased through this site.

Table of Contents

Pick a Country

AlgeriaBotswanaBurkina FasoEgyptEthiopiaIvory CoastMaliMauritaniaMoroccoNigeriaRwandaSenegalSomaliaSouth AfricaTunisiaZambia

The History of African Cinema

African cinema is largely dominated by themes detailing its colonial history. During the 7th century, the Arabs from the Arabian Peninsula (current day Saudi Arabia) invaded Africa no less than three times, and by the start of the 8th century, all of North Africa was under the control of the Arab caliphate. This established Islam as the main religion in the region. Subsequent colonization by Europe further influenced native African culture, creating a unique cultural pallet, which up until today heavily influences the region’s society as well as its cinematic output.

African Cinema (Timbuktu)
(Credit: Timbuktu, Mauritania)

The so-called “Scramble for Africa” sliced the continent up into pieces as if it was a cake, resulting in the colonization of almost 90% of the entire continent by 1914. Belgium, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, and Spain each took a piece of pie and exploited their new-found lands to their full extent.

After decolonization in the 1960s, Africa was left broken and impoverished. Because of this, very few films were produced on the continent. Fortunately, many countries were able to start producing films by collaborating with their neighboring countries, as well as their former colonial rulers. This led to the production of several wonderful art house films, highlighting Africa’s unique cultures, as well as the social struggles that still plague the continent.

The Best Films from North Africa

It’s time to cross the Mediterranean Sea to North Africa, where we trail past the pyramids of Egypt, visit the Islamic palaces of Tunisia, explore the streets of Casablanca, Morocco, take a look at the troubled colonial history of Algeria and scale the desert of Mauritania.

Egypt: Cairo Station

Directed by: Youssef Chahine, 1958.

World Cinema 035 - Egypt (Cairo Station)
(Credit: Cairo Station / The Iron Gate / Bab el Hadid)

Serving as a bridge between Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, Egypt has been the center of attention of a host of films produced around the world. Its gods and legends as well as its defining role in the Hebrew Bible have made it a popular setting for foreign films, such as the American films Stargate (1994), The Mummy (1999), and Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014).

Though it often served as the backdrop of foreign productions, Egypt also managed to establish its own film industry. The first Egyptian film was produced in 1896, and the first full-length feature Laila followed in 1927. Egypt’s film industry stands apart from all other African nations: thanks to its Arab ties and its geographical positioning, Egypt became one of the most successful film-producing countries on the African continent.

With over 4,000 films produced, Egypt also boasts the largest Arabic film industry by far. Taking things one step further, from the 1940s until the 1960s the Egyptian film industry was actually the third-largest in the entire world. Though a drop in overall quality in Egypt’s cinematic output caused the industry to dwindle, the country’s current-day filmmakers try their best to recapture the industry’s golden years.

One of Egypt’s most engaging successes of its cinematic Golden Age was 1958’s Cairo Station, also known as The Iron Gate (original title: Bab el Hadid, 1958). The film displays the chaos of everyday life at Cairo’s buzzing train station, where trains carrying passengers arrive and depart every passing minute. Qinawi, a physically challenged young man begging for money at the station, is given a job selling newspapers at a local entrepreneur’s newsstand. Despite the mild nature of Qinawi’s handicap, he becomes an object of ridicule for the people at the train station. After meeting the beautiful cold drink vendor Hannuma, Qinawi becomes obsessed with the idea of starting a new life with her as a married man.

Qinawi, a lame newspaper salesman, falls in love with cold drink vendor Hannuma. Though sympathetic towards Qinawi, Hannuma is already engaged to be married to Abu Siri, a strong porter struggling to unionize his fellow workers at the station.

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Tunisia: The Silences of the Palace

Directed by: Moufida Tlatli, 1994.

World Cinema 036 - Tunisia (The Silences of the Palace)
(Credit: The Silences of the Palace / Samt el Qusur)

Being a part of French West Africa during the dawn of cinema, Tunisia was one of the first countries to host the French Lumière brothers. In 1896, the brothers screened several animated films in the streets of Tunisia’s capital Tunis, ushering in a new age of entertainment. Roughly twenty years later, a new honor was bestowed on the country: in 1919, French director Luitz-Morat traveled to Tunisia to shoot his film The Five Accursed Gentlemen (1920). The film became the first film shot on the North African continent, starting a new form of exploitation of France’s African colonies.

Over the years, Tunisia was able to boost its film industry by attracting major foreign movie studios to shoot their films in the country: among others, the country played host to Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), The English Patient (1996), and several Star Wars-movies (1977-2019). Tunisia’s domestic output, however, remained small. In 1995, Le Magique (1995() became the country’s first official submission for the Academy Awards. Though never nominated, Tunisia submitted four more movies in the last two decades.

Tunisia’s legal system is based on French civil law. This allows relatively more freedom for women than in other Islamic countries, which often follows Islamic Shari’a law. This is reflected in the country’s cinematic landscape: the first female-directed Tunisian film, Fatma 75, came out in 1975 and was directed by Selma Baccar. Baccar’s films led the way for other female directors, including Moufida Tlatli, whose The Silences of the Palace (original title: Samt el Qusur, 1994) portraits the injustices suffered by women in the courts of Tunis.

Set in the 1950s at the time Tunisia gained its independence from France, The Silences of the Palace follows the female house servants of Prince Sid’ Ali. For the women, living in the prince’s palace comes at a high price: they are not to go against the prince’s will, and often become the victims of sexual exploitation. One of the prince’s family’s servants, Khedija, tries to shelter her daughter Alia from the same fate she herself suffered at the hands of the prince. The film challenges gender inequality, class, and sexuality as the palace’s radios continuously report on the rise of Tunisia’s independence movement.

In The Silences of the Palace, Alia, a young Tunisian singer, returns to her birthplace: the palace of Prince Sid’ Ali and the workplace of her mother, one of the palace’s many servants. At the palace, Alia looks back at what it was like growing up in the confines of the palace.

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Morocco: Ali Zaoua: Prince of the Streets

Directed by: Nabil Ayouch, 2000.

World Cinema 037 - Morocco (Ali Zaoua, Prince of the Streets)
(Credit: Ali Zaoua: Prince of the Streets / Ali Zaoua, Prince de la Rue)

Morocco has a long history of being utilized as a location for filming foreign productions (yet, amusingly, the American Casablanca (1942) is not one of them). The first film recorded in Morocco was The Moroccan Goatherd (1897), filmed by Louis Lumière. It would take another 50 years or so before the country actually started its own film productions, with Moroccan director Mohammed Ousfour spearheading the country’s first film in the 1950s.

The first full-fledged generation of Moroccan directors arrived two decades later, slowly developing their home country’s film industry. One of Morocco’s directors who broke through in the years that followed was Nabil Ayouch. Born in Paris, Ayouch developed his skills during the production of a series of short films between 1992 and 1994. This led him to direct the well-received Moroccan-set Mektoub (2017) and Ali Zaoua: Prince of the Streets (original title: Ali Zaoua, Prince de la Rue, 2000), which were both filmed in Ayouch’s father’s homeland, Morocco.

The latter, Ali Zaoua, became a hit at several international cinemas, bringing the Moroccan film industry to the forefront of the world’s cinemas. Ali Zaoua tells the story of a large gang of homeless, uneducated children living in poverty near the docks of Casablanca. After four children decide to leave the group behind, their leader Ali is accidentally killed by members of the gang. The three remaining boys decide to honor their lost friend by arranging a proper funeral, but this proves to be a difficult task.

A group of homeless children living on the street in Casablanca decide to leave their gang. When one of them is accidentally killed, his friends try to come up with the resources to give him a proper burial.

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Algeria: The Battle of Algiers

Directed by: Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966.

World Cinema 038 - Algeria (The Battle of Algiers)
(Credit: The Battle of Algiers / La Battaglia di Algeri)

Occupied for almost two millennia by foreign entities, Algeria has been annexed by the Roman Empire, the Arabs, the Spanish, the Ottoman and at last, the French. After World War I, the notion of anti-colonialism started to grow within the nation. During World War I and World War II, various groups were formed opposing French rule. After World War II, friction between France and Algeria led to the brutal Algerian War of Independence, which lasted from 1954 until 1962.

During the era of French colonization, Algeria’s national cinema was virtually non-existent. Films were predominantly produced as a tool for French propaganda. After gaining independence, Algeria was left with very little resources. In 1966, however, Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo co-produced The Battle of Algiers (original title: La Battaglia di Algeri, 1966) with Algeria, boosting the countries international presence, as well as its national film industry.

Though technically not an Algerian movie, the film is based on the memoir of Saâdi Yacef, one of the leaders of Algeria’s National Liberation Front. Backed by the Algerian government, Pontecorvo was approached to adapt the memoir. Pontecorvo attempted to tell Yacef’s story from a neutral perspective, showing both sufferings of Algerians and the French, as well as their brutal approaches to warfare.

Set between 1954 and 1957, The Battle of Algiers portrays the violent struggle of the people of Algiers to free their city from French occupation during the Algerian War of Independence.

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Mauritania: Timbuktu

Directed by: Abderrahmane Sissako, 2014.

World Cinema 039 - Mauritania (Timbuktu)
(Credit: Timbuktu)

Much of Mauritania’s recent history echoes Algeria’s. French rule in Mauritania, however, had some important positive effects on the country: it brought an end to the inter-clan warfare which had plagued the nation. When the country gained independence in 1960 along with a host of other former French African colonies, Mauritania had no film industry to speak of. During the mid-1970s, Mauritania and France co-produced a series of films, leading to several other co-productions with Mali, Senegal, Burkina Faso, and Belgium.

After directing the Malian comedy-drama Life on Earth (1998), Mauritanian film director Abderrahmane Sissako turned his eyes upon his home country and shot the French-Mauritanian drama film Waiting for Happiness (2002). Switching back to Malian film making, he then directed Bamako (2006) and subsequently returned back to Mauritania to direct Timbuktu (2014): a French-Mauritanian drama film set in the city of Timbuktu, Mali, but shot in Oualata, a town in south-east Mauritania.

The film depicts the nomadic culture characteristic of both Mali and Mauritania. Timbuktu focuses on a kind-spirited cattle herder and his family, who are living a quiet life in the dunes of Timbuktu when extremist Islamists invade the city. Throughout the film, the jihadists patrol the city proclaiming new rules, which grow in absurdity with every passing day. One of the film’s most beautiful scenes shows a group of young men playing football with an imaginary ball after sports are banned by the occupying extremists. At the same time, Timbuktu takes an ironic look at the extremists themselves, as they continually break their own Sharia laws as they see fit.

Residing in the dunes of Timbuktu, a cattle herder and his family find their quiet lives turned upside down when a group of Jihadists takes control of the city and impose a series of strict rules on the local population.

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The Best Films of West Africa

As we move from North Africa to West Africa, we visit the plains of Mali, the deserts of Senegal, and the quiet villages of Burkina Faso, before trailing the Gulf of Guinea past Ivory Coast and Nigeria.

Mali: Brightness

Directed by: Souleymane Cissé, 1987.

World Cinema 040 - Mali (Brightness)
(Credit: Brightness / Yeelen)

Formerly known as French Sudan, Mali was a part of French West Africa between 1880 and 1960. Due to its ties with France, Mali was able to create several feature films since the country gained its independence. Mali’s colonial ties to Europe opened the door for the production of several co-productions, such as Bamako and Brightness (original title: Yeelen, 1987).

Whereas most North and West African films focus on social struggles and the ongoing consequences of colonialism, Brightness takes a leap in time to display the Africa known only from legends; the film tells the tale of a Bambara legend, set in the 13th century. The film not only offers a fantastic look at what Mali must have been like before the white men came, but also sheds light on some of the cultural believes that can still be felt in the country today.

Brightness was recorded in Bamara and Fula; two languages spoken in central southern Mali and the Sahel. In the film, Nianankoro, a young man with magical powers, leaves his countryside village to seek out his uncle for help. With the help of a magical wooden pole, Nianankoro’s father aims to tract him down and kill him to prevent a prophecy concerning his own death from coming true. Brightness takes the shape of a mystical road movie, embedded in African culture, offering a rare glimpse into the continent’s rich past.

A young Bambara man with magical powers leaves his village in search of his uncle, who he aims to ask for help in fighting his father, a dangerous sorcerer.

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Senegal: Moolaadé

Directed by: Ousmane Sembene, 2004.

World Cinema 041 - Senegal (Moolaadé)
(Credit: Moolaadé)

Like its surrounding nations, Senegal’s film industry is relatively small. Many of Senegal’s first films – dating back to 1955 – were either produced or co-produced by France. After Senegal gained independence in 1960, writer Ousmane Sembène decided to utilize film as a way to familiarize the world with Senegal’s social struggles, believing the medium to have a wider reach than the printed word.

Most of Sembène’s films deal with social change: the onset of colonialism, the preservation of African culture during foreign occupation, the shortcomings of religion, and the strength and struggle of the country’s women. The latter subject has been widely covered in Senegal’s cinematic output. A beautiful example lies in Safi Faye’s Mossane (1996), which tells the story of a beautiful 14-year-old village girl who is to be married off, because her beauty offers too much of a distraction for the village’s men. Marrying her would then “keep her safe” from suitors, including her own brother.

Sembène similarly turns his focus on the injustices African women suffer in the universally acclaimed film Moolaadé (2004). The film was co-produced with Burkina Faso, Morocco, Tunesia, Cameroon, and France to call out the barbarity of female genital mutilation. In Moolaadé, Collé, the second wife of a man living in a small village, decides to protect four of the community’s children from undergoing “purification” by enforcing moolaadé; a magical form of protection embedded in superstition. Collé’s opposition against female genital mutilation causes a rift in the village, slowly forcing the village’s women to oppose the patriarchal system.

When four children set to undergo female circumcision in a small African town seek protection at villager Colle’s residence, she decides to protect them from the town’s elders, causing a major conflict within their community.

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Ivory Coast: Black and White in Color

Directed by: Jean-Jacques Annaud, 1976.

World Cinema 042 - Ivory Coast (Black and White in Colour)
(Credit: Black and White in Color / La Victoire en Chantant)

At the end of the 19th century, seven European empires sliced the African continent into pieces. Distributing the pieces among themselves, Africa became almost fully ruled by foreign forces. Like Mali and Senegal, Ivory Coast (also known as Côte d’Ivoire) was part of France’s sizable colony. Along with many other current-day North and West African countries, Ivory Coast gave rise to its national film industry only after gaining independence.

After the decolonization of the Ivory Coast in 1960, the Ivorian film industry lacked the resources to produce their own films. The country’s strong ties to Europe, however, made it possible to start co-producing films. Due to its colonial history with France, the European nation became Ivory Coast’s most frequent production partner. In the decades that followed, many African nations produced films depicting the aftermath of colonization, as well as the struggles of the African people. Ivory Coast, on the other hand, decided to take a satirical look at colonization itself in 1976’s Black and White in Color (original title: La Victoire en Chantant, 1976).

Co-produced with France and West-Germany, Black and White in Color sketches a comical portrait of the colonial powers that occupied West and Central Africa. In the film, the lives of a small group of French colonists are turned upside down when news arrives that war has erupted in Europe. Upon finding out that France is at odds with Germany, the colonists see it as their sworn duty to attack the equally small German colonial settlement across the river. Quickly enlisting the settlement’s naïve locals, they commence their own little war against the German empire. By satirizing the colonial powers’ clumsy attempts at warfare, Black and White in Color humorously shows just how ridiculous Europeans must have looked in the eyes of Africa’s native inhabitants.

Several months behind in the news, the inhabitants of a small French colony decide to take up arms against their German neighbors when news arrives that war has erupted in Europe. Enlisting the settlements’ native population as foot soldiers, the French colonists prepare for war.

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Burkina Faso: Wend Kuuni & Buud Yam

Directed by: Gaston Kaboré, 1982 & 1997.

World Cinema 043 - Burkina Faso (Wend Kuuni)
(Credit: Wend Kuuni)

During the Muslim conquest of North and West Africa, the Mossi Kingdoms situated in modern-day Africa successfully fought off its Arab invaders. As such, Burkina Faso now separates the Islamic nations in North Africa and the Christian nations along the Gulf of Guinea. The Mossi Kingdoms met their match in the French colonial empire, which annexed the kingdoms in 1896.

Like its surrounding nations, Burkina Faso created films in co-production with Europe, most often partnering with France, West-Germany, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. The country’s film industry grew stronger than the industries of its neighboring countries, producing approximately four films per year and becoming a significant player within Africa’s cinematic landscape. In 1997 Gaston Kaboré, one of Burkina Faso’s most famous directors, opened a training school for new filmmakers in the country’s capital Ouagadougou.

Kaboré was responsible for directing Wend Kuuni (1982), a quiet Burkinabé drama film. The movie takes place before colonialism in the nineteenth century and follows a young, mute boy who is found dehydrated in the savanna. Unable to explain what happened to him, the boy is adopted into a local Mossi village and given the name Wend Kuuni. Wend Kuuni quickly becomes the village’s shepherd and befriends his new stepsister Pognere.

Wend Kuuni is a wonderful little film displaying village life in pre-colonial Africa and is additionally famous for being one of only a few African films ever to receive a sequel: most of Wend Kuuni’s original cast reprised their roles over a decade later in Kaboré’s adventurous road movie Buud Yam (1997).

After being found lying unconscious in the savanna, a young, mute boy is adopted by a family living in a small Mossi village.

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Nigeria: My Mother

Directed by: Tunde Kelani, 2011.

World Cinema 044 - Nigeria (My Mother)
(Credit: My Mother / Maami)

The Nigerian film industry stretches back all the way to the beginning of cinema. The first films that were shown in Nigeria came from Britain, the colonial power occupying the African nation. Several British shorts were shown in Lagos in 1903. Two decades later the first film was produced in the region. Under the influence of the British Empire, Nigeria’s cinematic landscape grew quickly. Many cinemas were constructed and a host of production companies started producing locally-made films.

Nigeria’s film industry became known as ‘Nollywood’ in the early 2000s. Booming both before and after the country gained its independence in 1960, the Nigerian film industry is one of the most successful industries on the African continent. The expansion of the country’s film industry was eventually halted by the dawn of television broadcasting and the introduction of cheap home video productions.

Many modern-day Nigerian films, such as Tunde Kelani’s My Mother (original title: Maami, 2011) embody Nigeria’s bond with producing film directly on video. Soapy acting and melodramatic music make My Mother a clear example of the old-fashioned, cheap way in which Nigeria produced its films from the 1980s until the mid-2010s. In spite of My Mother’s ambitious storyline and cinematic visuals, the film still carries a certain made-for-TV-like quality. Story-wise, My Mother combines a tale of a social struggle with a more commercially viable, nationalistic story concerning the 2010 World Cup: in the film, international football player Kashimawo returns to Nigeria, reflecting on his troublesome childhood while considering to play for the Nigerian national team in South Africa.

Based on the Nigerian novel Maami, My Mother tells the story of Kashimawo, a young man who grew up poverty-stricken in Nigeria, but eventually grew up to be a successful international football player.

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The Best Films of East and South Africa

We continue to explore African cinema, moving from West Africa towards the famine-stricken Ethiopia in East Africa, after which we follow the coastline of Somalia, pass through the small nation of Rwanda and cross the plains of Zambia and Botswana on our way to the steppe of South Africa.

Ethiopia: Morning Dew

Directed by: Haile Gerima, 2008.

World Cinema 045 - Ethiopia (Morning Dew)
(Credit: Morning Dew / Teza)

Though occupied by Italy for a short period of time, Ethiopia was never colonized by a European power. After the Scramble for Africa, Ethiopia – then Abyssinia, or the Ethiopian Empire – remained one of the only independent countries on the African continent. Though the Lumière brothers already visited the empire in the late 19th century to project their films, the country failed to establish its own film industry in the decades that followed. In fact, even nowadays, the cinematic landscape of ‘Eollywood’ is still in its infant stage.

One of the most famous films ever recorded in Ethiopia is Radu Mihăileanu’s Live and Become (2005). The film tells the tale of an Ethiopian Christian boy who disguises himself as a Jew to escape his famine-stricken country and to be allowed access into Israel as a refugee. Produced by France, directed by a Romanian director and starring French and Israeli actors alongside Ethiopians, the film technically doesn’t qualify as a true Ethiopian film, but it does highlight a significant part of the country’s history: namely the execution of Operation Moses – the evacuation of Ethiopian Jews from Sudan during the Second Sudanese Civil War.

Haile Gerima’s Morning Dew (original title: Teza. 2008) is Ethiopia’s own attempt at reflecting on the country’s modern history. Written and directed by Gerima, the film tells the story of Anberber, an Ethiopian doctor returning to his home village after finishing his medicine studies in West Germany and serving as a doctor in Addis Ababa. Spanning three decades, Morning Dew displays the suffering of Ethiopia’s citizens under the repressive Marxist totalitarian regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam, as well as Anberber’s struggle to hang on to his dream of bringing modern medicine to the people of Ethiopia.

Though Gerima’s film is occasionally off-putting due to its jarring editing – utilizing a Jason Bourne-like style when no such action is needed – and a seemingly redundant framing device, the film does manage to shed some light on Ethiopia’s recent political and social conflicts.

Ethiopian intellectual Anberber returns to his home village, he reminisces about his studies abroad, as well as his return to Ethiopia during Communist Mengistu Haile Mariam military dictatorship.

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Somalia: The Pirates of Somalia

Directed by: Bryan Buckley, 2017.

World Cinema 046 - Somalia (The Pirates of Somalia)
(Credit: The Pirates of Somalia)

From 1936 until World War II, Somalia (then: Somalialand) was occupied by the Italians and merged into Italian East Africa. After the war, the British took control in the region. Additionally, the country’s culture was heavily influenced by Islam due to its proximity to the Arabian Peninsula. Somalia’s first encounter with cinema was through Italian newsreels during the country’s colonial period. With the help of locals, Italy produced several Fascist films in the country during the 1930s and 1940s. This helped Somalia in starting its own film industry.

After gaining independence in 1960, Somalia slowly grew its domestic film industry. The country’s industry partnered with Italy and the United Kingdom on several occasions, thus managing to produce a steady flow of new films over the course of the last few decades. Much like Nigeria’s Nollywood and Ethiopia’s Eollywood, the Somalian film industry received a similarly derivative nickname: Somaliwood.

One of Somaliwood’s latest films was co-produced with the United States: Bryan Buckley’s The Pirates of Somalia (2017). The film offers a close look inside the lives of the Somalian ‘pirates’ threatening the international shipping routes off the coast of Somalia. The Pirates of Somalia shows the other side of the story depicted in Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips (2013), but does not manage to do it in a similarly inspired and intelligent way.

Based on a true story, The Pirates of Somalia recounts the amateurish efforts of journalist Jay Bahadur to make a name for himself by interviewing Somali’s pirates, risking his life just by stepping into their country. Unfortunately, X-Men-star Evan Peters fails in making his character likable. No matter the stakes of his game, Bahadur shows no character growth and seemingly learns nothing from what should have been a humbling experience. Director Buckley equally comes up short, misfiring on the film’s emotional beats by continuously focusing on what a hack Bahadur was.

Though inherently flawed, The Pirates of Somalia still offers an interesting glimpse inside the lives of the fishermen violently ‘defending’ their waters on the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean.

Yearning for a chance to become a famous writer, aspiring journalist Jay Bahadur travels to Somalia under the guise of writing a book about the local pirates.

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Rwanda: Sometimes in April

Directed by: Raoul Peck, 2005.

World Cinema 047A - Rwanda (Sometimes in April)
(Credit: Sometimes in April)

Terry George’s Hotel Rwanda (2004) greatly increased the worldwide realization of the horrors that had taken place in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide. Unfortunately, for more than half a million Tutsi citizens, this realization came too late. The tiny African nation’s recent history is one of the bloodiest in the late 20th century. Approximately 70% of the country’s Tutsi population was slaughtered by members of the Hutu government.

Rwanda is one of the smallest countries on the African mainland and has only produced a handful of directors, most of them starting their careers abroad. Due to the country’s unstable financial situation, only a handful of films were produced. As can be expected, the Rwandan Genocide is the subject of most films set in the country: both foreign productions such as Hotel Rwanda and A Sunday in Kigali (2006) and local films such as 100 Days (1991), Kinyarwanda (2011), and Sometimes in April (2005) tackle the difficult subject matter.

Raoul Peck’s Rwandan-produced Sometimes in April details the conflict from start to finish, starting with the assassination of the Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana on the evening of April 6th, 1994. The film follows the tragic story of Hutu Augustin, his pro-Hutu Power brother Honoré, his Tutsi wife Jeanne, and the couple’s children, while trying to survive the brutal Hutu regime. Through the stories of each individual family member, the horrors inflicted by the Hutu government are brought to the screen in an uncompromising matter, hoping the world will never overlook such a harrowing situation again.

Augustin, a captain in the Rwandan Armed Forces, struggles for the survival of his family when Hutu nationalists take up arms against their Tutsi countrymen in Rwanda in April 1994.

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Rwanda (II): Africa United

Directed by: Debs Paterson, 2010.

World Cinema 047B - Rwanda (Africa United)
(Credit: Africa United)

Moving on from the heavy subject matter of the Rwandan Genocide, Debs Paterson’s Africa United (2010) shows great promise for the country’s budding movie industry. Due to the polarizing nature of the country’s heavy dramas and its upbeats modern comedy-dramas, we felt the need to feature Rwanda twice. Produced by Eric Kabera, the president of the Rwanda Cinema Center who also produced the genocide inspired 100 Days, Africa United is a film about hope, optimism, and achieving one’s goals.

For those looking to get a sense of the modern-day spirit of post-genocide Rwanda, Africa United is a great addition to your watch list. Not only does the film show a completely different side of the once war-torn country, it also establishes Africa as a communal place of growth. In the film, football prodigy Fabrice is offered the chance to audition for the opening ceremony of the 2010 Football World Cup in South Africa. Taking the bus to Kigali with his young friend and football fanatic Dudu Kayenzi and Dudu’s sister Beatrice, things go amiss when the trio accidentally ends up in Congo.

Having missed the auditions, the trio decides to push on towards South Africa themselves with the help of former child soldier Fabrice. Though restricted to film the movie in Rwanda and South Africa by the treaty drawn up with co-producer the United Kingdom, Paterson skillfully re-created the look and feel of each country the kids travel through, uniting the three Rwandan children with a host of socially relevant characters from Congo, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa.

After failing to make it to his audition for the 2010 Football World Cup’s opening ceremony, football prodigy Fabrice and his friends decide to travel to South Africa in hope of a second chance.

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Zambia: I Am Not a Witch

Directed by: Rungano Nyoni, 2017.

World Cinema 048 - Zambia (I Am Not a Witch)
(Credit: I Am Not a Witch)

Like in many other African nations, Zambia had no film industry to speak of for most of the 20th century. Over the past decade, however, cinema has become an important pastime for the country’s inhabitants. Several short films were produced locally and co-productions with former colonial powers such as the United Kingdom, France, and Germany made it possible to move into feature-length film production. The country hosts no film school, but this hasn’t stopped aspiring professionals from going abroad to get an education in film.

Before its independence in 1964, Zambia – then Northern Rhodesia – was part of the British Union of South Africa. In Rungano Nyoni’s I Am Not a Witch (2017), the aftermath of colonialism can still be felt: the country boasts an intriguing mixture of traditional values with modern, Western influences. In the film, Shula, an 8-year-old girl is accused of being a witch after a villager blames her for the troubles their village is facing.

Superstition still dictates the lives of many of the tribes living in Zambia, and I Am Not a Witch shows that even the country’s ‘modern’ justice system still adheres to it. Shula is convicted and sent to a witch camp, where a spindle of ribbon is attached to her back to keep her from flying away. Were she to cut the ribbon, she would risk turning into a goat. Held captive by superstition, Shula joins the commune’s witches and becomes a tool for government official Mr. Banda, who exploits her supposed powers to solve civil cases. I Am Not a Witch juxtaposes ancient and modern believes with poignant humor, showing that the nation still has a long way to go to modernization.

Found guilty of witchcraft, 8-year old girl Shula is exiled to a witch camp in the Zambian desert, where she is tied to a spindle of ribbon to keep her from flying away.

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Botswana: The Gods Must Be Crazy

Directed by: Jamie Uys, 1980.

World Cinema 049 - Botswana (The Gods Must Be Crazy)
(Credit: The Gods Must Be Crazy)

Botswana was introduced to film through South Africa, where film first appeared in the early 20th century. Though often featured in newsreels, documentaries, wildlife films, and South African productions, Botswana itself never really managed to establish its own film industry. In fact, the country’s most famous film – and arguably Africa’s most famous film – The Gods Must Be Crazy (1980) is not even a true Botswanan film.

Set near the Okavango River in Botswana’s Kalahari Desert, the film was actually filmed in South Africa and Namibia. Though The Gods Must Be Crazy was made with South African government subsidies, the film was presented to the world as a Botswanan film rather than a South African one to avoid sanctions against the release of an apartheid film. Though this technically invalidates this entry into our list as a Botswana, the film’s cult status and questionable origin make it an interesting supplementary entry into this list.

The Gods Must Be Crazy broke several box office records in both the United States and Japan, leading to the production of no less than four sequels, each one becoming just a little more ridiculous: The Gods Must Be Crazy II (1989), Crazy Safari (1991), Crazy Hong Kong (1993) and The Gods Must Be Funny in China (1994). All five films starred Nǃxau ǂToma, a member of the San (also known as the Bushmen).

In the films, ǂToma plays Xi, an innocent Bushman whose tribe is turned upside down when Xi finds a glass Coca-Cola bottle in the Kalahari Desert. Initially, Xi’s people assume the strange artifact is a present awarded to them by the gods, but when concepts such as “need” and “possession” start affecting relations within the tribe, it is decided that the gift is cursed, after which Xi is tasked to return it to the gods. The Gods Must Be Crazy is an innocent, light-hearted slapstick comedy about the life of a naive African Bushmen and the clumsy white men he encounters along his way.

In rural Botswana, bushman Xi crosses paths with a clumsy biologist, a British school teacher, and a violent guerrilla leader.

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South Africa: Yesterday

Directed by: Darrell Roodt, 2004.

(Credit: Yesterday)

At the start of the 19th century, the British gained control over the Dutch Cape Colony. Just like the Dutch before them, the British had little interest in the country’s resources, using it mainly as a strategic port on the way to the Asian colonies. South Africa’s many clans, kingdoms, and minorities frequently clashed during British rule, and until 1994 the apartheid – an institutionalized system of racial segregation laws dating back to 1856 – haunted the nation. Many South African and British (co-)productions, such as Goodbye Bafana (2007), Red Dust (2004), and the science-fiction film District 9 (2009) deal with the apartheid. Additionally, several films were made about the life of anti-apartheid revolutionary Nelson Mandela‎.

South Africa became a sovereign state in 1931 and gained independence as a Republic in 1961. The first film studio in South Africa was established under British rule in 1915 in Johannesburg when the region was known as the Union of South Africa. During the 1910s and 1920s, several South African historical films were shot in the country. The country’s national film industry followed suit with the rest of the world, moving into the production of sound films and color films in later decades.

Following the formation of the Republic of South Africa, the country’s film industry expanded rapidly, outgrowing most other African industries. Jamie Uys’ 1980 film The Gods Must Be Crazy gained universal acclaim and in both 2004 and 2005, a South African film was nominated for the Academy Award for Foreign Language Film. The two films, Tsotsi (2005) and Yesterday (2004), showcase opposite sides of South Africa’s modern-day culture: where Tsotsi focuses on life in the slums of Johannesburg, Yesterday takes a deeper look inside the lives of the country’s villagers.

What makes Yesterday stand out is its focus on the problems many South Africans living outside of the big cities still face. Set in the rural village of Rooihoek in Zululand, the film sketches a portrait of the African countryside where a lack of education, water supply facilities and proper health care still threaten the lives of its inhabitants.

Yesterday, the mother of the 7-year-old Beauty, spends her days working in the fields to provide for the daughter while her husband works as a miner in Johannesburg. When Yesterday learns she has HIV, her goal becomes to live long enough to see her child go to school.

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Looking for something else? Check out our recommendation for the best films from Europe, films from Eastern Europe, films from South Asia, films from West and Central Asia, films from East and Southeast Asia, films from Oceania and the Pacific, films from North America, films from Central America and the Caribbean and films from South America.

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Central and Eastern European Cinema (Burnt by the Sun)

Cinema of Eastern Europe

Explore the very best movies from Central and Eastern Europe, based on a selection of over 9,100 films.

Join us in shifting the world’s focus on American cinema back to the many other equally rich, yet underappreciated film industries around the world. In this article series, we highlight several hidden gems produced within a certain geographical region, one film per country, from the riches of Europe to the remote island nations of Polynesia.

As a bonus, we will make a donation to the welfare of wild cats, and the preservation of their habitats, for every film purchased through this site.

Table of Contents

Pick a Country

AustriaBelarusBosnia and HerzegovinaBulgariaCzechoslovakiaCzech Republic HungaryMacedonia PolandRomaniaRussiaSerbiaSloveniaSoviet-Union UkraineYugoslavia

The History of Eastern European Cinema

In general, Eastern European cinema was off to a slow start, mainly due to economic and technical issues. World War I and World War II recomposed the region after the devolvement of the Ottoman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, as well as the fracturing of Yugoslavia, subsequently broke up the region in smaller pieces. Though both the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia boasted strong film industries before their collapse, the recovery of the splintered nation’s domestic industries came only gradually.

Eastern European Cinema (Burnt by the Sun)
(Credit: Burnt by the Sun / Utomlennye solntsem, Russia)

Facing stiff competition from Hollywood and Western Europe, the Eastern European film industries tend to focus on the production of small scale films, telling simply, yet compelling stories about everyday life. Most of these stories focus on social struggles, such as poverty and class differences, while others deal with corruption and the harshness of life under Communism.

With each Eastern European nation being slightly different in nature, every country hosts its own set of hopes and ideals. From the self-criticizing comedies of Romania and Bulgaria and the aspirational dramas of Yugoslavia’s former nations to the gloomy war films produced by the former members of the U.S.S.R., Eastern Europe offers a rich diversity in quality films.

The Best Films from Central Europe

After exploring the national cinema of Western Europe and Southern Europe, we head east into Central Europe, crossing the borders of Austria, the Czech Republic, the former nation of Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland.

Austria: Funny Games

Directed by: Michael Haneke, 1997.

World Cinema 012 - Austria (Funny Games)
(Credit: Funny Games)

Despite Austrian German being Austria’s official language, the citizens of the mountainous country still share a common language with neighboring countries Germany, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein through standardized German. This allowed the four nations to often co-produce films in a similar way as the United Kingdom and the United States have done throughout (film) history. Austria, for example, successfully teamed up with Germany for the productions The Edukators (2004) and Academy Award-winner The Counterfeiters (2007).

The collaborative nature of the Austrian film industry has not stopped Austria from developing its own film industry. Both Austria’s grandeur films such as Sissi (1955) and small gems like Slumming (2006) fared well abroad. From the late 1940s to the early 1970s, the “heimat” film was a popular genre within the German-speaking market. Heimat films were usually set in the outdoors and offered sentimental depictions of rural life.

Breaking away from the traditions set by the heimat films, Austrian director Michael Haneke characterized himself stylistically as a very bold director, refusing to shy away from difficult topics. Within Austria’s national film industry, his name stands out above all others: Haneke directed some of the country’s most successful films, including Caché (2005), The White Ribbon (2009), and Amour (2012). After his shocking break-out film Benny’s Video (1992), Haneke continued to play around with topics such as violence and abuse in the horrifying Funny Games (1997). The psychological thriller perfectly captures the nature of Haneke’s early work and shatters the moralistic ideology of the heimat films.

Two seemingly friendly, articulate young men take a family hostage in their holiday cabin, forcing them to play a series of sadistic games with one another.

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Czech Republic: Kolya

Directed by: Jan Sverák, 1996.

World Cinema 013 - Czech Republic (Kolya)
(Credit: Kolya / Kolja)

After World War I, the Czechoslovakian film industry was booming. Dubbed as the “Hollywood of the East”, Czechoslovakian directors continued to deliver great films for many decades. This eventually led to the production of the Academy Award-winning films The Shop on Main Street (1965) and Closely Watched Trains (1966) in the 1960s. With an additional two nominations in the same decade, Czechoslovakian cinema was at the top of its game.

Steadily continuing its film production after the country’s peaceful dissolution into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993, the Czech Republic continued to score international hits, among which Divided We Fall (2000) and Želary (2003).

The new-born country’s first Academy Award hit after Czechoslovakia’s dissolution was the influential film Kolya (original title: Kolja, 1996). Kolya takes place in the year before the Czechoslovakian Velvet Revolution, which peacefully ended the long-lasting rule of the country’s communist party. In the film, František Louka, a middle-aged Czech man runs up a large debt after losing his job at the Czech Philharmonic. To meet ends, he accepts payment for a sham marriage with a Soviet woman to enable her to stay in Czechoslovakia. Once the deal is done, the woman uses her new citizenship to emigrate to West Germany, leaving her son in the care of Louka.

English-language films such as Big Daddy (1999) and About a Boy (2002) have since attempted to present worldwide audiences with similar films in which a young boy seemingly educates an irresponsible bachelor. Stripped down to simple romantic comedies, both films lack the social and political backstory of what makes Kolya such a great film.

Louka, a confirmed bachelor, and a lady’s man, agrees to a sham marriage to make ends meet, which ultimately leaves him with the care of the son of his pretend wife.

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Czechoslovakia: Who Wants to Kill Jessie?

Directed by: Václav Vorlícek, 1966.

World Cinema 014 - Czechoslovakia (Who Wants to Kill Jessie)
(Credit: Who Wants to Kill Jessie? / Kdo chce zabít Jessii?)

In Avengers: Endgame (2019), the Avengers collided with a planet-throwing Titan, while 20th Century Fox, Sony, Warner Bros., and other production studios were battling each other over a piece of the superhero pie on both the big and the small screen. There seems to be no end to the number of new superhero movies being put in production. However, before the superhero surge of the early 2000s, only Superman and Batman rang familiar in the general audiences’ ears. And before that…

In a time when superhero movies were an obscure– virtually non-existent – niche market, the now-dissolved country of Czechoslovakia attempted playing around with the genre. Who Wants to Kill Jessie? (original title: Kdo chce zabít Jessii?, 1966) is a science fiction comedy breaking with the domestic conventions of everyday life under the highly oppressive Communist regime in Czechoslovakia. In the film, a scientist finds new inspiration in a series of Jessie-comic books, after which his wife (and fellow scientist) accidentally manifests his dreams: comic book heroine Jessie and her two archenemies are brought into the real world.

Playboy cover girl Olga Schoberová takes on the role of what might just be the first cinematic superheroine ever, while actor Juraj Visny plays her opposite as a joyfully evil version of Superman. The film brilliantly brings the conventions of comic books into the real world, including text balloons and sound effects. Vorlíček goal was “to make the Czech people collectively aware that they were participants in a system of oppression and incompetence which had brutalized them all.” Blissfully amoral and a little weird, Who Wants to Kill Jessie? is definitely worth a watch.

Two scientists working on a project engendering dreams accidentally project comic book heroine Jessie into the real world.

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Hungary: White Palms

Directed by: Szabolcs Hajdu, 2006.

World Cinema 015 - Hungary (White Palms)
(Credit: White Palms / Fehér Tenyér)

After film was introduced into Hungary by the Lumiére brothers, the country slowly started to build up its own film industry. The country’s first film, The Dance (1901), focused on the shows of the Uránia Scientific Theatre. After the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and both world wars, however, little money was left to work with. With the film industry being under government control for decades, local films were often only mildly successful. It wasn’t until the second half of the 20th century that Hungarian cinema was allowed to take a more liberal approach to storytelling. The revolutionary wave of the late 1980s ended communist rule and finally allowed the country’s national film industry to really find its footing.

During the final decade of communist rule in Hungary, director Béla Tarr stepped onto the playing field. Offering a cynical view of both society and humanity, his films Damnation (1988) and the seven hour-long Satan’s Tango (1994) spoke to audiences around the world. Tarr’s works were followed up by a new generation of Hungarian directors, each trying to capture the spirit and soul of their country.

Szabolcs Hajdu’s sports drama White Palms (original title: Fehér Tenyér, 2006) does so by telling the story of Hungarian gymnast Miklós Dongó, a man, who like everyone else in his generation, was only a child during the communist regime, but became an adult during capitalism. In search of a new start, Miklós moves to Canada, where a clash of different cultures and values hampers his career as a trainer.

In White Palms, gymnast Miklós moves to Canada in search of a new life as a trainer, but finds it difficult to shed his own past while training young prodigy Kyle.

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Poland: Knife in the Water

Directed by: Roman Polanski, 1962.

World Cinema 016 - Poland (Knife in the Water)
(Credit: Knife in the Water / Nóz w Wodzie)

The Polish film industry trod the same pathways as the Hungarian film industry. Films were produced under strict supervision and all cinemas were state-owned. Historical events such as the end of Stalinism in Poland and the fall of communism in 1989 greatly affected the national film industry. The change in Poland’s political climate after Stalin’s death gave rise to the Polish Film School movement, which sprouted a new wave of Polish film directors, including the now world-famous Roman Polanski.

Born in Paris, but growing up in Kraków, Poland, Polanski witnessed the emergence of the Kraków Ghetto and the subsequent deportation of all the ghetto’s Jews to concentration camps, which inspired his powerful World War II-film The Pianist (2002). Long before directing The Pianist – and well before the infamous sexual abuse case which caused Polanski to flee from the United States to France – the director made his big-screen debut with Knife in the Water (original title: Nóz w Wodzie, 1962).

Knife in the Water’s themes are comparable to those found in Polish classics such as Ashes and Diamonds (1958), in which Poland’s social classes started fighting each other after the end of World War II. Knife in the Water tells the story of a similar social clash between a wealthy couple and a young hitchhiker, who, after hitching a ride with the married Andrzej and Krystyna, is invited to go with them on their sailing trip. During the trip, the tension gradually builds between Andrzej and the hitchhiker. The unsettling nature of their relationship is firmly rooted in Poland’s post-war class system and subtly conveys the director’s pessimistic views on human nature.

After reluctantly picking up a young hitchhiker, a wealthy, married couple invite the man to go with them on their weekend sailing trip, initiating a tense struggle for power onboard the vessel.

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The Best Films from Eastern Europe

Making our way south, we pass parts of the former Soviet-UnionRussia, Belarus and Ukraine – before visiting the Eastern European countries of Romania and Bulgaria.

Soviet-Union: Stalker

Directed by: Andrey Tarkovsky, 1979.

World Cinema 024 - Soviet-Union (Stalker)
(Credit: Stalker / Stalkyer)

From 1922 to 1991, the Soviet Union stretched the Eurasia supercontinent. Throughout its existence, the nation’s national film industry was strictly guided by its government, ruled by the Soviet Communist Party. From the get-go, the leaders of the Union stated that film was an ideal propaganda tool due to its widespread popularity. Still, technical issues, as well as the economic pressure of war, prevented Soviet cinema from flourishing before World War II. The Soviet Union was able to produce only a number of films, but managed to bring forth a new generation of Soviet film makers, including the world-famous Sergei Eisenstein.

Eisenstein’s silent propaganda film Battleship Potemkin (1925) has been named one of the greatest films of all time by modern critics. Using new techniques and storytelling methods, Eisenstein left his mark on world cinema. Soviet cinema prospered throughout the following decades. The death of Stalin and the end of Stalinism allowed new voices to be heard within the country, taking a more liberal stance on film making. This allowed directors to chose a more artistic approach to filmmaking.

Directors such as Andrei Tarkovsky and Nikita Mikhalkov were largely unconcerned with their films’ economical successes. Taking a philosophical approach to film making, they each sculpted a series of beautiful art house films. Tarkovsky’s science fiction film Stalker (original title: Stalkyer, 1979) is perhaps one of the greatest examples of post-Stalinist film. The film depicts the efforts of a guide known only as “the Stalker” in taking his clients through a mysterious, seemingly sentient site known as “the Zone”. Taking a path that can only be sensed, but not seen, the Stalker aims to lead his clients to a room which has the ability to fulfil a person’s innermost desires. Poetic and philosophical in nature, Stalker presents its viewers with a lengthy, hypnotic journey through the human consciousness.

A guide known as “the Stalker” is tasked with leading two men through a mysterious area known as “the Zone” to find a room that will fulfil their innermost desires. Along the way, the three strangers exchange thoughts and try to find the meaning in both their journey as well as their lives.

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Russia: Burnt by the Sun

Directed by: Nikita Mikhalkov, 1994.

World Cinema 025 - Russia (Burnt by the Sun)
(Credit: Burnt by the Sun / Utomlennye Solntsem)

From Sergei Eisenstein’s enigmatic The Battleship Potemkin to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (1966) and Vladimir Menshov’s Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears (1980), Russian cinema has been at the forefront of the world’s cinematic landscape since the early 20th century. After the death of Stalin and the subsequent devolution of the Soviet Union, the country’s filmmakers started focusing on themes that were previously unexplored, such as the effects Stalinism had had on the country. One of these films was Nikita Mikhalkov’s Burnt by the Sun (original title: Utomlennye Solntsem, 1994).

Burnt by the Sun depicts the arrival of the Red Army in a small countryside village in the Soviet Union during the summer of 1936. During this period, Stalin executed what is now known as the Great Terror: a campaign of political repression, including a large-scale purge of people deemed unwanted by Stalin’s government. Throughout this period, an estimated 600.000 people died at the hands of the Soviet Union’s leaders.

In the film, Sergei Petrovich Kotov, a senior Red Army officer, tries to protect his family from the repression brought on by Stalinism. The arrival of Mitya, Kotov’s wife former fiancé who disappeared in 1923 further unsettles the family’s peaceful life. Through the stories of Kotov and Mitya, Burnt by the Sun sketches the randomness of Stalin’s mindless purge, demonstrating just how pointless his repression was once the Khrushchev thaw set in after the dictator’s death.

Set in Russia, 1936, during the period of Stalinist repression, Burnt by the Sun tells the story of senior Red Army officer Kotov and his family, and the unheralded arrival of Kotov’s wife former fiancé.

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Belarus: Fortress of War

Directed by: Aleksandr Kott, 2010.

World Cinema 026 - Belarus (Fortress of War)
(Credit: Fortress of War / Brestskaya Krepost)

Belarus – often referred to as White Russia, much to the disgruntlement of the country’s inhabitants – was a part of the Soviet Union until 1991. The country’s history, as well as the history of its film industry, mimics that of similar formerly Soviet-occupied nations, such as Estonia, Lithuania, and Ukraine. What sets Belarus apart from these other countries is that the country continued to produce films in both Russian as well as Belarussian.

With a steady output of approximately 1-3 films each year, Belarus is still a small player within the European film industry. Like in many other Eastern European countries, Belarusian cinema has a tendency to focus on life during communism and the people’s struggles during the Soviet occupation. Other films, such as Franz + Polina (2006) and Fortress of War (original title: Brestskaya Krepost, 2010) focus on the Nazi occupation of Belarus.

Fortress of War recounts an important event in the history of the Soviet Union: the Nazi invasion at Brest in Belarus. Starting what was known as ‘Operation Barbarossa’, Nazi troops crossed the Bug River, invaded Brest, and marched onwards to Minsk, leaving the heavily guarded Brest Fortress surrounded by enemy troops. Soviet propaganda dictated that “there would be no war”, causing the Red Army soldiers stationed in the fortress to be caught off-guard once the German army attacked. For over a week, the Soviet soldiers of Brest Fortress fought off the German troops, desperately trying to keep their families living at the fortification safe from harm. Fortress of War depicts the bloody battle through the eyes of its Soviet army leaders, as well as the 15-year-old Sashka.

When Nazi Germany executes its invasion into the Soviet Union, a Soviet fortification situated on the border is left isolated and surrounded by enemy troops.

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Ukraine: The Tribe

Directed by: Myroslav Slaboshpytskyi, 2014.

World Cinema 027 - Ukraine (The Tribe)
(Credit: The Tribe / Plemya)

There is no doubt about the fact that Sergei Eisenstein’s propaganda film Battleship Potemkin will always remain the most famous film ever to be filmed in Ukraine. Depicting the 1905 mutiny of the crew of the Russian battleship Potemkin against their officers, the film’s Odessa Steps-sequence became one of the most influential scenes in film history. As a region – and since 1991, as an independent country – Ukraine has steadily produced a host of films. The Ukrainian film industry is a few steps ahead of Belarus and the Baltic states, producing around 10 films every year.

Despite being one of the most successful countries at the Paralympic Games, Ukraine has a reputation for largely underserving people with a disability. Today, very few facilities in the country are disability-friendly. Spokesmen for Ukraine’s deaf population recently stated they still feel ignored by the country’s government. Myroslav Slaboshpytskyi’s The Tribe (original title: Plemya, 2014) introduces us to Sergey, a teenager arriving at a boarding school for deaf students. Rather than focusing on the students’ struggles with their hearing problems, the film depicts the ring of organized crime ruling the school from inside. Sergey is drawn into the school’s violent inner circle, where crime and prostitution are part of the daily routine.

The Tribe’s silent dialogues speak volumes, effortlessly recounting the school’s horrifying story to its audience without uttering a single word. The whole film is presented in Ukrainian Sign Language and features no subtitles, making it a unique and captivating drama that truly embodies the film industry prescription “show, don’t tell”.

Sergey, a deaf teenage boy, enrolls in a boarding school for the deaf, where he is confronted by a circle of organized crime set up within the institution by its violent and uncompromising pupils.

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Romania: California Dreamin’

Directed by: Cristian Nemescu, 2007.

World Cinema 028 - Romania (California Dreamin')
(Credit: California Dreamin’ / California Dreamin’: Nesfarsit)

In 1897, the French cameraman Paul shot the first film set in Romania: a news item depicting Romania’s ruler, King Carol I. When the public’s interest in cinema started fading in 1898, Menu sold his camera to doctor Gheorghe Marinescu, who became Romania’s first filmmaker. Marinescu’s short medical documentaries did very little to spark the country’s national film industry. For decades, Romania’s movie theatres could hardly generate the amount of money to make a single film, let alone educate new directors and crew members.

Recognizing the influential power of cinema, a law was passed establishing a national cinema fund in 1934, which finally allowed the country’s national film industry to flourish. The period 1948-1989 was then characterized by a series of socialist films, made under the banner of the Communist government.

After the collapse of Communism in Romania following the 1989 revolution, Romanian filmmakers turned their attention to the past, examining the influences Communism had had on their country both before and after 1989. Cristian Mungiu’s drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007) explores the oppressive nature of the Communist government, Radu Muntean’s The Paper Will Be Blue (2006) portrays the chaotic nature of the revolution itself, and in Tudor Giurgiu’s Of Snails and Men (2012) the post-Communist years are satirized with a healthy dose of self-reflective humor.

Cristian Nemescu’s California Dreamin’ (original title: California Dreamin’: Nesfarsit, 2007) in turn, wittily explores the country’s internal struggles in the 1990s by juxtaposing the community of a small countryside village with a troop of American and Romanian soldiers. In the movie, a train containing radar equipment required in Kosovo is halted by a Romanian station chief, demanding to see their customs papers. Stubbornness and bureaucracy prevent the train and its military passengers to pass the village, leaving the soldiers to the whims of the village’s kind, but opportunistic population.

A stubborn railway chief delays a NATO train transporting military equipment during the war in Kosovo, leaving the soldiers escorting the train stranded in a countryside village.

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Bulgaria: Mission London

Directed by: Dimitar Mitovski, 2010.

World Cinema 029 - Bulgaria (Mission London)
(Credit: Mission London)

Though Bulgaria’s first film, Bulgaran is Gallant (1915), kicked off the nation’s film industry after World War I, the nation’s cinematic output remained small until a growth spurt in the 1970s. Much like Romanian cinema, Bulgarian cinema doesn’t shy away from utilizing some self-reflective humor. Taking a stab at Bulgaria’s government, ambassadors, and a host of cultural clichés, director Dimitar Mitovski sketches a humorous portrait of his home country in the over-the-top comedy Mission London (2010).

Both before and after the end of communist rule in Bulgaria in November 1989, the country’s cinematic history closely mirrors that of their northern neighbor, Romania. After several years of reformation, Bulgaria was finally allowed to join to European Union in 2007. Mission London takes a satirical look at the country’s entry into the union by spreading its story across a host of characters. In the film, Bulgaria’s president gives the country’s new ambassador in London the task to ensure that the Queen will attend their London-based concert, celebrating Bulgaria joining the European Union.

Mission London perfectly reflects the contemporary Bulgarian mindset, with all its shortcomings and limitations. Mitovski shows his audience how Eastern Europe’s focus on Western culture after decades of Communist oppression translates to everyday life by extrapolating its characteristics in a movie that is satirical and honest at the same time.

Varadin, Bulgaria’s new ambassador in London, is tasked with ensuring that the Queen attends the embassy’s concert celebrating Bulgaria joining the European Union.

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The Best Films from (former) Yugoslavia

Heading back to central Europe to explore the cinema of the former nation of Yugoslavia, we take a trip to the crystal clear lakes of Slovenia, the rural perfection of Bosnia and Herzegovina, post-Milosevic Serbia, and the mountains of sunny Macedonia.

Yugoslavia: Underground

Directed by: Emir Kusturica, 1995.

World Cinema 030 - Yugoslavia (Underground)
(Credit: Underground)

The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia once had a booming film industry, supported by the country’s rich and prosperous economy. Nominated six times for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, Yugoslavia was at the top of its game during the 1950s and 1960s. In 1945, the country was established under Josip Broz Tito, who successfully maintained the diverse population of Yugoslavia under one banner. After Tito’s death in 1980, the relations among the six republics of Yugoslavia deteriorated, leading to the destructive Yugoslav Wars.

Dissected to its very core by critics around the world, Emir Kusturica’s Underground (1995) is a fascinating piece of art dosed with exhilarating music, displaying the history of Yugoslavia in the style of Italian historical films. The film depicts the epic story of two friends, Blacky and Marko, from the beginning of World War II until the beginning of the Yugoslav Wars during which the film was released. Rowdy and full of life, Underground churns away like a splendorous circus performance: the film’s opening scenes show the bombing of Belgrade at the hands of the Nazi’s, leading to the destruction of the Belgrade Zoo and the escape of its animals. The film never stops its rollercoaster-ride of excess, but always maintains enough heart and pertinence to eventually leave a deep and lasting impression on its viewers.

Underground tells its story with a sense of dark humor; not shying the absurd, nor underplaying the unspeakable suffering the people of Yugoslavia went through. The stories of Blacky and Marko represent different sides of the conflicts that plagued the country, with Blacky’s story – living underground, in hiding – serving as a strong metaphor for the very real situation Yugoslavs had to deal with during the 1990s: what once was a great country, had suddenly ceased to exist.

In the aftermath of the fall of Yugoslavia during World War II, friends Blacky and Marko organize a resistance, operating from an underground facility. After the end of the war, Marko, the only member of the resistance movement who gets to go to the surface, fails to inform his friends underground that the war has ended.

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Slovenia: Rooster’s Breakfast

Directed by: Marko Nabersnik, 2007.

World Cinema 031 - Slovenia (Rooster's Breakfast)
(Credit: Rooster’s Breakfast / Petelinji zajtrk)

Following 1991’s Ten-Day War that followed the Slovenian declaration of independence, Slovenia gained its rightful independence. The country’s role in the Yugoslav Wars was relatively small, allowing the country to continue its film production with relative ease. Though producing only a handful of movies per year and never being nominated for an Academy Award, Slovenian cinema does feature some beautiful examples of filmmaking.

Director Marko Nabersnik’s Rooster’s Breakfast (original title: Petelinji zajtrk, 2007) is one of these hidden gems. Adapted from the novel of the same name by Slovenian writer Feri Lainšček, the film tells the story of a young mechanic named Đuro. After being laid off from his job in the city, his former boss offers him a new job at an auto mechanic shop owned by an acquaintance in a remote village.

Đuro accepts the job and exchanges life in the big city for a quiet rural existence. His new boss, Pišti Gajaš – played wonderfully by Vlado Novak – is the real star of the movie. Gajaš’ caring, naïve personality constantly get him into trouble, but the old fashioned peasant maintains a positive outlook on life. Though simple-minded, he has a clear outlook on life, shepherding his new protégée with his amusing mechanic’s wisdom.

After being laid off at work, a young car mechanic finds a new job in a remote village, becoming the apprentice of the warm, old fashioned, and naive Pišti Gajaš.

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Bosnia and Herzegovina: Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams

Directed by: Jasmila Zbanic, 2006.

World Cinema 032 - Bosnia and Herzegovina (Grbavica - The Land of My Dreams)
(Credit: Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams / Grbavica)

A short stroll through Sarajevo should tell you enough to understand that Bosnia and Herzegovina’s post-war struggles are far from over. The city’s bullet-ridden buildings are inelegantly patched up with cement, and though the city’s residents are remarkably friendly, their scars still run deep. In spite of the country’s financial struggle, Bosnia and Herzegovina was the only post-Yugoslavian country to be nominated for an Academy Award and win.

The award-winning film, No Man’s Land (2001), is not the only great film the country managed to produce after the war, though. Where No Man’s Land deals with the Bosnian War itself, Jasmila Zbanic’s Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams (original title: Grbavica, 2006) deals with the aftermath of the long-lasting conflict. Through the eyes of the main character Esma and her teenage daughter Sara, Grbavica shows how everyday life in Sarajevo is still heavily influenced by the Yugoslav Wars.

Sara’s school is organizing a field trip, but Esma struggles to come up with the money to pay for her daughter’s inclusion. To earn the money for the trip, Esma starts working as a waitress at a nightclub. Meanwhile, the school informs them that the children of shaheeds (“martyrs”, or “war heroes”) can go on the field trip for free, on the condition that they provide a certificate proving that they are the offspring of those who died fighting for their country.

Set against the backdrop of Grbavica, the neighborhood that marked the frontline during the siege of Sarajevo, a woman and her daughter struggle to make ends meet in the aftermath of the Yugoslav Wars.

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Serbia: The Trap

Directed by: Srdan Golubovic, 2007.

World Cinema 033 - Serbia (The Trap)
(Credit: The Trap / Klopka)

Serbia hosted one of Yugoslavia’s most prosperous film industries, producing 12 films before World War II and continuing to build its output afterward. Despite the Yugoslav Wars, Serbia managed to keep making films that become international hits throughout the 1990s, such as Underground and Black Cat, White Cat (1998). Film production in Serbia vastly outpaced all other former Yugoslavian nations both during and after the war, though so far this has not resulted in any Academy Award nominations.

Modern Serbian films, like those of its neighboring countries, often focus on the aftereffects of the war. Srdan Golubovic’s neo-noir film The Trap (original title: Klopka, 2007) explores the post-Milošević Serbian society, where, after the fall of communism, the gap between the rich and the poor