When Movies Follow The Storm

United States Marine Capt. Doug Jones is in a hurry. It's the height of the war in Kosovo, and he's in charge of transporting supplies to NATO forces bombing targets in Yugoslavia. When the train on which he and his troops are traveling comes to a standstill in the tiny Romanian town of Capalnita, he jumps out to investigate. Here Jones encounters the obstacle blocking their way: the local station manager, Doriaru, who refuses to let the train through without the correct customs papers. While the buck gets passed from ministry to ministry, the villagers of Capalnita rejoice at the prospect of having American soldiers stranded on their soil. His frustration mounting, Jones pulls out an atlas to decipher exactly where they are. A flunky points to a crease in the page. "So we are stuck in a fold in the map in the middle of Romania," cries Jones, temples pulsating. "How much more stuck [can] we be?"

The train won't budge, but the film that this scene opens, the Kafkaesque Romanian comedy "California Dreamin'," is off and running. It won this year's Un Certain Regard Prize at Cannes, which recognizes up-and-coming talent, and the Audience Award at the Brussels Film Festival. Sadly, the director, Cristian Nemescu, died in a car crash in August 2006 and never got to witness the success of his movie debut—or of his country's burgeoning film industry. In addition to Nemescu's posthumous hit, Cristian Mungiu's "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," about a woman trying to arrange an illegal abortion before the fall of communism, scooped the Palme d'Or at Cannes. They follow in the footsteps of several other Romanian films that earned kudos in the last few years: "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu" also won Un Certain Regard Prize?at Cannes in 2005, "The Way I Spent the End of the World" was awarded Un Certain Regard for best actress at Cannes in 2006, "12:08 East of Bucharest" won the best-film award in Copenhagen last year and "The Paper Will Be Blue" won Special Mention of the Jury at last year's Sarajevo Film Festival.

Romania is not the only postcoup society undergoing a filmmaking boom. Nigeria—home of "Nollywood," the third largest producer of low-budget, mass-market films, after the United States and India—is fast gaining a reputation for quality feature filmmaking, thanks to the recent international success of home grown films like "Irapada," which follows a young building contractor whose foster mother pressures him to perform a traditional redemption rite, and "Ezra," about the plight of child soldiers in Sierra Leone. And in Thailand, experimental filmmakers like Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Pen-Ek Ratanaruang may be battling censorship laws at home, but they are carving out a name for themselves overseas with films like "Ploy" and "Syndromes and a Century." These countries all share a common characteristic: recent upheavals have fired the creative minds of their filmmakers.

It helps that these nations are intriguing precisely because of their ongoing traumas. Romania just joined the European Union in January, yet it still bears the scars of dictatorship nearly two decades after the summary execution of communist strongman Nicolae Ceausescu. Nigeria is struggling with a shaky democracy eight years after ending corrupt military rule. And since Thailand's September 2006 coup, that country has been ruled by putschists who embrace their king's conservative vision of modern Thailand as a 19th-century agrarian society. International appetite for inside glimpses of these nations has helped fuel their filmmaking industries, in much the same way that postrevolutionary Iranian films won audiences—and critical acclaim—in the late 1990s. "When you get considerable social change or unrest, that's when people start looking for analysis and answers—and filmmakers are part of this process," says Sandra Hebron, the artistic director of the London Film Festival. And festival programmers are always on the hunt for new, far-flung talent—or the next trendy film-producing nation. "Once one or two filmmakers make a film around the same time that stands out amid the general hubbub of international cinema, [there] is a bandwagon effect," says Nick James, editor of the British film magazine Sight and Sound.

Rather than shy away from their nations' problems, the current crop of filmmakers prefer to tackle them head-on. "This new wave of directors are connected to the social landscape. We don't have a genre like Italian neorealism, but we do share a common point of view on film and the role it plays in society," says Romanian filmmaker Corneliu Porumboiu, whose 2006 film "12:08 East of Bucharest," set in 1999, is a subtle, amusing look at three men who deconstruct their role in the revolution that occurred a decade earlier. Two years ago Cristi Puiu's "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu" took on the nation's ineffectual heath-care system: the elderly Lazarescu calls an ambulance when he falls sick, only to find himself shunted from hospital to hospital. And Mungiu's "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" tackles the controversial issue of abortion. "Our generation of directors were in our late teens when communism fell, and we were in between all these changes," says Tudor Giurgiu, the director of 2006's "Love Sick" and president of Romanian Film Production, an organization that promotes the country's industry. "Now is a good time to be living in Romania because it is an energetic environment and things are changing very fast here."

Nollywood's appeal lies in its willingness to confront contemporary African problems like civil war, poverty and migration. Last week Nigerian film executives met in London to promote the country's film industry; this month three award-winning Nigerian films—"Irapada," "Ezra" and "Area Boys," a short film about two friends who decide to cut ties with their boss—are being screened at the London Film Festival. Moviegoers also appreciate the raw energy of Nigeria's films, and consider the (at times) poor sound and image quality all part of the authentic, grass-roots feel of the movement. "Irapada," a cautionary tale about respecting Nigeria's heritage, is typical of the didactic nature of most Nollywood films. "Living in Bondage," about evil people who plot to deny the son of a polygamous chief his inheritance, examines a subject of great interest to Nigerians: namely, how Africans negotiate the divide between the rich and the poor. Since Nigerian films are typically shot, produced and released in a matter of weeks, they are able to gauge and reflect the country's mood at any given time. "Nigerian films are now part of global pop culture," says Chike Maduekwe, director of Gemafrique, an organization that promotes Nigerian cinema. "What's important is that it is Nigerians telling their own story in their own way."

Thai filmmakers face considerably more hurdles in that regard, at least at home. A handful of offerings are screening at film festivals like Venice and Toronto, including Ratanaruang's dreamy love story "Ploy" (2007) and "Syndromes and a Century" (2006), the cryptic new $1.1 million movie by the Cannes 2004 Prix du Jury winner Weerasethakul (who also goes by the Western-friendly name of Joe). But many topics remain taboo in Thai cinema—including religion, politics, sex and the monarchy—and the police have the right to censor films, in accordance with a 1930 law still on the books. That means that films like "Syndromes"—which features scenes of monks playing guitar and doctors getting drunk—often fall victim to the whims of local police, whose tastes run to slapstick comedies and action flicks. Authorities are currently discussing the possibility of introducing a proper ratings system, but for now even internationally recognized Thai films often go unseen at home. "The harsh censorship policies are the curse of many Thai filmmakers now," says Weerasethakul. "We cannot talk about many [issues], but amazingly, violence is OK." Even so, the 37-year-old director has already found material for his next project: a film about censorship in Thailand, with the working title "Primitive." The law may be, but the quality of the filmmaking is anything but.