Directors telling tales in many tongues

'Che,' 'Slumdog' among growing trend

Among the offerings at the Toronto film fest were Steven Soderbergh’s Spanish-language “Che,” as well as Brit helmer Danny Boyle’s Mumbai-set “Slumdog Millionaire,” in which Hindi is spoken for a quarter of the film.

Those pics are just two examples of a growing trend: filmmakers crossing borders and working in a transnational mix of languages, genres and cultures.

The films reflect a world becoming ever more interconnected through technology, finance and media. And while culturally rich, such films bring advantages and hurdles — in terms of budget, tax breaks, ancillary prices and even consideration on how to categorize them on the all-important festival circuit.

At the recently wrapped Venice Film Fest, almost one-third of the 54-pic official selection fell into the category of what artistic director Marco Mueller terms “nomadic cinema.” The Venice lineup included pics such as Uberto Pasolini’s “Machan,” Guillermo Arriaga’s “The Burning Plain” and Amir Naderi’s “Vegas — Based on a True Story” use helmers working in locales and languages alien from their own.

But the global strategy can create headaches when it comes to Oscar consideration, where the foreign-language category must consider which film a country comes from.

While international directors working in Hollywood are nothing new — from Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder, through Guillermo del Toro and Timur Bekmambetov — the seeming ease with which directors now choose to ignore cross-cultural barriers is becoming increasingly apparent.

The final cut of “Slumdog Millionaire” is exactly 28% Hindi with the remainder in English.

The pic’s producers can be so specific about the split due to a series of complex calculations needed to determine the film’s classification and commercial sales value.

“It was relevant to the size of the TV output deals, whether we were eligible for the U.K. tax credit and whether it would be classified as an English or foreign-language film,” adds Colson. “We had to come up with some absurd calculations but it was no impediment in terms of financing. People are feeling more comfortable with the notion that cinema is a global marketplace.”

A number of other filmmakers are also prepping projects in languages alien to them.

Iranian helmer Abbas Kiarostami is about to start lensing his debut English-language feature “The Certified Copy,” starring Juliette Binoche, sometime next year. Natalie Portman makes her feature directing debut with an adaptation of Israeli novelist Amos Oz’s memoir “A Tale of Love and Darkness.” Portman will make the film in Hebrew rather than translate her screenplay it into a potentially more marketable English.

“What does seem to be new is filmmakers feeling comfortable working in the local language of the project,” says “Slumdog Millionaire” producer Christian Colson. “Our film was originally scripted entirely in English. But in terms of authenticity it felt contrived having 7-year-old kids from a Mumbai slum speak in English. Having them speak in Hindi made their scenes come alive.”

The pic, about an impoverished Indian teenager who gets the chance to appear on the local version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” was directed by Blighty-born Boyle, who doesn’t speak Hindi. He worked so closely with Indian casting director Loveleen Tandan when directing the kids that Tandan was eventually given a co-director credit of her own.

And while any attempt to mix cultures carries with it the risk of complicating everything from simple on-set communication to the financing of a project, in some cases it’s this very tension that helmers are looking to explore.

Charlize Theron starrer “The Burning Plain,” for example, jumps between the U.S. and Mexico, English and Spanish as well as the past and the present in its depiction of a woman coming to terms with her troubled childhood.

“The clash of cultures is very interesting to me. There has been this disintegration of borders,” says Guillermo Arriaga, whose previous collaborations with Mexican compatriot Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu on pics such as “Babel” set a template for the globe-trotting tendencies. “It was like the United Nations working on ‘The Burning Plain.’ ”

Arriaga claims that setting the film partly in the U.S. wasn’t done only to attract an A-lister like Theron to help raise the project’s $20 million-$25 million budget. “I’ve made no compromises and I will never do that,” he states. “I don’t think I would have any problems raising the money in Mexico.”

Arriaga has set up his own shingle, AC Films, in the U.S. with a mandate to finance $2 million-$5 million budgeted projects. He is hoping to attract filmmaker friends such as Iranian helmer Bahman Ghobadi and Teuton-Turkish helmer Fatih Akin to make international projects under the banner.

This crop of pics is a far cry from the “Euro puddings” of the 1960s and 1970s when a melange of international talents were brought together in the hope of luring coin (and audiences) from each country and only succeeded in getting lost in translation. The new breed of nomadic pics brings more personal visions and stories.

Anglo-Italian producer-turned-helmer Uberto Pasolini, who produced Brit mega-hit “The Full Monty,” received plenty of Lido kudos for directorial debut “Machan.”

The pic, which is almost entirely in the Sri Lanka language of Sinhala, is loosely based on the true story of a group of penniless Sri Lankans who pretend to be the national handball team in order to get a visa to enter Germany.

“The film is Sri Lankan,” says Pasolini. “It so happens that the person pretending to direct it has a white face and doesn’t speak a word of Sinhala. But the script was written with Sri Lankans, it was shot in Sri Lanka and the whole film was based on a Sri Lankan truth.”

Pic was a co-production between Italy, Germany and Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan director Prasanna Vithanage worked closely with Pasolini during the project and has a producer’s credit.

It remains to be seen how these globe-trotting pics will connect with auds around the world.

“Babel,” for example, grossed a modest $34 million in the U.S. despite star wattage from Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, generally positive reviews and a directing Oscar nom for Inarritu. Its international cume, however, topped $100 million, indicating the potential commercial appeal of travelling tales.

“Cultures are different but the film language is the same,” Kiarostami says. “The cross-country, cross-boundary films have a way of overcoming cultural obstacles and gaps.”