“If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there, does it still make a sound?”
While this philosophical question might apply to trees it does not apply to films. When films are not viewed by an audience, it doesn’t truly exist. Films are meant to reside within the context of an audience as filmmakers are using films to convey their artistic expressions. We can imagine watching a film is actually similar to having a conversation with the filmmakers. But remember, conversations are never one-sided.
Who we are dictates so much of how we see a film. When I (Asian background) watched “City of God” (2002) I felt the whirling violence novel, even enticing — perhaps a very different reaction from what the director intended. That is because I grew up in Hong Kong where physical violence was relatively uncommon, compared to Cidade de Deus, where the film is set. My upbringing is, in various ways, profoundly distant from the social and cultural context of the film. My living in Hong Kong for the most of my life made the film absolutely foreign to me: the language, the culture, the violence, the city. Their world and mine would only meet when I go to the movies. It is in these differences my perception of the film would be distorted in unintended ways. In the film, Goose, one of the gangsters in the “Tender Trio” had this conversation with his little brother Rocket:
Goose: (Taking away a gun from Rocket) Give me that, Rocket. It’s not for you. You have to study.
Rocket: Getting shot doesn’t scare you?
Goose: I am a hood because I got no brain. But you’re smart. You should study.
Rocket: (Mildly annoyed) I go to school because I don’t like physical work.
First off, I have never come into close contact with a physical gun. Secondly, getting shot was never a real danger that I have to be conscious about. Thirdly, I did not opt to go to school. I simply was expected to.
This dialogue in the film was meant to explain the character development for Rocket, who, unlike other characters, did not become a gangster. He chose to stay at school because he did not like physical work. But you can also tell he was not a big fan of the violence involved in the world of gangsters. There was definitely a conscious and active choice he made to stay away from the gangster life. To me, someone from a city where education is the only available option as a minor, this active decision of Rocket was not apparent. I never had to choose education over anything. Without the experience of standing before a fork road between gangster life and school, some of its reality in the act of deciding is lost in translation. I probably failed to appreciate truly the maturity and strength in that particular discernment of Rocket’s; I could only understand it in my own subjectivity.
Nonetheless, it is exactly these foreign and charming novelties in films that motivate us to learn more, to open our eyes to fresh things, to shed light to new knowledge. As I expand my appetite for films of all genres, all cultures, I am at the same time opening myself to see the world with an unassuming lens. When you have your eyes open wide enough, you will always be able to find a universality in everything, no matter how seemingly foreign it might have appeared.
So I implore you to look closer, and look deeper.