Foreign Film for Beginners - Celebration

foreign film for beginners

Hello my friends. Back again with another pick for you in my series "foreign film for beginners". I'm looking at my favourite films and selecting THE best ones to introduce you to the wide world of film from other countries. If you want to get fancy, let's call them "exemplars" of the best of the best. 

Festen CelebrationYes, there are subtitles - trust me, you get used to them. The movie draws you in so quickly that you won't even notice.

Last time we were in Buenos Aires, Argentina for the thriller Neuve Reinas. This time we are off to Denmark to see Celebration (or Festen as it's called in Danish), a film that changed the way that we think about movie-making. 

Celebration is about a family gathering together in a country house to celebrate the patriarch's sixtieth birthday. What should be a happy occasion is anything BUT as the eldest son Christian chooses to make an announcement at dinner. And it all unravels from there. Every family has a few skeletons in the closet, right?


I ADORE Danish film. "At the moment, Denmark is producing the most thoughtful and interesting films not only in Scandinavia but in western Europe" (Philip French, Observer, 25 September 2005). When I go to TIFF I'll see anything Danish. It goes beyond that for me - I'll see a movie just because a certain Danish actor or actress is in it. Or a particular director has made it. 

So why THIS movie?

First, it has a freshness and a natural feel that is the opposite of most Hollywood-type, over-produced, over-groomed, over-fussed film. 

Second, the family dinner scenes, the party scenes - any scenes in fact where there are large groups are so believeable that you feel like you are eavesdropping on an actual event. I heard director Thomas Vinterberg speak at TIFF this past September and he noted that he is fascinated by rituals like dinners and parties and any celebrations. He is obsessed with making them appear as real and unscripted as possible. And he does.

People chatting, making small talk, talking over each other. Some interaction happening over here, a little conversation over there. It works masterfully.

Third, it's all about the story. And how the story unfolds. Tell me a good story. Don't dumb it down for me - don't assume that I won't be able to follow it - just tell me a good.story. That's what I look for in a film. 

How did director Thomas Vinterberg do this? Well, I MUST tell you that Celebration is THE iconic Dogme 95 film. Sandra, what are you talking about - Dogme 95? Stay with me - we're getting to a good point.

In 1995 the movie box office in Denmark was 8% Danish film and 81% Hollywood film. Vinterberg and director Lars von Trier created Dogme 95 in part as a backlash to this poor showing of Danish film. They wanted to prove that you could make a better movie without a huge budget. 

A manifesto written in 1995, Dogme 95 is 10 rules that focused on creating film based on story, acting and theme without any elaborate special effects or post production technology. In other words, no lighting in addition to that of the particular location. No movie soundtrack unless someone was actually playing an instrument in the movie. Hand held cameras as much as possible. No explaining of what is happening - letting the acting speak for itself.

Celebration won the jury prize at Cannes and huge kudos everywhere. I saw it when it came out in 1998 and saw it again a month ago. Still stunning in both story and acting and camerawork. See it.

Here's an interview with director Thomas Vinterberg in October 2012 after the release of his recent movie The Hunt starring Mads Mikkelsen. Saw it as well at TIFF and loved it too.

And you know me - I can't watch something this good without it affecting how I think about my own creative process. About my own creative work. 

What do I take away from this film? I think about how sometimes having restrictions allows for MORE creativity. Working harder and smarter within those limitations. Discovering what I can do when I take a simpler, less complicated approach. Getting back to the story or the image and not getting caught up in technology or post-production or techniques.

What can you do with paper and pencil? With a still camera and no cropping or editing? With two photos for your blog post instead of five?