Culture club

This year's foreign-language Oscar hopefuls share one common trait: They each explore issues unique to their own nation's cultural heritage.

Jasmila Zbanic vividly recalls when war broke out in her native Sarajevo. She was just 17 years old, the daughter of two economists, both sophisticated professionals who found it inconceivable that the West would stand by inertly as their country was transformed into a laboratory for "ethnic cleansing."

When the violence erupted in 1992, "I was extremely happy because I had exams in mathematics -- so I didn't have to go to school!" Zbanic remembers. "We only realized very late what was happening. We knew a war was going on, but we thought we were so ethnically mixed, it was not possible for it to reach us here (in Sarajevo). Even when the shelling began, we thought Europe and the world would not allow this to happen."

Overnight, Sarajevo was divided: Half of the city was overrun by Serbian forces, the other half trapped by a blockade that made the most basic necessities of life -- food, water, clothing -- seem like unimaginable luxuries. "Sarajevo was surrounded by the Serbian army, and part of it was taken," Zbanic says. "I could look down from my window across the river and see the part of the city they had turned into a concentration camp."

It was precisely those experiences that Zbanic drew from for her new film, Strand Releasing's "Grbavica" (pronounced Grr-bah-vee-zah), about a wartime rape victim struggling to escape her memories years after the war has ended.

In addressing her country's traumatic past, Zbanic is one of many international directors who have chosen to focus on what is unique about their societies, telling stories about things so culturally specific they could only originate from a native voice. It's an elite group of films that includes Turkey's "Ice Cream, I Scream"; Egypt's "Yacoubian Building"; Italy's turn-of-the-last-century tale, "The Golden Door" from Miramax; Denmark's family drama, IFC Films' "After the Wedding"; France's "Avenue Montaigne" from ThinkFilm and Brazil's rural road-trip feature, Global Film Initiative's "Cinema, Aspirins and Vultures," among others.

"The Americans are doing American films perfectly," says Yuksel Aksu, director of "Ice Cream," a comedy about a small-time ice cream salesman struggling to keep his business open. "If we imitate them, then we won't be able to create our own cinema. I wanted to make a film that belongs to this country, this geography and this culture.

"That doesn't mean I don't like American movies or I am against them," he continues.

"I really follow them, but even with their influences, I wanted to make a very different kind of film, a film about what is in our culture."

Marwan Hamed, director of "Building," a multicharacter story about the rich and poor inhabitants of an old Cairo building, also deliberately aimed to make a movie unique to his culture -- though he admits that the economics of the global film industry are making that more and more difficult.

"You don't usually get the chance to do this kind of work because the industry itself is always (in favor of) the Hollywood pattern," he says. "Most of the films we do in Egypt have this Hollywood flavor to them. Of course, they are not as big as Hollywood, but they imitate those films. I am always trying to do things the Egyptian way."

What he means by "the Egyptian way" is the subject of debate. "Building" openly addresses issues of sexual harassment, police brutality, political corruption and homosexuality -- as well as the matter of how a likable young man gets drawn into Islamic extremism. Opponents fought to have the film suppressed, and there was even a parliamentary debate about whether the movie should be banned because of its controversial subject matter.

Similarly, the Franco-Algerian "Days of Glory," from IFC Films/The Weinstein Co., created a political stir in France, where its director, Rachid Bouchareb, lives and found financing for his $18 million movie. The film centers on the experiences of Africans who fought heroically for France during World War II but were then treated as second-class citizens by its government -- an issue many French citizens have chosen to ignore.

The son of Algerian immigrants growing up in the suburbs of Paris, Bouchareb was influenced by his own background. "We all know racism and discrimination when we are the children of immigrants, even today," he says. "In my film, I wanted to say that our ancestors didn't just come to France to work but were also heroes of the French liberation. Instead of painting a largely negative portrait of us -- that of economic immigrants -- this film shows that these Muslims died on French soil, defending France when she was occupied by Germany and the Nazis, fighting for it to be free."

Conservative presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy attacked Bouchareb for his film and its political viewpoint. "Sarkozy said it didn't interest anyone in France, which is wrong because 3 million people have seen it already," Bouchareb says.

But the filmmaker says "Days" has had an impact beyond the boxoffice: In late November, the French parliament voted to give Algerian soldiers the same pension as French soldiers, a radical change in policy and something those original African fighters would have found unimaginable.

Although Emanuele Crialese, director of Italy's "Door," faced none of the political challenges of Bouchareb in making his film, he, too, was drawn to his nation's past and was driven to tell the story of Sicilian emigrants who set out for a better life in America. The idea for the project came to him while he was studying film at NYU.

Crialese remembers being deeply affected by photographs of immigrants from around the world that he saw during a trip to Ellis Island. "I looked at these pictures, and I was very moved by the look of the new arrivals," he recalls. "I saw many women disembarking, completely lost. After that, I went back to Ellis Island every day for two months."

Crialese was especially moved by the gulf between the immigrants' lives and the way they would describe their lives in letters home. "They would all write back to their families (that) the roads were shining like gold," he says. "There were some families that worked in factories; they were working 20 hours a day. But they would write that the machine was doing all the work. It didn't matter what they were going through -- they always said America was beautiful."

A different kind of emigrant experience is chronicled in Susanne Bier's "Wedding." The film centers on an idealistic man in his 40s who has been living in India but returns to his native Denmark in order to raise money for an orphanage. He soon discovers that the wealthy man who has summoned him home has a hidden agenda.

Attitudes toward wealth and class are particularly compelling in Europe, where, Bier says, perception does not always match reality. "In Europe, there is this prejudice against wealthy people, that they are not very nice," she says. "In a way, the prejudice is correct to a point -- but only to a point -- and that became really interesting to me.

"One of the points of the movie is opposing that prejudice," she adds. "To create that sort of wealth often means being unscrupulous and cynical, but it also takes being really intelligent and visionary. That mixture within a character is extremely interesting and somewhat frightening."

Wealth -- or the lack thereof -- also plays a key role in Brazil's "Cinema, Aspirins and Vultures." Helmer Marcelo Gomes turned to his great uncle's memories for this story of an unlikely coupling between a Brazilian peasant and the German adventurer who hires him, a latter-day hippie fleeing his country at the beginning of World War II, who travels around northern Brazil in a battered truck, screening a worn-out piece of 16mm film promoting the wonders of aspirin.

Gomes recalls of his great uncle: "There were so many dry seasons; he said, 'I am going to go to the south of Brazil because there is more development there.' And on his way, he met this German guy who was selling aspirins to nowhere places and needed help, so my great uncle went to work for him. Then, in the middle of their trip, Brazil declared war against Germany, and they closed the aspirin factories and said to the German guy (that) he had to go back. This German was kind of a hippie; he said, 'I am not going to go back just to kill people.' Instead, he decided to go to the Amazon, while my great uncle went to Rio de Janeiro. He never heard anything about him again."

If the real-life basis of Gomes' film gives it a certain authenticity, so does his decision to shoot in the poverty-stricken north and also to use locals in small parts. Many in this remote section of the country had never seen a movie camera before. "There is one old man who sells food in a restaurant in the film, and he had never seen a camera or a cinema in his life," he remembers. "After we shot, I said, 'Was it difficult?' He said, 'It is easy to be an actor, but it is difficult to be a peasant in Brazil.' That local color impregnated our film."