The power of successful filmmaking rests in its ability to tell you compelling stories, regardless of whether you may be unfamiliar with them. The best ones are able to transport you to new environments and worlds, introducing you to a culture, a people, or a history that you wouldn’t have otherwise stumbled across. A cunning director and deft writer don’t need to find the universal or even resort to common filmmaking tropes; they can simply grab you and place you wherever they want.
For many of us, especially those who are particular about where our time and money and energy goes, it can be difficult to opt to view films from which we have no vantage point or understanding. Most of us possess a pretty good radar when it comes to North American films — you can surmise what’s worthy and what’s not based on a variety of factors. It’s harder, though, for those directors, countries, and filmmaking techniques that we simply haven’t come across.
What follows are some films from different countries of the world, countries that often don’t lead the way in moviemaking. These are stories from specific places, telling of regionally unique people and events. They immerse you in cultures and regions and tell some powerful individual stories — and in one or two cases, some really exciting adventures.
Leviathan — Russia, 2014
On the surface, this Russian film offers a lot of what Westerners think of when they imagine Russia: snow, cold winds, grey skies, and a lot of drinking. Like, a lot. But more than just atmosphere and alcohol, Leviathan is both an intimate story of a family fighting against local authorities as well as a broad critique of the Russian government. In a coastal town, patriarch Kolya battles with a mayor over land in a lengthy and immersive allegorical tale about politics, religion, mythology, and brotherhood, all set against stunning and haunting imagery. Have a drink with this one.
Under the Shadow — Iran, 2016
Just about every country that has dabbled in horror filmmaking has told the story concocted in Under the Shadow: that of the boogeyman. What sets this film apart is that its setting has a massive influence on the character’s actions. Taking place in war-torn Tehran in the 1980s, the film (written and directed by Babak Anvari) starts slow, as the man of the family must fulfill doctoral duties, leaving behind his wife and young daughter in an overpopulated tenement that is under constant threat of attack. Enter a Djinn, a creature of Islamic mythology that takes a liking to the child. Gender norms (a character studies to be a doctor, but isn’t allowed as she’s a woman), military incursions (the dark bombshell presents both real and mystical horror), and familial conflict all play important roles in what is ostensibly a horror film, but one with fascinating cultural and historic factors.
Bamako — Mauritania, 2006
Often in films dealing with the plight of Africans, from crime and poverty to famine and genocide, conventional narratives prevail. Which is not to say that films like The Constant Gardener and Blood Diamond, or God Grew Tired of Us and The Good Lie, are necessarily bad; it’s just that Bamako is far more imaginative and intelligent. Directed by Abderrahmane Sissako, it’s a film that seeks to provoke, though not through tears and horrors, but through practicality and gravity. Set in Bamako, the capital city of Mali, capitalism is literally on trial for potential misdeeds done against Africans. It is an overarching, metaphoric film that also tells an intimate story of a struggling singer and her family. Lengthy discourses alternate with allegorical set pieces, including one with Danny Glover, who also serves as an executive producer on the film. Bamako is a film far from Hollywood and executed without any of the typical American caricatures, tugs at heartstrings, and simple narratives. It is complex, nuanced, and unforgettable.
The Eagle Huntress — Mongolia, 2016
We’ve talked about this film before, but it’s worth repeating. This 2016 documentary combines beautiful imagery of a part of the world not often catalogued in the west, as well as a feel-great story that seems too perfect to be true. Aisholpan, all of thirteen years of age and living in a male-dominated culture of Kazakhs, aims to follow in the footsteps of generations of male family members by becoming an eagle hunter. Well, huntress. That entails tracking and capturing a baby eagle, a task unnervingly captured on screen, subsequently taming said eagle — and then, of course, going hunting with it. Oh, and beating a ton of men in competition. A stirring and stunning film, The Eagle Huntress is a remarkable look at rural and familial Kazakh life, as well as a tale of determination and female empowerment on the other side of the globe.
City of God — Brazil, 2002
Spanning two decades, this Brazilian film chronicles the rise of crime and violence in a Rio suburb from the 1960s, a transformation that sees hope, livelihood, colour, and love give way to murder and fear. Actually, they all blend together; it’s just how life is led there. The story is told by a narrator who grows up in a culture where gangs are common and even adored, which is why this film is often compared to Goodfellas. (Perhaps this is also because it’s great.) Beautiful cinematography and masterful storytelling make City of God a potent film in its own right, but also one that is telling the more recent history of a city overrun with violence and poverty. There is no melodrama — just stark reality, in all its beauty and terror.
The Raid — Indonesia, 2011
So perhaps The Raid isn’t exactly steeped in Indonesian history, but it does highlight one particular part of its culture. This revelatory, violent action film from 2011 showcases Pencak silat, an Indonesian martial art. Gareth Evans, a Welsh director who took to Jakarta and was tasked with filming a documentary about a facet of Indonesian culture, became mesmerized by the skill. He was also impressed by a particular student, Iko Uwais. Evans then opted to make a feature film with Uwais as the hero, and with Pencak silat at its heart. The film features one man versus a tenement packed with thugs and gangsters, in a floor-by-floor, bloody, bone-crushing assault that is as mesmerizing as it is gruesome. A drink would also help with this one.