Beginner's Guide to World Cinema

When Bong Joon Ho, the great South Korean director of Parasite, accepted the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film in 2020, he laughingly told the audience, “Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”

For those of us smitten by cinema from around the world, it was a joyful moment of empathy. Parasite was an unusual foreign language film to connect with audiences in the United States, going on to win the Best Picture Oscar. Never before, in the Oscar’s then 92-year history, had a film in a language other than English won the coveted award. It was a landmark moment, as well as an important reminder that cinema exists and flourishes far outside the confines of Hollywood and the United States.

For a narrative art form just a little over a century old, cinema is a sprawling international presence. The reach, influence, contours, and complexity of international cinema can't be confined to a single blog post. I hope to simply offer you a glimpse and, ideally, some cinematic pathways you might be excited to explore. Because while we’d love to offer our community all the films, matters of distribution, space, capital, and time make that untenable (for now, at least). By way of cinema from around the world, what we do offer is impressively diverse, carefully curated, generous, and always evolving. Like everything in our collection, it exists in relation to the amazing community we serve.

What Is World Cinema?

When we talk about world cinema, we’re talking about films made outside  the U.S. film community. It’s not really as clear-cut as that, I’m afraid, and defining world cinema as some kind of alternative to the U.S. and Hollywood is definitely problematic. Hollywood has indeed long dominated film around the world, both stylistically and commercially. For many years it was viewed as the center of the film-making universe, with everything else operating on the periphery or even in opposition to it. I think this way of framing world cinema still takes precedence, although it is slowly changing for the better. The term world cinema was, and still is, used as a qualifier, similar to world music or world literature, denoting something “other” or non-Western. Some scholars have rightly called this out as a “the West versus the rest” binary. It lacks some nuance, to say the least.

Such categories, while limiting, aren’t without some practical necessity. We assume most of our patrons have a familiarity with and interest in U.S. cinema. Our national cinema assumes and takes up the most space on the library’s shelves. It’s a big, impressive collection! We use the wayfinding term world cinema as a handy method of discovery, a simple way to browse and discover films from parts of the world other than the United States. Ideally, we hope the entirety of our collection offers diverse perspectives and experiences our community might not have been exposed to otherwise.

I’ve come to embrace film scholar Lucia Nagib’s more “positive definition of world cinema.” Frustrated by the limitations of the current Hollywood/West versus the rest binary, Nagib reframes world cinema as something more “positive, inclusive, and democratic,” a cinema of the world that has no (Hollywood/West) center and encompasses all. It’s a wonderfully broad framing, one that allows all approaches “provided they are not based on the binary perspective.” And in this framing, Hollywood is just one player (albeit a large one) in a global sandbox of other cinematic players. I love this more pluralistic approach, where ideally more histories can be told and given room to stretch out in all their multitudes.

Silent Cinema from around the World

Cinema first appeared in the 1890s as a kind of novelty entertainment, where audiences would gather during their leisure time to watch programs that usually consisted of static shots of a single subject. One of the oldest known film programs was shot by the French brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière in 1895, depicting workers exiting their business on a lunch break.

In these early days of cinema, the United States had the largest market. It wasn’t until almost a decade later, in 1905, that cinema truly began to expand internationally. Some of the largest creators and exporters of early cinema were Italy, France, and Denmark. In fact, many of the films exhibited in the U.S. in the first years of the 20th century came from Europe, and France in particular. It wasn’t until roughly 1910 that the Hollywood “studio system” even began to take root in California. Many of the earliest works viewed by U.S. filmgoers were made by and imported from other countries.

After WWI, cinema was on firmer footing, with a stable means of production and with narrative and genre-based feature-length films led by bankable stars firmly in place. Hollywood was now the global leader, although so-called “national cinemas” began to appear, rising in tandem with the U.S. and competing for viewers. Germany, in particular, was a film powerhouse, second only to Hollywood during the '20s and early '30s before the rise of the Nazi regime.

It’s important to note, too, that while early world cinema was dominated by European films, numerous other countries were also producing works, though many of them were never distributed in the U.S and many have been lost.

Here are some early silent films from around the world that can be found in our collection:

The Magic of Méliès (France)

Battleship Potemkin (Russia)

The Lodger (Great Britain)

Metropolis (Germany)

Early Women Filmmakers: An International Anthology

The Saga of Gasta Berling (Sweden)

The Talkies

After operating in silence for more than 40 years, the introduction of sound to cinema in 1927 was initially a destabilizing innovation. Even so, the rise of synchronized sound was soon adopted by filmmakers around the world and affected almost every element of filmmaking. For world cinema in particular, especially those filmmakers creating in other countries and hoping to distribute their work in the U.S., language suddenly became a barrier.

Before WWII, most feature films were still being made in and distributed by the U.S. and Europe. After WWII, however, filmmaking exploded in other countries. According to the film scholars David Bordwell and Kristen Thompson, by 1955 almost 60 percent of films were being made outside the U.S., Europe, and USSR, with Japan leading the way. The remainder came from India, Hong Kong, Mexico, and other nations. And countries that had produced few or no films before WWII, such as Burma (now Myanmar), Pakistan, South Korea, and the Philippines, suddenly began producing films at a rapid pace. Many of these films and filmmakers reflected their respective cultures. Many, too, were enjoying their first postcolonial freedoms, or rebuilding from the tragedy of two great wars, helping to define or redefine their nations through their films and the stories they told.

Sadly, many of these films can still be hard to come by, having either been lost (though sometimes, if we’re lucky, still found), destroyed, or existing in rarefied film archives and rarely screened, to say nothing of the small financial incentive that comes with distributing them. At the same time, post-WWII saw a renaissance for world cinema here in the U.S., with more films finding not only distribution, but financial impacts at the box office as well.

Here are some early talkies from around the world that can be found in our collection:

M (Germany)

L'Atalante (France)

Rome, Open City (Italy)

Late Spring (Japan)

Pather Panchali (India)

Ballad of a Soldier (Russia)

Ashes and Diamonds (Poland)

World Film from the 1960s to Now

The French New Wave, the English Free Cinema, Dogme 95, New Iranian Cinema, the rise of Bollywood, Nollywood--these are just a few of the  world cinema movements and cultures that have arisen over the last 60 years, with the 1960s serving as a kind of launching place for new, more personal, independent, idiosyncratic, political, and radical kinds of filmmaking.

The history of cinema (and of world cinema) is still new, still evolving, and still being written and written again. Cinema, which began as a somewhat insular 20th-century phenomena, has now reached its second century, firmly rooted across the globe, with numerous established national cinemas, complete with their own histories, identities, and masterpieces. In 2023, the influence of globalization, modes of production and exhibition (digital), distribution (streaming), and film fandom and culture (the internet) have all destabilized, broadened, and even called into question what film even is. Are films something you need to see in a theater, or can they be watched at home? Is film, as we’ve known it, coming to an end, or are we in the middle of renaissance? Who knows! Cinema always has been and always will be in flux.

With so many DVDs and streaming choices, there are now more options than ever before to watch both old and new films. And with Hollywood still spending millions on marketing to capture our attention, seeking out films and filmmakers working and creating in other countries takes some commitment. Here in the Chicagoland area, we’re lucky to still have a number of arthouse theaters, film clubs, universities, and museums still operating and committed to showing world cinema on the big screen. We continue to offer a monthly Movie Night at the library where we show great films from around the world followed by a brief discussion. And let’s not forget our broad selection of films from around the world available on DVD or on Kanopy and Hoopla, our two robust streaming options.

Ideally, films from around the world can offer us encounters with other nations, other cultures, other people, and other ways of living. World cinema can be an opportunity to resist forces of isolationism, divisiveness, and even hatred. World cinema isn’t a curative for the lack of diversity so rooted into Hollywood (and many countries wrestle with their own unique systems of oppression), and it would be naive to think that watching films from around the world can ultimately fix much of what ails us. But, I like to think that each time I watch, think about, or cherish a film from somewhere else, it creates more empathy. And good comes from that.

“For me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. If it’s a great movie, it lets you understand a little bit more about what it’s like to be a different gender, a different race, a different age, a different economic class, a different nationality, a different profession, different hopes, aspirations, dreams, and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us. And that, to me, is the most noble thing that good movies can do and it’s a reason to encourage them and to support them and to go to them.”--Roger Ebert

Here are some more recent world films that can be found in our collection:

Yi Yi (Taiwan)

Le Bonheur (France)

Moolaadé (Senegal)

Rafiki (Kenya)

Poetry (S. Korea)

Monsoon Wedding (India)

Mustang (Turkey)

The Blue Kite (China)

Daisies (Czeckovalkia)

Tropical Malady (Thailand)

An Egyptian Story (Egypt)

Aquarius (Brazil)

Silent Light (Mexico)

Wadjda (Saudi Arabia)

Close Up (Iran)

Jellyfish (Israel)

The Mirror (Russia)

The Spirit of the Beehive (Spain)

The Double Life of Véronique (Poland)

Fire (India)

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Germany)

Check Out What Our Staff Is Watching

Many of our staff are avid watchers of films from around the world. Check out this list of some of their favorite world films: Beginner’s Guide to World Film: Staff Favorites.