A Canadian Film Programmer Reflects on the Universal Language of film

By Francis Litzinger

Over the past two years, I’ve been privileged to programme an ongoing Film Series at The National Art Gallery of The Bahamas, in collaboration with Director Amanda Coulson and Chief Curator Holly Bynoe. As a volunteer film programmer from Toronto, I’ve seen first hand the effect that world cinema can have on people.

Good films are the one true, universal language. They have the power to transcend cultures and different societies. In the hands of a master filmmaker the audience forgets that the film is in Italian or German and is swept away by the story.

Portrait of Francis Litzinger, invited film programmer of the NAGB Film Series. Image by ImageDay Photography.

Whether it’s moderating a discussion on racism after screening Spike Lee’s explosive 1989 film, “Do The Right Thing,” or having audience members thank me for showing the rarely seen classic of African Cinema, “Black Girl,” (1966) by French-Senegalese director, Ousmane Sembène, it’s clear that Bahamians appreciate curated films that resonate with Bahamian society.

It has long been my belief that the art of cinema in of itself is a powerful tool to use as a springboard for discussions around contentious issues. The relationship between the programmer and the audience is a delicate balance and one that was constantly evolving over the course of the film series.

I would lead discussions after presenting the film and it was in those moments that I felt connected to the people at the screening. Bahamians, Canadians, Americans…  it didn’t matter where they came from. There was always a desire to talk about the film and the issues the movie had raised.

Post-Colonialism, racism, crime, and inter-racial love were just some of the hot-button topics the film series have dealt with. As a film programmer, I have to admit it was at times a bit nerve-wracking to introduce films that had the potential to alienate a portion of the audience because of its theme. But in truth presenting these films had the opposite effect to my surprise. Audiences wanted to talk about the characters and their situations in the films they had just watched and relate them to their own experiences.

It was my hope—and that of the NAGB’s— that by programming films not typically screened in The Bahamas, the series would spark an interest. Not only in films of another language, but also to show my new Bahamian friends that even though the Bahamas is an island nation, many countries around the world are struggling with similar issues.

The Matteo Garrone’s Italian film, “Gomorrah,” (2008) which deals with the pervasiveness of organized crime and how a corrupt system affects all walks of life, was a case in point.  Although the film takes place in and around the Naples region of Italy, after the film a spirited discussion about the problem of crime in The Bahamas began.

It was a lively and thoughtful group conversation about the causes and effects of crime. The beauty of The Bahamas is that often you have ex-pats in the audience too. On this night, we were able to discuss both the effect crime had on Bahamians, but also how it affected Italian citizens as there were several at the screening.

At the conclusion of it all, I had a sense of raising awareness. The series had presented a challenging film, the audience had responded, and it brought everyone at that screening a little bit closer because of their shared human experiences.

“Rosetta” (1999), a Belgium film made by the Dardenne brothers, deals with a poor young woman struggling to keep her alcoholic mother and herself afloat. She goes from job to job, constantly struggling to have a, “normal life.” It’s a frustrating film to watch, and despite it winning the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, not an easy one.

Yet afterwards the film resonated for the audience. People could identify with the desire to find a decent paying job and trying to improve your lot in life. The fact that the film took place in a trailer park in Belgium was irrelevant. The story and the film hit home for Bahamians and their individual struggles.

The film series has taken viewers from the streets of New York in the early 1960s, to the small villages of Sweden in the 1950s to Nigeria in the 1920s, and beyond. The NAGB has screened classics that are over 70 years old and shown contemporary cinema, but always with the same guiding principal, that the themes of the film connect with issues that the Bahamian audience can relate to.

Moving forward over the next few months the NAGB will continue to present monthly screenings, with the November feature of “La Haine,” (1995) by French director, Mathieu Kassovitz.  It is a searing portrait of the immigrant populations on the outskirts of Paris coming to terms with their marginalization.

In December, it’s off to the UK for the provocative film, “Fish Tank” (2009) by Andrea Arnold, an intense film that portrays a young woman balancing her emerging sexuality against the backdrop of a dysfunctional relationship with her family. It’s an unflinching look at people making a go of it on the lower rungs of British society.

In the New Year, the films will take a deeper look at the impact of spiritualism, the mystic and legacy of post-colonialism as it presents, the film from Jean Cocteau “Orpheus,” (1950) the Swedish film from the master filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, “The Seventh Seal” (1957) and Claire Denis’ “White Material,” (2009).

As a guest in this country, I’ve had my own unique journey. What began as constantly feeling off balance and unsure has now transformed into a sense of connection to the place and people of The Bahamas.

Bahamians are many things, but for me the one trait that I never tire of is their sense of friendship, of being helpful and welcoming. It’s made the opportunity of sharing my passion and love of good cinema with others that much more rewarding.

If I’m to be honest the experience has also spoiled me. Watching films under the Bahamian stars at night at the NAGB has been an incredible experience, one that unfortunately won’t be duplicated when I move back to Toronto.

I’m hopeful that in my small way I’ve given back to The Bahamas as much I’ve been lucky enough to be given.