Terror of the subtitle
It's time we stopped labelling all foreign films as arthouse
One of the more frustrating misconceptions facing the film festival director is the belief that one trades exclusively in that species of film-making described - usually with a perceptible shudder - as arthouse cinema.
However diverse one's programming, whatever deference one pays to mainstream tastes, that label proves inescapable. It would almost be comical, were it not so annoying. And yet, I'm not surprised. For most people, any example of foreign-language cinema is automatically considered to be arthouse.
Why this misconception? Perhaps because of the belief, long cherished in this country, that anything in a language other than English must be obscure, intellectual and forbidding.
Experience does little to alter this. Amelie might charm audiences from Leicester Square to Launceston; Crouching Tiger might kick commercial ass in a way that second-rate Hollywood blockbusters can only dream of. Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority of foreign-language cinema continues to be viewed with suspicion and even fear: the irrational terror of the subtitle.
For the record, not every French movie is arthouse. Indeed, the national film industries of countries such as France, Italy and Spain (or Argentina, Hungary and South Korea) are, if anything, considerably more diverse than our own, in that they cover the full scope of film-making activity, from short, sharp genre pieces to epics of meditative inactivity. There are good films and bad, but they speak in many voices, and can hardly be encapsulated in a single, pejorative term.
When I took the position of artistic director at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 2001, one of the missions I set myself was to try to break down this false dichotomy. To counter the belief that there is such a thing as a festival film - and that this should conform strictly to arthouse specifications (slow, cerebral, inscrutable) - and in so doing, to offer an outlet for examples of smart, satisfying, commercially inclined cinema from all around the world.
When visiting any city I make a point of going to the movies. Sitting in the multiplex and seeing what local fare is on offer, a process which, this year, has yielded us films such as Enrique Urbizu's Box 507 and Eduard Cortes's Nobody's Life - thrillers so tightly constructed, so precisely calibrated, as to put their US counterparts to shame.
Yet still the myth persists. The fault lies, in part, with the media, which often seek to exclude foreign-language cinema from the discourse. A typical Friday review section sees 800 words devoted to the week's "major" release - and in this regard, editors have come down firmly on the side of the studios, accepting that the week's biggest opener is also its most important film - while the poor Chinese or Iranian entry languishes at the end of the Other New Releases column, usually dismissed in a sentence or two of plot synopsis.
Most reviewers are simply not up to the job, either as writers of prose or as viewers of films. They lack the critical vocabulary and the basic knowledge of film history to assess anything outside their narrow band of experience. Little wonder, then, that they show no inclination to tinker with the formula: how can these bumpkins hope to assess something they clearly don't understand? Of the broadsheet critics, very few - the Guardian's Peter Bradshaw and Derek Malcolm, and the Independent's Jonathan Romney - have consistently treated films from other cultures with any respect.
This low critical yardstick has always puzzled me: could we imagine other strands of the arts - classical music, say, or dance - reviewed by such uninformed amateurs? Readers would not stand for it.
If blame is to be apportioned, some of it must reside with distributors - specifically the majors such as Columbia, Warners and UIP, many of whose local subsidiaries produce films that never travel beyond their own national markets. To alter public tastes, after all, requires patience, effort, imagination - and here, as in any corporate endeavour, a ruthless efficacy prevails.
Ultimately, all the talk of arthouse cinema is usually mistaken, in that it's simply inapplicable to the vast majority of international cinema. And like most mistakes, it's founded on ignorance. Film festivals such as Edinburgh do their best to redress this imbalance, and recently we've become more aggressive: teaming up with an independent UK distributor - Optimum Releasing - to premiere the Discoveries series. Together, we release six films a year, by new film-makers from all around the world, into cinemas across the UK. They are not arthouse films: they're simply very, very good. And that, by any standard, should be enough.
· Shane Danielsen is artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival