What is Film? – A Thought or Two on Films and their Meaning

layoutimageFikri Jermadi had some time on his hands, so he decided to ponder one of the eternal questions.

On the surface, it seems like a simple enough question.

What is film?

It seems simple enough, primarily because as a single-line question, it masks the layers and layers of other, different kinds of questions that would inevitably arise before any sort of answer could be articulated. What kind of film? In which country? At what time? By who? For what purpose?

As such, there are several answers to this question. The short one is that film is, on one level, a product. It is something we (are supposed to) spend money on and consume and enjoy, not unlike other commercial products. We watch it by ourselves, at home, on DVD, in solitude, or in combination with the communal cavernistic experience that watching a film at the cinema is. We fall in love with the main actors and actresses, feel their pain as their hearts are broken, weep tears of joy as they are reunited, and walk out satisfied with our 8,000 won well spent. At least, that’s the main aim: to get the product across as much as possible.

Even before the film production starts, by and large we become aware of a film. This would, of course, depends on the kind of film itself; McG’s ‘Terminator Salvation’ is not the same as, say, Fikri Jermadi’s ‘Bound’. Just as film takes our money, it costs money to make as well, bucket loads spent to create new financial wells. The trailers themselves are figurative direct marketers who calls you up once in a while to tell you of their latest offers. The aforementioned movie (‘Terminator’, that is) is not particularly life-changing, but it was incredibly well-marketed; with the exception of perhaps ‘Transformers 2’, I still find its trailers more compelling than that of other summer films.

The director only remembered his actors after he reached home...
The director only remembered his actors after he reached home…

Marketed as such, films become a social marker, a way to define yourself and perhaps more importantly to some, your image. Conversations around the time of the film’s release will be littered with “Have you seen that film with Johnny Depp in it…?” Taking this further and more directly, if you’ve not seen ‘Transformers’, you’re not exactly the coolest guy around.

Big ad campaigns drive the big movies. The stars all mingle together on the red carpet to trump up ‘the buzz’. They bask in the glow of others, feeding off one another’s aura. I am reminded of a friend who once told me that even with a mere handshake of a mega star, a young Indian filmmaker would be viewed differently in the eyes of others, since he would have ‘benefited’ from the star’s aura. You might think that the same applies across the world, since actors are sent on publicity tours and talk shows to share anecdotes of how other stars behave during dinner parties, and what a great, great experience to work with the company of, let’s say, Universal. We see the posters everywhere, driving a further need to see the latest film starring Johnny Depp. Let’s throw in another star, maybe…Christian Bale. How about that…Batman and Jack Sparrow, the leading lights of some of the biggest-grossing films of all time. Let’s balance that with a hot, award-winning actress, possibly European, to tap into that market. All helmed by a maverick, mould-breaking, visionary superstar director that people would walk on hot coals to work for. Coming soon, exclusively at the cinemas near you. As promised and as advertised, an experience that is worth savouring, and one that cannot be missed.

For that is what is being sold: the experience. This is where we get slightly deeper, for the experience is made up of a story, a narrative, part of an overarching diegesis that seeks to take people away from their pains, float them in pleasure, and to drown them in the sweetness that is the suspension of their two-hour disbelief. It is a point of view telling a unique and common story both at the same time.

Film is a business, but it is not just a business. It is a form of storytelling, an inadvertent method to immortalise the men and women who make it and who is in it. It is perhaps why the historical accuracy often sacrificed for film’s dramatic purposes are oft-lamented about. Stories, told well enough, can last through the ages. The mythologies of Greece can certainly confirm this, and while I do not believe that films should be regarded as the most important arbiter of society’s histories, it does provide an insight into why many Mongolians don’t actually like the Genghis Khan film, ‘Mongol’, very much, if at all. Looked at it in that light, filmmakers then have a big and huge responsibility…but only if they’re looked at in that light.

Michael Mann: visionary.
Michael Mann: visionary.

I believe that a part of the issue lies in the fact that people like to look at films as one form of art with one single purpose. This can not be true; different standards must be applied and considered, in terms of the events surrounding the making of the film, as well as the film itself (sorry, Barthes). In addition to the questions I posed at the beginning, how much money was spent? What’s the distribution like? Did the marketing of it sail smoothly? Just as importantly, what else is out there? What other films are being made and released at the same time? Along all these lines lies the trap within which a film, any film (and its makers), could fall through and disappear into the black hole known as ‘bad film’.

There is, however, one standard that applies across the board to all films. It is linked to the story being told; the commercial nature of films could be argued to be the form, rather than the core of the film itself. It is an experience, but what is being experienced? It is making history, but what kind of history is being immortalised? If it is indeed storytelling, what kind of stories are being told?

The stories, in some ways, are always and only a part of life. It can only ever come from life, and to life itself it will go. By this I mean that there is always a certain form, a certain structure, a certain element, either in part or in whole, that is identifiable to the audience, any audience. It is inspired by the human experience itself. Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist, proposed the concept of the Collective Unconscious, an unrealised layer that lays dormant within us. In this layer is what is supposed to be the collective human condition, meaning to say that you and I may be different, but we are also the same at the same time.


We may speak different languages, but we understand the underlying function and need of such languages. We believe in different beliefs, but we believe in the concept of faith in the unseen. We have different mothers and fathers, but we know the concept of family, blood or otherwise. The collective unconscious, then, is a “reservoir of the experiences of our species.” Stories of love, of romance, of comedy, of drama, of crime, of murder, of passion, and of compassion are only formed in the minds of the authors, of the filmmakers, but they themselves all exist as a part of life itself. It is their lives that they draw their inspirations from, and in turn, create something that will hopefully come as close to imitating the human condition itself. I do not believe that the collective unconscious is the ‘be all and end all’ approach, but it does go some way to explain a lot of things. It is a useful tool that can be used to understand why Edward Yang’s ‘Yi yi’ can make me cry, or how ‘Nuovo Cinema Paradiso’ became, somewhat unexpectedly, one of the main reasons why I am where I am right now.

It is this audience experience that makes film what it is. In that regard, Roland Barthes is right when he proposed that the power in interpreting a text (a book, or a film) lies not with the author, but with the readers. I do not agree with him totally, but that will be another reflection for another day. For now, and for the purposes of this particular write-up, it’s as true as it can be: if a film doesn’t have an audience, then it’s not really a film, much less a successful one, is it? By the same token, the art that is made from life can also influence life itself. We have seen, in fact, of how new works can influence future works of others. Far more importantly, we can also see how some films have overarching influences that can shape and form society. It’s a little spark, one that can lead and serve as a catalyst to something bigger, something more, something wonderful that can only driven further by human nature.

The Korean film, ‘Silmido’, did not necessarily leave the audience with the impression that events of the film portrays history with exact specifications. What it did do is to inspire a lot of people to stop, take stock, and ask the question: “What really did happen at Silmido?” This is what film can do. This is not to say that it is an irresistible force. We, as members of society, have our own powers and control. It is not as if ‘The Da Vinci Code’ is a film that will undo a lifetime of Christian influence, nor will ‘Munich’ be able to convert and maim our beliefs within a single seating, a belief that led to its ban in Malaysia. Please lah. Films can give us the football; how far we want to run with it is still up to us.

Their 'Truth or Dare' got out of hand...
Their ‘Truth or Dare’ got out of hand…

It is from life that art finds its way, for art is the master of imitations. Leo Tolstoy once said that art is a microscope which the artist fixes on the secrets of his soul and shows to people these secrets which are common to all. In this form, film no longer just imitates life, it becomes it. It tells the stories of life. If we consider that these are the methods with which cultures are maintained, histories are propagated, propaganda are spread, and lives are continued, then perhaps it is fair to say that it no longer just becomes the tool, but film itself becomes…life.

Film is life.

Perhaps a part of the reason why I sometimes have problems trying to find an exact definition for what film is lies not with this question per se, but with the fact that I still don’t know how to define life itself as well as I want to.

And the Johnny Depp film I talked about?

Coming soon.

Fikri had to talk about this in Korean. Difficult.

Featured image credit: QLook

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