After almost four decades in the movie industry, British film producer Davina Belling has seen it all.
“I am quite ignorant about the Indonesian film industry. That was one of the attractions of coming to Bali for the Balinale Film Festival,” says Belling, speaking on the sidelines of her two workshops on scriptwriting and pitching that script, and the pitfalls of producing films.
Her visit to Bali last week gave Belling the opportunity to see Indonesian films and determine their ability to travel outside Asia into wider world markets.
And if anyone has the background to make those judgments, it is Belling.
One of her earliest films, Gregory’s Girl, is still, 30 years after it was made, a regular invitee to international film festivals. Her collaboration with Franco Zeffirelli resulted in the classic Tea With Mussolini; her most recent work, The Children of Huang Shi, was directed by Roger Spottiwood.
“That film is set in China [during the Sino–Japanese war] and based on a true story of a young man who went to China as a journalist and witnessed the rape of Nanking,” Belling explains. “He became a headmaster of an orphanage with these terribly damaged children. As the Japanese advanced he led them on a 1,000-kilometer trek across China to safety.”
But, Belling adds, films that tell these tales of nobility and bravery are losing ground to blockbusters loaded with special effects and bulky, gun-toting heroes.
“These films are getting harder and harder to make because at least some money has to come from America,” she says. “The US is very xenophobic — they are far more interested in their own stories. A story of an Englishman in China is too remote. Even Children did not do well in the US — it was seen only as an arthouse film on a grand scale. [American] viewers don’t watch overseas films.”
Belling once attempted to understand this insularity and discover why foreign films — or films dealing with foreign stories — don’t get a run in the US.
“I once said, when living in Hollywood, to a television executive, ‘Don’t your people want to see overseas films?’ He said only 28 percent of the US population have passports,” Belling recounts, thus hinting at the difficulty in introducing overseas films into one of the world’s largest film markets.
Creating films that can break through the US glass ceiling on non-US films depends on the film’s universality, says Belling. She talks of these films as having the “ability to travel”.
“I haven’t yet seen enough Indonesian films to see if they can travel. To do that they need to have a worldwide appeal that comes back to two elements. Films that travel are totally true to their roots, as we have seen here [Balinale Film Festival] in the Japanese film, Tokyo Sonata.”
The film, which won the Oscar for best foreign film, is set in a funeral parlor.
“We see how the Japanese treat their dead, the emotions, the people working in the funeral parlor,” she says. “It’s a fascinating film; so it’s important to come up with a story that carries you into a foreign world, but also has universal emotions at play — that is a film that can travel.”
She adds that the very fact that she has seen few Indonesian films in the world market suggests they do not yet travel well.
“I have not heard a lot about Indonesian films, but perhaps the local market is big enough to sustain the industry here. In Britain, we don’t have enough population to sustain itself [the film industry].”
Belling’s workshops lifted the lid on writing and pitching scripts. Given freely during the Balinale Film Festival, the workshops attracted dozens of young writers and future filmmakers who were gifted with Belling’s hard-won skills; these are the young filmmakers who may in the future make Indonesian films that can travel.
“The key criteria in a film script are having a key relationship between contradictory personalities really helps, and make sure there are sufficient obstacles and moral dilemmas to sustain an audience for two hours,” she explains.
She also talked of the all-important pitch, two lines condensed from a screenplay that are the make-or-break razor’s edge ride to film funding.
“In the workshops I explained each scene has to earn the right to be in the film, and the importance of a two sentence log-line to pitch your story. You’ve got two lines to pitch. You need that to very succinctly express what the story is about. It is very difficult to come up with a log-line, so don’t waffle.”
While highly successful in the competitive world of film, English-born Belling has the delightful humor and charm of many a Brit. There is nothing of the Hollywood hype about this proudly left-handed woman; she is, rather, open, warm-hearted and generous with her knowledge of an industry that can make mincemeat out of grown men.
It is perhaps Belling’s down-to-earth character that stays true to its roots that has long inoculated her against the rough and tumble of the film industry, a trait she shared last week with Indonesia.