Digital Mural Art Installation at International Convention Center, Sydney, Australia | photograph by Oliver Damian
Digital Mural Art Installation at International Convention Center, Sydney, Australia | photograph by Oliver Damian

Which five films will you use to explain cinema to an alien?

By Oliver Damian

If you had to introduce what cinema is to an alien and you only had five films to do so, which five films would you pick and why? Here is my pick. What would be yours?

Greetings fellow sentient being,

Let me begin by saying that while I love films about aliens, space and time travel, I feel showing you these subjects would be preaching to the converted. So, I purposely chose my personal favorite films that are more “down to earth”. The list is quite a personal one. As what they said in Latin (dead language of the Roman Empire; long gone but still highly influential): de gustibus non est disputandum.

Cinema Paradiso (1988)—“Nuovo Cinema Paradiso”

This film will show you how we humans can and do fall in love with cinema and how it can affect us profoundly on a deep personal level. It will also show you the deep human values of love, loss, change and a very formative period in our human lives when we “come of age”. A bonus for you is a short clip ot the best kissing scenes in cinema.

The Princess Bride (1987)

This will show you that ultimately the basic DNA of film is the story of a hero's journey. The hero wants something which, usually includes a romance and revenge. To get what he wants, the hero must overcome obstacles along his path and be transformed. We humans love to know “what will happen next” and if our hero will succeed in his quest. This film will also show you the value of humour and laughter in human life.

Pan's Labyrinth (2006)—“El Laberinto del Fauno”

Now before you get any ideas. There is no ideal “hero” in a film. As you will see, the hero can be an ordinary little girl living in extra-ordinarytimes. It will show you how we sometimes use films to escape from the real into a fantasy world. However, as you will see the fantasy worlds we create can be as cruel if not more demanding than the “real world”—and we can sometimes confuse the two.

The Red Violin (1998)—“Le Violon Rouge”

Also, it doesn't have to be the story of one character living in one period of time. A film can also be about an ensemble characters living in different times, undergoing their own hero's journeys and linked by something as arbitrary as a 'red violin'. This film will also give you a taste of what it was like to live in different periods of human history in 18th century Austria, 19th century Oxford-England, China during the Cultural Revolution and modern day Montreal.

The Barbarian Invasions (2003)—“Les Invasions Barbares”

Lastly, the best films are those that work on so many levels and layers of meaning: those that make you truly feel life. This is one of those. Thus a fitting ending to your film sampling. This film makes me laugh and cry every time I watch it. It tackles the ultimate mystery we humans have to face: death. But this film not only deals with the death of an individual. It also tackles the death of innocence; a way of life after 9/11; religion; intellectuality giving way to commercialism; problems with the welfare state; drugs and drug enforcement; euthanasia; father-son-daughter,husband-wife, friend-lover relationships; regret; guilt; colonisation and politics in general. It is a degustation of human existence for your alien palette.