BYU german professor Joseph Baker started in 1968 what he called the International Film Festival, a foreign film group for language majors. He might never have imagined its transformation from a small cinema gathering in the JSB auditorium to a greatly expanded program attended by thousands of students across all majors.
Fifty-one years after its conception, what is now called International Cinema shows 80 foreign films and close to 200 screenings per year.
International Cinema co-director Daryl Lee has been attending showings since the 1980s. Lee boiled the program down to three dominant attributes: discovery, displacement and empathy.
“I think it’s about expanding our viewing and cultural vision,” Lee said. “(International Cinema) puts us in unfamiliar viewing positions. That’s crucial for empathy, itself a synonym for Christ-like compassion.”
According to Lee, the university has created an entire class, ICS 290R, dedicated to exposing more people to the themes raised by international films.
The course requires students to write short responses about the screenings and discuss themes, values and messages portrayed in films from across the globe.
“International Cinema is kind of a window into other cultures,” ICS 290R student Ethan Jacobson said. ”Getting to see artistic expression and direct experiences that people in other countries have had is really enriching. It kind of opens your mind to more possibilities.”
Jacobson said watching international movies paired with class discussions has expanded his awareness of what Lee described as “Hollywood’s successful though formulaic patterns.”
Jacobson recommends students take this class as an opportunity to think outside of boxes they may not know they are in.
Perhaps no one sees as many of these foreign films as Joseph Hegstrom Pratt, a film major who has been working the projector at International Cinema for two semesters.
According to Hegstrom Pratt, the typical crowd-pleasers are anime films or films more familiar to the audience. The theater was packed with 900 people when International Cinema played “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”
Hegstrom Pratt encourages students to go to films they are not necessarily inclined to see, as these can turn out to be the most informative and insightful.
Hegstrom Pratt gave an example of the most impactful movie he has seen at International Cinema, the Swedish drama “Persona.”
“There’s constantly a lot of interesting editing choices,” Hegstrom Pratt said. “It wants you to think and acknowledge that it’s a film while you’re watching it.”
“Persona” is one example of many critically acclaimed foreign films many students might not be aware of or have not had the chance to see.
According to Hedgstrom Pratt, International Cinema provides a way for members of the community to appreciate remarkable foreign films they would not normally have free access to.
“In Provo, sometimes things feel — at least to me — like they can be very homogeneous for each person,” Jacobson said. “At International Cinema, difficult issues are addressed in very honest ways, and it just gives me the chance to try and see something from someone else’s point of view in a way that I don’t often get in American cinema.”