Criterion Designs (image source: The Criterion Collection)
Criterion was launched back in 1984, when Joe Medjuck, Aleen Stein, and Robert Stein founded the company in New York City. From the get go Criterion chose films from Europe, North America, and Asia for their lovingly attentive treatment. I only became aware of the company around 1999. I recognized a lot of their films from introductory film school classes -- the canonical status of which was usually advertised by the stamp of Janus Films. At the same time, couldn't help but notice the glaring omission of ANY films from South America or Africa. When I pointed this out to Criterion loyalists and asked for their thoughts I got the following replies: "Do they make films?," "You mean like Tarzan?," and "You mean like Superfly?" My answers to all three were, "Are you *censored* kidding me?"
While Cinema Epoch, Facets, Film Movement, First Run Features, Kino, New Yorker Films, and Zeitgeist all regularly release films from less-exposed corners of World Cinema, none of them enjoy the loyalty, and thus power, that Criterion does. For many film fans, Criterion is unfortunately the first and last word in foreign and art film. In the minds of Criterion's completists, the fact that Criterion ignores entire continents means there's nothing there for aspiring film lovers.
Three decades later and Criterion have still yet to release a SINGLE film from South America. It only took thirty years and the involvement of Martin Scorsese for the label to release its first (two) African films, Touki Bouki and Trances, both among the six films in that director's collection, Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project. Next year Criterion are set to release their first ever South American film, Lucrecia Martel's La Cienaga (2001).
Criterion have long been more open to Asian Cinema, especially if the film in question is from Japan. Japan has accounted for nearly 90% of Criterion's Asian films whereas only five films from China have been deemed worthy. Meanwhile, mo more than two films each in the collection come from Iran, Korea, or Taiwan. Criterion have released no Turkish films which means no films from Nuri Bilge Ceylan.
If you need a graph to see what Criterion's bias looks like, here you go:
Of course there are acclaimed directors from Africa and South America, directors like Alejandro Jodorowsky, Abderrahmane Sissako, Souleymane Cisse, Ousmane Sembene, Cheick Oumar Sissoko, Carlos Diegues, Gaston Kabore, Youssef Chahine, Andres Caicedo, Anselmo Duarte, Carlos Mayolo, Daoud Abdel Sayed, Eliseo Subiela, Farid Boughedir, Fernando Meirelles, Glauber Rocha, Hussein Kamal, Idrissa Ouedraogo, Juan Jose Campanella, Luis Ospina, Med Hondo, Mweze Ngangura, Oussama Fawzi, and Raja Amari, to name a few.
So whilst bells, whistles, and shiny wrapping paper are all nice -- but how great would it be for Criterion to broaden their scope to include great films from around the world? Mark Cousins's documentary The Story of Film: An Odyssey, which came out in 2011, was surprisingly encompassing and in 15 hours did more to correct western bias than Criterion has in its first thirty years. Let's hope that we won't be saying the same 30 years from now.