The Importance Of Integrating Foreign Language In Film. By Frankie Wallace. This year saw the Korean tragicomedy, Parasite (2019) become the first foreign-language movie to take the Academy Award for Best Picture. That it has taken so long for a foreign feature to receive this industry accolade is somewhat indicative of the negative Western attitudes toward movies that are not in our local tongue.
Yet, to limit ourselves to movies in our native language is to deny the opportunity for a richer, rewarding cultural and entertainment experience. The minimal effort it takes to read subtitles opens up new worlds and experiences. As Parasite’s director, Bong Joon-ho so aptly put it after winning Best Foreign Language Film at 2020’s Golden Globes: “Once you overcome the 1-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”
So why are we currently struggling to embrace foreign language in movies? How deep an effect does our ignorance of movies in other tongues have upon our society? What do we stand to gain if we just, for 90 minutes at a time, step outside of our comfort zone?
Genuine Representation Matters
A lack of diversity isn’t the sole domain of our film landscape; it’s a problem throughout our society. However, film is perhaps the arena in which it is most visible to us. Popular culture is a reflection of our lives, so the fact that we aren’t empowering a wider range of voices — well, that speaks volumes about our society today. This is part of why the #OscarsSoWhite campaign has been so fervent; by only recognizing a very narrow range of filmmakers, we are devaluing the experiences of entire cultures.
Though Disney’s Pocahontas (1995) attempted to present an accessible image of Native American culture, it largely only succeeded in creating a sterilized version of a cultural figure it has appropriated. It doesn’t try to portray the real-life, profound struggles experienced by indigenous communities. As this resource notes, popular American and Western society throughout history has used its influence to depreciate Native culture, which has far-reaching consequences for the 5.2 million people who identify as Natives today.
Our film industry needs to be making more holistic efforts to provide genuine representation in movies. Even our cable operators exemplify a very limited world view in the choices of production they support, with many Video on Demand (VOD) services’ foreign language offerings limited to safe, older titles that have been proven successes — such as Amelie (2001) — rather than recent titles that present more relevant voices. It’s not enough to include a character of non-caucasian extraction in a movie, it is imperative to also include diverse voices throughout the production. We need foreign language leaders — directors, writers, producers — who can build narratives that present an accurate and honest portrayal of what it is to have experiences of their culture. Representation isn’t just the on-screen image, it means contributing to the soul of the production.
Storytelling of all kinds helps to shape us as people — it always has. Today, films are our most accessible medium, and therefore have the power to influence us greatly. By not placing enough emphasis on diverse voices in our cinema, we are also denying ourselves the opportunity for a richer personal development.
Multilinguistic ability will always be a valuable skill. Genuine foreign voices in movies help us understand the context of the languages we’re learning, the use of local dialects and slang, and can add to our vocabulary. Parents can help their children by including a wide range of foreign language films in their movie queue, encouraging their familiarity with the tongue. The simple fact of reading subtitles is also beneficial, improving a child’s reading skills, and even highlighting areas of potential concern, such as early signs of vision problems.
But we also need to look beyond the practical educational aspects. Foreign languages in film have a vital role to play in the development of empathy. When watching a movie, we often connect best with the characters through our ability to imagine ourselves in their position. We must encourage deeper connections with diverse stories, such as Roma(2018) — which presents themes of class difference, political struggle, and family life in Mexico. By featuring honest portrayals of human experiences in the characters’ own language (in Roma’s case both Spanish and indigenous Mixtec), we can traverse geographical and cultural barriers, and connect on a meaningful level.
Building a Global Community
The U.S doesn’t currently feel like the most international-thinking country. Which is odd to say about a place that was developed from a multicultural melting pot. Yet politically and culturally, America has become somewhat insular. We have placed a premium on our own interests and achievements. We all need to gain a greater global awareness.
Will foreign language in film solve this problem? No, but it can certainly help in the fight against growing xenophobia and build bridges between cultures. Foreign language movies have the ability to introduce and unwrap issues that deeply affect other cultures. Naša Svakodnevna Priča (Our Everyday Life, 2015) presents families attempting to cope and readjust in the aftermath of the war in Bosnia. Sin Muertos No Hay Carnaval (Such Is Life in the Tropics, 2016) portrays the problems of poverty and inequality in Ecuador, and the land disputes that disrupt communities. Though perhaps most powerful is not just how these films can show us problems of those living abroad, but how closely they reflect the very human struggles we all go through — they have the power to bring us together, rather than emphasize our differences.
Our current lack of global awareness and unwillingness to embrace foreign movies speak to our deeper biases. These are the same prejudices that we often see in our unwillingness to embrace diversity in our workforces and communities. Business studies show that employing teams with a greater variety of backgrounds results in increased productivity and creativity, helping to keep companies competitive and agile. Yet, to our detriment, there is a deep, systemic unwillingness to look outward. Despite paying lip service to diversity, it is clear that our movie industry continues to fail at embracing it, and all of its benefits. Much like other areas of our society, failure to rectify our propensity toward systemic racism may well prove to be our downfall.
While the U.S. movie industry has recently started to celebrate foreign language in film, we are still a long way from fully embracing it. Inclusion of different dialects and viewpoints is essential to inclusive film culture and the honest presentation of richer storytelling. We must make strides toward the incorporation of diverse voices; by failing to address the systemic prejudices reflected by our choice of entertainment, we are on a destructive path. Movies can be a beautiful, inclusive art form, and we all stand to benefit from discovering diverse stories.
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