Sunday, December 20, 2015

Finding the Familiar in Foreign Films

by Drew Martin
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is most famous worldwide for their Academy Awards - The Oscars. Many American films have more explosions and gunfire than actual dialogue, and bad dialogue at that, so it's surprising that anything not in English is in a whole other category, which sits on the side of the Awards like children at the kiddie table.

The first Awards, which started in 1929 made no such separation but between 1947 - 1952, and in 1954 and 1955 Special/
Honorary Awards were given out for "foreign language films" released in the U.S. The Academy Award of Merit, a.k.a the Best Foreign Language Film Award for non-English "speaking" films began in 1956.

It is offensive to label non-English language films released in the U.S. as foreign language films. The top film of this category last year, Ida, is not a foreign language film to my wife who is an American citizen and is a native Polish speaker, or for nearly10 million Polish Americans. The same could be said for any language film.

Netflix has an International Movies section, which includes English language films that are African, Australian, British, Canadian and Irish.

I wish Netflix had an even bigger selection of international movies because if it's a good movie, it does not matter what language it's in if you can follow it with subtitles in your own language. Netflix in the U.S. only offers subtitles in English.

A couple recent releases on Netflix worth mentioning are The Lesson and Phoenix.

The Lesson is a 2014 Bulgarian film that starts off with an underpaid school teacher confronting a class when a student reports that her wallet was swiped. The teacher can't let the incident go until the very end of the film, after she has robbed a bank to save her house from foreclosure, which is one of my favorite movie scenes: she is going to defer payment to a loan shark through reluctant sexual favors. On her way to see him she is overwhelmed with fear and disgust about what she is about to do, and the stockings she has put on that day for him become her mask, and a realistic-looking water gun she took earlier from a student becomes her stick-up weapon for a robbery of a bank, which had previously given her a hard time when she was trying to transfer money to save her house.

is 2014 German film about a woman returning from a concentration camp to Berlin after WWII. Her face was shattered by a bullet so she is brought by a friend to Switzerland for reconstructive surgery. It's enough give her a familiar face to people she knew before the war but not to be recognized by her husband who betrayed her and gave her up to the Nazis for his own release, and thinks she is dead. It's way too complicated to explain further, but they meet and he finds her resemblance close enough to make others believe she is alive in order to go after her inheritance, without him actually knowing it's her. Sounds crazy but it's a good movie with a great ending of how he finally realizes it is indeed her.

When I sat down to write this blog I got entirely distracted by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's TEDGlobal 2009 talk in London: The danger of a single story. It is a great talk about flattened stories and the problem of one story being the only story you have of a culture and an event. Her angle is literature, although she also talks about her native Nigeria's Nollywood, which produces more than 800 films a year. The take-away I got from Chimamanda's talk is that we are all guilty of summarizing another culture with a single-story that is convenient for us. And the best way to change this limited perspective is to write one's own story to share with the people who put you in a box, and to absorb as much as you can of other cultures through literature, cinema, art and music.

The nice thing about "foreign language films" is that you get to absorb more of the culture through the spoken language (if it's not dubbed) and the locations, as opposed to reading a "foreign language book" in translation to your own language.

So if you are not up for sitting through these entire films, at least take a minute to watch the trailers:

And if you have 15 minutes to spare, watch Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's TED talk: