Last updateFri, 19 Jun 2020 7pm


Beyond Subtitles: What Makes a Foreign Film?

Foreign FilmHate reading subtitles in movies? Well, the Academy wants more.

We’re approaching Oscar season, and countries are sending their entries to the Academy in hopes to receive nominations for Best International Feature Film. However, the Academy recently rejected two highly praised submissions distributed by Netflix because there was too much English dialogue.

Nigeria’s Lionheart was rejected for too much English, even though their country’s dominant language is English, as per Piya Sinha-Roy of The Hollywood Reporter. The same goes for Austria’s Joy, but the country’s main language is German, according to Scott Feinberg of The Hollywood Reporter.

Considering the requirement for consideration must feature predominantly non-English dialogue, this means that the films will have no other choice but to compete for a Best Picture nomination.

And since there’s much bigger competition in that category with more influential Hollywood films, the “foreign movies” don’t have much of a chance to be recognized.

The Academy’s move presents a dilemma for cinema: what makes an international film? Is it defined just by the amount of how much a foreign language is used or is it about the cultures represented on screen?

The two faculty members who organize the World Cinema Series, Spanish and Latin American Literature Professor Priscilla Gac-Artigas, Ph.D., and History and Anthropology Professor Thomas Pearson, Ph.D., both feel that the Academy have put themselves in a corner with the title and requirements of the award.

It’s true that watching an international film in its native language gives it the feeling of authenticity. When you read those subtitles, it feels like you’re being transported to the other side of the world where the film is taking place.

Gac-Artigas thought that an international film’s native language is a part of its culture. “Language is the most sophisticated way of expression of a people and its culture, the predominant lens through which that culture is apprehended by others,” she said. “A foreign language movie should be defined as a film portraying a foreign culture with dialogue track in the language of expression of that culture.”

Pearson also said that reading subtitles enhances the experience of watching international films. “Connecting the subtitles to the images and sounds of the film develops thinking in the brain that is different (and thus, helpful) than watching a film in one’s own language, and such films are wonderful introductions to foreign cultures,” Pearson stated.

Reading the subtitles does keep you constantly engaged throughout a foreign film. If your eyes leave the screen for a second, you could miss something important. That’s why international films give you the greatest escape, because for its entirety, you’re locked in.

But it’s more than just the language spoken in the film that truly makes it an international film; it’s about exposing the audience to a completely different culture that Hollywood can’t capture, no matter how much money they could spend.

Pearson noted, “I feel a foreign film is more defined by the representation of the culture—and the important themes/topics presented in that culture—than by the amount of non-English dialogue presented in the film, which is why we have occasionally shown films primarily in English as part of our World Cinema Series.”

He mentioned that two films screened at the World Cinema Series, 1977’s The Message: The Story of Islam and 2013’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, had English dialogue. However, “Students attending both films claimed that they learned a great deal about the different perspectives of the Muslim world,” Pearson said.

Because of the requirements, the Academy is closing the doors to a lot of countries who want to be represented at the Oscars. Gac-Artigas noted that, “They got caught in their own limited and constraining definition dodging the fact that English is the official language of three other countries besides the U.S. (England, Australia, and New Zealand) and it is de jure and de facto official language in 56 other nations including Nigeria.”

The Academy’s definition of an international film might be considered dated as well. “The determination of a foreign language film based on the percentage of foreign (non-English) language spoken in the film goes back to the establishment of the best foreign language film award as a separate category of the Academy Awards (1956),” Pearson said.

He continued, “It is an arbitrary rule that made more sense at the time than today when post-World War II decolonization, the spread of technology, and the rise of the global economy have changed the way that we see the world.”

After over 60 years, it’s time for the Academy to update their criteria.

A foreign film shouldn’t be defined by the amount of subtitles it has, but rather, how far it can take you, the cultures on display, and the effort to push you out of your comfort zone.


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