"... this week’s Oscars saw the award for ‘Best Original Screenplay’ given to Parasite - a foreign film with subtitles." Creators and stars of Parasite in April 2019.Wikimedia

Awards season in film brings with it inevitable criticism of the careless treatment of ‘foreign cinema.’ This year is no exception.

The Academy’s release of 2020’s Oscar nominations has revealed their decision to rename the award for Best Foreign Language Film to Best International Feature Film. However, the category rules have not changed: the fact of a film being in a ‘foreign language’ remains the variable factor determining whether or not it qualifies for the category. This matters because the Oscars, BAFTAs and Golden Globes influence what we watch, and also praise the best films of the year. If foreign-language films are not recognised on-par with English-language films, they automatically become less popular. This should not be the case.

That being said, this week’s Oscars saw the award for ‘Best Original Screenplay’ given to Parasite - a foreign film with subtitles. This is fantastic, and quite surprising - but it should be the norm.

“If we want to celebrate foreign cinema we need to dismantle its status as ‘other’ by changing the way we receive it.”

One advocate of this is Bong Joon-ho, who utilised his acceptance speech for best foreign-language film at the Golden Globes to encourage the audience to explore more non-English speaking films. He urged the audience to “overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles” in order to “be introduced to so many more amazing films.”

However, I’m unsure that it’s fair to place all of the blame for the struggles of foreign cinema on an aversion to subtitles. It’s not unusual to do so, and over the years, imbuing them with so much importance has led them to take on a life of their own.

On the other hand, playful approaches to subtitles could combat their demonisation, and surprise and delight audiences accustomed to seeing the same austere fonts in every film, regardless of budget. For example, in Night Watch (2004), the Russian director Timur Bekmambetov utilised pictorial and dynamic subtitles that change to reflect their content.

Subtitles can be used (or omitted) in many creative ways. The meme format of the Hitler’s bunker scene from Der Untergang (2004) with deliberately incorrect subtitles exaggerates the translation errors that do make it into movies. The failure to subtitle the much of the Japanese dialogue in Isle of Dogs (2018) was explained by director Wes Anderson as an attempt to maintain the film’s fun and ensure we “listen to the language” - he argued that audiences would “understand the emotion” if not the words.


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Nonetheless, it is important that we recognise the wide variety of factors - other than subtitles - that prevent American or British audiences from enjoying foreign cinema. Indeed, it would seem that subtitles have come to be used as a shorthand for much bigger culture barriers, which, in fact, often dwarfs the minor inconvenience of subtitles. In a nutshell, foreign cinema can seem intimidatingly highbrow. It has many associations, from cult Italian horror to the experimental Nouvelle Vague to sophisticated melodrama - but there is an overarching impression that their enjoyment requires slightly more thought.

English and American films work to impress us, which is clear in the break-neck pace of the well-cut trailer, their casting of stars and their adhesion to genre rules. With foreign cinema, there is the vague sense that we are watching to impress someone else - perhaps, in an abstract way, we want to impress the director by spotting his oblique intertextual references, or more concretely, to out-do the cinephile figure in everyone’s lives - the one who you wouldn’t dare tell your opinion on the latest Tarantino down the pub for fear of being told that you were completely wrong.

This dichotomy is, of course, senseless. It’s easy to see how it arises, though. When foreign cinema is rejected in multiplex cinemas, the only way we ever experience it is by having foreign films pushed on us by those who know better. Perhaps we are forced to watch them in GCSE German or told to watch them by Netflix algorithms wanting us to ‘try something new.’ We are socialised to see them as a chore, and the clearly outdated, awkward afterthought status of international films at various ceremonies makes it clear that the governing bodies have a similar opinion of them.

If we want to celebrate foreign cinema we need to dismantle its status as ‘other’ by changing the way we receive it. Foreign films should be celebrated in a context where they are not an outlier. Anyone with any kind of influence over what we watch should be talking about foreign cinema, just like Bong Joon-ho. When they do, they must be willing to shout over the multitude of barriers that are more intimidating than subtitles.

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