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Why we should all be watching more foreign-language films

Of the best recent cinematic releases, which spring to mind immediately? Joaquin Phoenix’s award-winning turn as the Joker, Brad Pitt’s escapade in outer space, Tarantino’s love letter to Hollywood… What about Almodóvar’s Dolor y Gloria or the Palme D’Or winning Parasite by South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-Ho? Never heard of them? You’re likely not alone.

Many people are resistant to watching foreign-language films simply because they assume they won’t understand, or are unfamiliar with the use of subtitles, or because dubbed audio is ‘annoying’. English is the most widely-spoken language in the world, and that means native speakers can largely avoid encountering any other, staying safely within a monolingual bubble. This is compounded further by a surplus of English-language content, which marginalises foreign cinema. In a survey conducted by Netflix, an overwhelming majority of US viewers revealed that they were not interested in foreign-language content, a truly astounding fact in today’s globalised world. As students, we are constantly being told that we are ‘global citizens’ and Warwick is a truly international university, but how can we consider ourselves thus if we ignore international contributions to such a significant art form as cinema?

Many people are resistant to watching foreign-language films simply because they assume they won’t understand, or are unfamiliar with the use of subtitles

The truth is, much like holidaying within the UK forever, ignoring foreign-language films means missing out on discovering other cultures, traditions, landscapes and, most importantly, ground-breaking stories. Every country and culture on earth has a unique way of perceiving the world and a distinctive way of reflecting it in film. Just as travel broadens our literal and metaphorical horizons, film allows us to live vicariously in another culture, and witness their approach to life’s hardships and life’s joy. Never travelled to Mumbai? Take a trip there with Ritesh Batra’s Photograph, a love story set against the backdrop of the fascinating city. Is Colombia on your bucket list but haven’t got the funds as yet? Go there in Alejandro Landes’ mesmerising Monos. Watching film is not a substitute for travel, I hasten to add, but it will most certainly whet your appetite to discover more and more of the world for yourself.

You don’t need to speak the language to understand the film. Recalling the roots of cinema reminds us that it is primarily a visual art form, which means that the hallmark of a good film is its ability to show, not tell the audience the story. Granted, dialogue is an important element, but when you give it a try, using subtitles does not impede your ability to enjoy the film, or your ability to understand what is going on. You will undoubtedly become so engrossed in the story, you’ll forget you’re even having to read. If dubbing is more your cup of tea, the mismatched audio will only serve to remind you that you’re expanding your cultural knowledge and immersing yourself in another world.

Recalling the roots of cinema reminds us that it is primarily a visual art form, which means that the hallmark of a good film is its ability to show, not tell the audience the story

If, like me, you speak a foreign language, then watching films is the best, and most enjoyable way to consolidate your listening skills. Films, for many, are a way to relax and unwind, so think how lucky we are that film-viewing is a prescribed part of our language learning. Start with subtitles on and then as you get more confident, take the plunge and trust yourself to understand what is going on. The more you watch, the less you will have to concentrate on listening and soon it will be as if you’re watching films in your mother tongue.

Itching to start your cinematic trip around the globe but have no idea where to find these foreign-language gems? There is a wealth of foreign content on Netflix and Amazon Prime, as well as Film4 and, if you’re slightly more old school, you can rent DVDs from the library. If you want to catch them when they’re first released in the cinema, check out Curzon, which usually showcases a few newly released foreign-language films. Once you start, I can guarantee you’ll be hooked.

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