Different cultures, people and languages fascinate me and are an inspiration. Growing up, I’ve always had more or less a consistent flow of international and local visitors in my house. I’m German, but I’ve never actually lived in Germany. Both my parents and I grew up in South-Africa, also known as the ‘rainbow nation’ – a melting pot of different cultures, races, tribes, languages etc.
Needless to say, I was exposed to different cultures early on, including their respective films. Although I watched a couple of American movies, I realized that my knowledge of popular movies is somewhat deficient, and even though I’m slowly catching up, I still get the occasional gasp of horror followed by “WHAAAAAT? You’ve NEVER seen that movie???”
But, I’ve been exposed to different kinds of movies than my North-American colleagues. Luckily I’m in an office with film fanatics who do not protest too much at the idea of reading subtitles and are open to foreign films, but in my experience, this is not always the case.
I am convinced that watching movies from other nations (not just those that are set in other countries) is not only beneficial in terms of the art of filmmaking and acting, but it will help you develop as a person, to become a well-rounded, curious, compassionate and informed you.
LES INTOUCHABLES – Different background – Different view
One of my all-time favorites is the French movie Les Intouchables (The Intouchables) – a beautiful example of friendship that bridges the divide of culture, social status, personality and background. It is based on a true story, and shows what the world could look like, if we’d get over ourselves and our prejudices.
One of the things I find most unattractive in people is narrow-mindedness, an unwillingness to learn from others, or a refusal to change ignorant assumptions. Les Intouchables shows both scenarios: Philippe’s ‘friends’ are sceptical and cynical about his choice to employ an uninterested immigrant as his caregiver, assuming the worst of Driss and concluding that what Philippe needs as a quadriplegic is pity. Driss and Philippe however, choose to find humour in those prejudices and relate to one another as one human being to another.
Films like Les Intouchables address issues, events, conflicts and cultural matters you were most likely not aware of, or concerned about. But more than making you aware, they will be told from a unique perspective, a perspective you won’t hear over the news or in history class.
They are told through different lenses and force you to look beyond the end of your nose and expose prejudices you might have towards a certain nation, culture, people group, social class etc. Every story told reveals the filters and worldview of the creator and will in turn challenge yours.
TSOTSI – In the shoes of a protagonist from a different culture.
This one is close to home and is one of those films that will bug you for a month after watching it. Tsotsi follows the story of a feared gang leader in Johannesburg, South-Africa, who finds himself powerless when looking into the eyes of a baby he accidentally kidnapped.
Film has the incredible ability to touch each viewer on a deeply personal level. Joining the protagonist on his/her journey creates a sense of intimacy with the culture of the character too – Intimacy with humanity. Or in the case of Tsotsi, intimacy with a brutal gangster, his hurts, his past and his anger.
It creates a sense of compassion and curiosity – a sense of connection between you and the world, if you will, that will affect your lifestyle and outlook on life. It makes you aware of the value of each individual and their story.
Experience beats knowledge. And film gets you pretty close to an experience of the story told (obviously from a particular perspective) without you having to board a plane (but please, take every opportunity for cross-cultural experiences). News give you facts, stories give you culture and emotions.
AS IT IS IN HEAVEN – Art, not ‘Shebang and Wow’
As it is in Heaven is a Swedish movie that touches you more in its simplicity than any amount of CGI could. It follows Daniel Dareus, a famous conductor who goes back to his childhood town and is asked to teach the tiny church choir. In his pursuit to make music that opens hearts, he quickly makes friends and enemies.
This emotionally rich drama effectively discusses the intricacies of community, love, fear and religion (and left me crying for minutes on end), without any costly special effects.
In comparison to the film industry in Hollywood for example, many foreign films do not have the same budget as a blockbuster movie. This enforces and enables creativity because they have to make do with the means they have. But the motivation to create films is different too.
“Foreign films know they aren’t going to top the highest grossing films. They also know that it’s unlikely they’ll win an Oscar. As a result, we are more likely to get film art in its purest form.” In my opinion, art is art when it touches hearts, and somehow, As it is in Heaven touched me deeply through showing me the beauty of genuine love, the nastiness of jealousy in such a unique and genuine manner – just through giving me a glimpse into the lives of people in a small town in the north of Sweden.
It is often the case that foreign films can’t rely on special effects to keep the interest and attention span of the audience, so they have to affect the audience on an emotional level. They are usually raw and unrefined, and trigger emotions that you’d probably not want to but need to deal with.
The motivation will not only be to entertain, but to touch the audience and provoke a response through informing, exposing, criticising and elevating the morale of the people. I am aware of course, that, in terms of art, this is a generalisation and there are film directors whose priority is not the art in filmmaking but rather its commercial benefit, but I think it is a good rule of thumb.
THE LIVES OF OTHERS – History
The Lives of Others is an excellent portrayal of the history of East Germany, how its secret police, the ‘Stasi’ monitored its residents, in this case the playwright Georg Dreyman. It will keep you on the edge of your seat.
Films will expose you to events in history you were probably not exposed to in high school. There are some amazing historical movies in foreign languages that inform and educate you about the events of history in the most effective way. I remember watching The Lives of Others in history class and only then fully realizing to what extent the East German surveillance agents went to control and manipulate suspicious inhabitants.
Historic films either tell success stories or stories that no one would wish to have repeated. It is often very humbling and inspiring when you see examples of bravery and integrity in other nations, where your own could afford to take a leaf out of their book.
CITY OF GOD – Source of creativity
Visually alive and inventive, City of God will undoubtedly inspire filmmakers and spark curiosity as it shows you the gang life of Rio de Janeiro as it is through creative cinematography.
Different cultures tell stories differently. Language is obviously not the only difference. The story structure will be different as well as the body language, manners, humor, the protagonist’s obstacles, the production design … the list goes on. The differences make it exciting and are definitely a refreshing source of creativity – like the chicken chase scene as the opening scene of City of God.
Do me a favour
Now, obviously foreign films aren’t the magic formula to being a likeable person, but they are a wonderful resource to challenge your mind that will hopefully affect your view of different people and cultures while giving you inspiration to be creative and innovative as you learn how to make movies. I would love to claim that people have finally gotten over racial prejudices, but this is clearly not the case.
My plea to you fellow humans: broaden your horizon, invite friends over who are not from the same culture and watch their films. Let them explain them, see where they’re coming from. It is such a simple way to show them honor. They will feel valued if you show interest in their culture and community.
My plea to fellow filmmakers: don’t give up on making movies when inspiration and resources lack. Make do with what you have, create art that reaches hearts,
And maybe, just maybe we can change the world… bit by bit… mindshift by mindshift… subtitle by subtitle.