I’m always a little apprehensive to have this conversation, because I see myself coming across as Bojack Horseman’s Gregory Hsung, who “like[s] foreign films. That’s my deal.” I promise I’m not trying to be that preachy. Growing up Not White, I always kind of thought everyone watched foreign films, and I connected to them because I would watch my dad’s old favourites with him, or new releases that my mum wanted to see. I realise now that the true reason I enjoy foreign films so much runs far deeper. The real clarity surrounding this came to me after watching English Vinglish for roughly the fifth time.
English Vinglish tells the story of a Hindi-speaking woman who has to go to New York, to help plan her niece’s wedding, but she doesn’t speak a word of English. I first saw the film a few years ago, but it’s been a favourite since. Watching the film, seeing scenes of Shashi, the protagonist, enduring racial micro-aggressions, becoming acclimatised to a totally different culture and beginning to find herself, was so poignant. I soon realised why this was – perspective. The film truly captures aspects of the intolerance faced by people of colour and those who don’t speak English, in a way no other I’ve seen has.
There’s something different about watching a film made by a team of people who all know what the characters are experiencing.
I’ve watched countless series and films featuring characters of colour, and most of them include some plot device to do with race. Imagine The Big Bang Theory if they didn’t make jokes of the characters’ heritage; half the show would be gone. It’s not always a bad thing that race is built into the plot – take NBC’s Good Girls, for example. At times, the narrative includes indication that Ruby and her family are treated differently to Annie and Beth, her two white friends, because they are black, and this is a conversation worth having. It’s becoming more common that production teams will bring in consulting producers for various scenes, to show their authenticity, but there’s something different about watching a film made by a team of people who all know what the characters are experiencing.
To extend the reference to Bojack Horseman, in season 5, we see Diane Nguyen hired as a consulting producer in Philbert. When she arrives on set, she asks the show’s director what she can do, and he tells her, “Here’s what I need. Sit in my office, don’t chew too loud, and collect your paycheck. Then, when the show comes out, people will see your name in the credits and say, ‘huh, a lady worked on the show. Guess it’s not sexist.’” This sentiment transfers to some films and TV shows, where it feels like producers think that having a “Patel” or an “Anand” in the credits mitigates all misconceptions the piece presents concerning race, but with English Vinglish, this was not even a concern.
Culture plays a substantial role in identifying with a race, and there are nuances to being of a certain race or ethnic subgroup which are incredibly difficult to explain, especially when those nuances are often interpreted through a westernised lens.
There are examples of shows and films where race plays little to no part in the narrative, like Crazyhead or Kidnap, and these are important too, but where a piece does try to delve into the complexities of race, what is often missing is cultural awareness. Culture plays a substantial role in identifying with a race, and there are nuances to being of a certain race or ethnic subgroup which are incredibly difficult to explain, especially when those nuances are often interpreted through a westernised lens – one which paints tradition and culture in a way that simply does not capture the whole truth of these experiences. This is through no particular fault, but occurs because one cannot fully understand these layers of identity without at least some experience of the culture for oneself.
The most obvious recent example of excellence in foreign film is Parasite – the first foreign-language film to be awarded the Oscar for best picture. Parasite displays some of the finest storytelling and directorial intention of any film out there, with poignant motifs and subtle imagery throughout. Every angle, every facet of the plot, every line spoken by the characters is the culmination of paying attention to the finest detail and meticulous planning. Since I watched it, I’ve watched numerous videos showcasing the attention to detail in the film, from the motif of smell and its pertinence to class, to that of flowing water and the way in which it always trickles down, similar to wealth across the classes, but it seems nigh on impossible for the water (and therefore the wealth) to flow upwards. No matter how many clips of it I watch, I’m still engrossed.
Watching it, though, I wondered, if this is the level of excellence that it has taken for a foreign-language film to win an Oscar, what have I missed out on? Take your own favourite film or two – there’s a solid chance that it wasn’t Oscar-winning, and yet, it’s still your favourite, maybe because of the acting, or the plot, or the beautiful scenery and production value. The point is that hundreds, if not thousands, of films are made in countries across the world and rarely get any attention in predominantly English-speaking countries, and by extension, the film industry as a whole.
This experience is not unique to films, though – take the Norwegian series Skam, which was a hit across the world when it aired, but only to a small community of people who were able to find it, and which has since been recreated in many other languages. Another personal favourite of mine is the Brazilian series 3% – it delves into many social issues in the perspective of a cast and a society which is highly diverse, racially speaking. To me, it was so refreshing to see no major plot points focusing on race (or none that I can remember, at least) and it was amazing to get a glimpse into the culture of another country, even through a dystopian lens.
Where a film or a show is concerned, it is often (but not always) the case that the person choosing not to watch it feels that it is not worth watching because it is not in English, exposing a bias which suggests that the culture of English-speaking countries is worth more consideration than any other.
One of the reasons many people cite for not wanting to watch a foreign film is the subtitles – yet they happily watch their favourite English-language shows on Netflix with the subtitles on. On more than one occasion, I’ve been searching the recommended page with some friends, almost chosen a film, and then someone says, “Ugh, it’s in Spanish – not watching that.” It genuinely saddens me to see that sort of reaction, because our society has become so centred around the English language that many English-speakers do not feel it necessary to learn another language, but this shows another level of it. Where a film or a show is concerned, it is often (but not always) the case that the person choosing not to watch it feels that it is not worth watching because it is not in English, exposing a bias which suggests that the culture of English-speaking countries is worth more consideration than any other. I get that sometimes you just want some ‘easy viewing’ or some background noise while you work, and can’t afford to pay attention to whatever’s going on, and that’s fine, but why dismiss foreign films entirely, every time?
So, are you a bad person if you don’t want to watch a foreign film? Of course not, but consider why it is that you don’t want to watch it, and the cultural biases that play into that. Cinema and TV, like most art, are products of their environments and the cultures of the artists – watching a foreign film, produced for a foreign audience, gives a true insight into the culture of that place, and gives us a chance to broaden our understanding of the world, and combat our own biases.