How Does Culture Affect Our Ability To Read Film?
It is well known that foreign films are not mainstream. Most foreign film audiences tend to be avid fans of film as opposed to your average movie-goer.
According to an article by Stephen Follows, 18.8% of releases were non-English films released in North American cinemas for the fifteen years between 2003 and 2017. That 18.8% grossed just 1.1% of total domestic box office. (1)
Proof that even if we think foreign films are making some headway, audiences are still struggling with them. Language may play a large part in the reason for this data, but I would like to look at another reason foreign films struggle in the West - culture.
Your norm vs the filmmaker's norm
Nadine Labaki is a Lebanese female film director, who has achieved great success with her films. Sadly, the more filmmakers I talk to about her work, the more I realise how few have heard of her. And her work is worth knowing. Apart from being visually stunning, her films deal with important issues such as women in the Middle East and the Christian-Muslim divide. Her films are in Arabic and usually centred around the lives of women. Her first feature “Caramel” which debuted at Cannes Film Festival is about five Lebanese women, each from different religious and cultural backgrounds, dealing with various issues that affect the ordinary woman…but which ordinary woman? It is impossible to watch a film like “Caramel” and not realise that the way you view this film will be coloured by your culture and upbringing.
For example, in one of the storylines, Nisrine is no longer a virgin but is set to be married, and in her conservative family pre-marital sex is not accepted. If the truth is discovered, her impending wedding will be in danger and possibly any future marriage too.
As a Western viewer, this storyline may intrigue you and educate you, but will it really connect with you the way it might with someone who has lived a similar experience or had close friends who have experienced this? To someone with little or no experience of this culture, and an understanding of just how important virtue is to a woman in the Middle East in certain communities, it will always be just that little bit more removed. It may even feel like the story is not worth following because to someone to whom virginity affecting your ability to marry is a non-issue, the stakes aren’t very high for you. You may even dismiss it as stupid.
There is a scene at the end of the film where Nisrine’s friends help her fake her wedding night blood by smuggling her pigeon blood. I have a feeling if you’re not familiar with the Middle East that sounds more like a horror film, but is in fact shot in such an airy, light way that Labaki is able to infuse hope and humour into that scene.
Which begs the question - can a Middle Eastern director really reach a Western audience with her film, the way she can reach a Middle Eastern audience?
Films exist to inform an audience of a message through storytelling.
That is a film's purpose. It's true purpose. Communication. So how does culture affect that ability to communicate, when storytelling is so close to our cultural identity, whether we realise it or not?
In the Turkish film, I Saw The Sun, (a typical one-tragedy-after-another type of Turkish film reminiscent of the 70s) one of the characters, Ramo only has daughters and dearly wishes to have a son. He finally does have a son and the family move from the East of Turkey to the city of Istanbul. There the family are given something they have never seen before - a washing machine. The man who installs the machine tells them in a throwaway comment that it “washes absolutely everything clean.” One day, the little girls, unsupervised while their father works and their mother is sick, decide their baby brother is dirty and put him in the washing machine.
The scene where Ramo is told his only son has died is intensely painful and very disturbing.
But I wonder if there is another layer to the story that would be missed if you didn’t know that sons are often valued much more than girls in Turkish families, especially in the East.
To someone who was born and brought up in the UK, they might watch that scene and simply take it as Ramo’s pain at losing his child.
But in fact the stakes are even higher. Ramo risked his own wife’s health to conceive a son. Sons are more important than daughters because they grow up to be men, who in that culture, are often considered to be more important than women. Like it or not, in many cultures, that view exists and it affects entire social infrastructures.
So how does the intensity of the message of that scene differ when watched by a Turk then by a Brit, for example? For a Brit, it won’t have the deeper meaning and so the director has missed his mark a little, through no fault of his own.
Prejudice and racism in film audiences
In The Documentary Filmmaker’s Handbook by Genevieve Jolliffe and Andrew Zinnes, there is an interview with Jon Sinno from Arab Film Distribution. He addresses the audience gap between Arab and Western films. Arab cinema is one of the least recognized cinema in the world.
Jon Sinno argues that before 9/11 there was no interest in Arab cinema and that 9/11 drew the Wests attention to Arab cinema more. I would argue that even if that is the case, since 9/11 a Western audience is far more likely to put up a mental wall when faced with an Arab film.
I was at a rather quaint English boarding school in Kent when 9/11 occurred, having just moved from Turkey where I had grown up. Overnight I saw and felt the tangible change in the community around me towards the Middle East. As a British subject, with British residency and a passport, I was caught between two worlds that had just got incredibly tense. One day I could talk about Turkey, the next an uncomfortable silence fell whenever I spoke of my ‘home’ with fondness and that uncomfortable silence has never really left.
If you think I’m making too much of the racism/prejudice element, let me put this another way. Think about one of the first things you ask when someone suggest a film to you…
“Who’s in it?”
Why do we ask that? Because depending on the answer we will make a decision on how open we will be to the film. The familiar face of an actor we trust and who we like is far more likely to get us in to the cinema in the first place.
So it therefore follows that if an audience has predisposed prejudices or fear of the Middle East, they will mentally be more opposed and less vulnerable to accepting what the film has to offer…if they even bother watching it at all.
Culture in foreign films
Cultural divides in film and TV doesn’t just apply between the West and the Middle East. Subtitled series on British TV was sparse. Then suddenly, there was a burst of all things Scandinavian. Despite our apparent love of this type of series these days, the audience is still small - in 2014 a survey showed that only 5% of UK audiences had been to watch a foreign film in the last 10 months.
A paper by Huw D Jones called “The market for foreign language films in the UK” (2) states that:
A survey of British audiences by the BFI, for example, found only 58% rated non-English language films as ‘good’ in terms of production qualities, compared with 93% for Hollywood films and 95% for British films. (3)
Is the verdict of ‘good’ reliable in that statistic, or could it be that we equate ‘good’ with what we are used to seeing rather than it’s true meaning.
What if in, for example a Turkish film (and I use this example because it is a culture I am most familiar with) shows a half hour long discussion between 3 characters where the camera barely moves and the dialogue is slow and overly natural. Is that a ‘bad’ scene? If an American audience found it boring and walked out then you would probably say it was bad. What if a Turkish or Balkan audience sat through it all and found it one of the most meaningful scenes in the film? Is it still ‘bad?”
Film can only reflect reality on some level and this example would carry over to the day-to-day lives of a Turkish and American people. A Turkish group of friends are likely to happily sit from morning till night with a group of friends, happily discussing a topic while sipping tea and eating, barely moving. You’ll find this kind of laid-back, community orientated attitude in many Mediterranean islands too.
In contrast however, an American group of friends (although this is generalising) may have commitments or chores they would rather attend to and couldn’t conceive of spending more than 5 hours talking together. Life’s too busy! To make my point, I have never sat with a group of English friends for more than 2 hours without someone saying they have an appointment to get to.
Both are related to culture and neither way is right or wrong. Yet in a film we are so quick to label and judge a style that is simply reflective of a way of life.
What is the answer?
Greater distribution for foreign films on TV.
Let’s face it, we can’t open our minds and eyes to new things if no one offers them to us. It would be wonderful to see films like Caramel shown on the BBC or Channel 4 more often.
KERA program director Ron Devillier was responsible for the success of Monty Python on the States because he liked it and took the risk. We need distributors to take more risks with quality foreign films.
Education around other cultures - through film.
So many films focus on politics and religion, maybe we need more films that just reflect other cultures so we can learn more about them. I love films like Caramel and Vizontele Tuuba because even though they touch on politics and history, those things are always in the backdrop of characters lives, who are simply being who they are.
What does this mean for culturally diverse filmmakers?
Maybe you, like me, are a filmmaker who is mixed race and mixed culture. What does that mean for you as a filmmaker? As a storyteller I think it means you need to be aware that there may be a greater barrier sometimes.
You may have messages and stories to give that need extra care and thought for the audience you’re making it for.
There is always a way to communicate the message, the trick is, discovering the best way to deliver that message.
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1 Follows. S (2018) How many non-English language films get a US theatrical release?, Available at https://stephenfollows.com/how-many-non-english-language-films-get-us-theatrical-release/
2 Jones. H (2014) The market for foreign-language films in the UK, Available at http://mecetes.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/Jones-Market-for-Foreign-Language-Films-in-UK.pdf
3 BFI. 2011. Opening Our Eyes: How Film Contributes to the Culture of the UK. London: BFI, p.45, Available at http://www.bfi.org.uk/sites/bfi.org.uk/files/downloads/bfi-opening-our-eyes-2011-07_0.pdf