Cinema is a medium many people enjoy, and there are a variety of platforms through which one can indulge. Images can communicate thoughts, concepts, and emotions with an ease that the spoken word alone has difficulty matching. If you want to gain some insight into slum life in Mumbai, [by watching a film] you can do it without having to purchase a $1K+ ticket from JFK to BOM.
Cinema has helped me develop some elucidation concerning other cultures. Prior to my first international voyage I immersed myself in any movie I could find on/in/or about India. This really helped balance the images I had been projecting in my mind’s eye. I now had something more concrete to work from. It gave me a better idea of what I was getting into. Through my viewing, I encountered a swastika in the backdrop of one of the scenes. While only a neophyte at the time, I had to rely on an explanation from an Indian friend to grasp what I had seen in the movie. In this case, my ignorance was exposed, and I was better able to cope with certain imagery I would encounter on the ground.
Cinema, when executed tastefully, can represent a culture elegantly: authentic without being overly romantic or idealistic. Sometimes a rawness of images can do more to edify the ignorant than over edited, over produced clips. When used with complementary sources, cinema can allow one to become aware of the severity of their misinformation concerning a foreign culture. It can be conducive in moving toward a richer understanding of an “exotic” society.
Movies can be an effective viewfinder into the unparalleled lives of people around the world: Egyptian activists, Lebanese coiffeuses or Pakistani opium farmers— no matter how removed we are from the protagonist, cinema gives us an ability to become intimately interwoven with their lives. This vicarious experience can lead us to develop empathy toward the one(s) of whom we were ignorant; it is in this process we begin to understand that beyond the nuances of cultural rituals, human beings everywhere have similar desires and motivations.
In the same respect, movies can propel stereotypes and caricatures that misrepresent other cultures. Muslims, for example, are often portrayed one dimensionally (as are other ethnicities and nationalities that aren’t in culturally superior positions). Movies can also misrepresent the culture from which they are emitted. Once, in India, myself and a fellow drifter were told by our hosts how much they enjoyed American culture because they had seen American Pie, and thus felt that they had a good handle on youth culture in America. My nubian travel companion quickly and perhaps overhastily retorted, “That’s white people shit.”
Cinema can give cultural insight, and it can also feed cultural misunderstanding. My recommendation is that you view movies critically, while maintaining the capacity to enjoy them. Let’s not emulate those sophomorish few—some of whom I know quite well—who, upon viewing a Kung-Fu movie, thought the Korean people at the newly opened grocery store could fly. (There’s more than one thing wrong with that!)
Surely as gastronomical preferences differ between individuals, the same applies to cinema. Some prefer shoot 'em up thrillers, while others favor a quirky art house flick. Nonetheless, here are some foreign films that are worthy your attention. You decide if they suit your taste.
- A Prophet - The protagonist is a felon who must cope with his dual ethnic background (Corsican & Arab), while dealing with all the other trials that come with prison life.
- A Separation - An Iranian film that won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (2012), this movie is beautifully executed. It plays out around a married couple who have a very strained relationship. The subplots unfolding around them don’t make their lives any easier
- Pan’s Labyrinth - Don’t get it twisted. This Mexican fantasy is not Lord of the Rings-esque. I wasn’t sure what I was getting into when I first viewed this film, however it is enthralling on a visual level alone.
- The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - Many are now familiar with Lisbeth Salander and Steig Larsson’s Millennium series. Try this one out first, and then go for the entire set. Skip the Hollywood version. If you’re a bibliophile perhaps give the novels a try too.
- The Lives of Others - This film is set in Statsi surveilled East Berlin. It touches on defiance, compassion, and appreciation. Traits that are universally appreciated.
- The Pirogue - A group of Senegalese migrants plan to emigrate to Spain using a fishing boat. It opens with a scene of a traditional Senegalese wrestling match (eye candy for all the ladies into that sort of thing). The film is vibrant. You become attached to some of the characters, repelled by others, yet will care for them all.
- The Skin I Live In- This film (by famed Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar) has a strong sexual aura and is at times disturbing. A study on resoluteness and revenge.
Has a foreign film expanded your horizons and/or inspired you to travel? Sound off! Tell us about the film and how it influenced you, below.