What Students can Learn from Foreign Films
In America, foreign films have a certain reputation. Even straightforward genre movies are often relegated to small “art house” theaters alongside more challenging fare, as if subtitles render any film equally impenetrable. Long respected and perhaps overestimated by film majors, foreign films have much to offer even general students.
The first and most basic way foreign films can benefit students is language. In a classroom setting, learning Japanese can be boring or intimidating. But the language springs to life when you hear it come from the mouth of a wandering samurai who plays two bloodthirsty gangs against each other (and inspired a Clint Eastwood remake). Those subtitles come in handy, helping a beginner to keep up or letting a more advanced student notice where the translator rendered an idiomatic phrase differently than he or she would have.
A visceral experience
Film and TV are often seen as American’s greatest cultural ambassador. By the same token, art house cinemas or the foreign section of Netflix are embassies for lands abroad. While books and lectures are necessary for delving deeper into a subject, nothing beats the immediacy and impact of films for putting students into the shoes of a person they’ve only read about. Names and dates on a page can become living, breathing, and relatable humans with just a few frames of celluloid. Even a sumptuously illustrated fashion textbook falls short of how a film can show those same fabrics in motion.
Once the novelty of experiencing an alien culture in its own language fades, even the simplest of films can teach the viewer quite a bit about the place and people who created it. Godzilla famously reflects the anxieties of the only country to be on the receiving end of nuclear weapons. European films often allow American audiences to ask why nudity and sex is less offensive there, while graphic violence shocks them more than it does us.
What a culture chooses to commit to celluloid tells much about it. Films are not cheap or easy to make, so every decision is important. Why is one country famous for horror films while another is famous for erotic ones? Do the actors a culture makes into stars reflect its unique ideals of masculinity and femininity? Foreign films are useful because they provide opportunities for students to ask these questions.