In Defence of Subtitles

Tomas van den Heuvel encourages one and all to widen their cinema experience to films outside our cultural sphere.

Photography: Tomas van den Heuvel

Subtitles: tremendously annoying, inevitably distracting, but ultimately indispensable – if you’re watching a film in a language you don’t speak, that is. For Anglophone filmgoers, though, that hardly ever happens; the big blockbusters everyone talks about are almost exclusively in British or American. Even if a film takes place in a foreign country, or a distant past, the Roman soldiers or Nazi party officials speak English, topped off with a neat Yankee accent.

Now of course, I’m not blaming the British filmgoer for this, nor am I saying that this is an exclusively British or American phenomenon. Bollywood films are, regardless of their setting in another time or place, almost exclusively in Hindi. The Germans are notorious for dubbing over foreign movies in their native tongue, leading to comedy gold such as James Bond asking for a vodka martini: ‘geschüttelt, nicht gerührt.’ The same goes for the French, who avoid subtitles like the plague. Even in news broadcasts.

This is clearly an issue of custom and culture. Being an international student, spending the first eighteen years of my life in the Netherlands, I’ve long since gotten used to films hardly ever being in my native language (the good ones anyway). On top of that, the Dutch language – which I’ve heard described as ‘a drunk version of German’ and ‘someone having a stroke whilst trying to gurgle mouthwash’ – has difficulty being dramatic without sounding silly. Consequently, we are condemned to watching foreign films with subtitles from a very young age.

But if there’s no need for a country or population to watch films in anything but their own language, those subtitles quickly become a barrier. To the untrained eye, it may feel like you have to divide your attention between reading and watching. The British (or German, or French, for that matter) filmgoer sticks to films in his own tongue, to avoid the hassle.

And here’s the thing: by avoiding cinematic works produced outside our own language, we are inevitably also avoiding those outside our own cultural sphere. To put it bluntly: we’re missing out. In an age where Hollywood is criticised for having a problem with diversity, watching films from other cultures with a completely different angle on things can be a massive breath of fresh air.

Exciting things are happening in Asian, African, mainland European, and South American cinema, right now. Just to give one example: Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu (2014), is set in Mali and spoken in a colourful mix of languages such as Arabic and Tuareg. It gives us a close-up view of jihadism and fundamentalism that we wouldn’t have gotten from watching Zero Dark Thirty (which is, just for the record, also a damn good film).

Without passing judgment on anyone, I simply say give it a go! Watch a film in a language you don’t speak, and before you know it, you’ll forget why you were scared of subtitles in the first place.