Subtitles, exotic plots and unfamiliar faces are what many students conjure when they think of international films. These conceptions are not entirely off, but international film offers a lot more than a cool conversation starter when you are trying to impress others. Reading the translated words at the bottom of the screen can bring new cultural awareness and a unique perspective, and teach things Hollywood often shies away from. One of the most popular (and sexiest) international films is Y Tú Mama También (And Your Mother, Also), directed by Alfonso Cuarón and set in Mexico. The audience learns the meanings of “sexo colectivo” and puta. Not to mention those Mexican accents – they can turn on even the most modest of viewers.
Foreign films transcend all cultures and act as a liaison for different countries to artistically interact. Watching independent and foreign films can give viewers a look outside of the polished and canned Hollywood movie.
“I think you can really open up your mind to what film can be – get rid of some prejudice,” film studies senior Alex Reyme said. “Expand upon domestic film. Doing anything or researching anything from a different part of the world is beneficial.” Reyme is an aspiring director and has watched many international movies in his classes and during his free time. But you do not have to be in the film studies program to open up to these movies on campus.
Other departments have classes that allow students to experience international film. Maria Murdrovcic teaches Spanish Media and Conversation, enabling her students to screen and discuss films from Latin America and Spain. “I think it’s to expose those students to a different language. At least, I will speak about Latin American and Hispanic films. It’s a different way of picking topics, narrating stories, telling the stories, narrating what is going on,” Murdrovcic said. “And the difference at first is shocking and afterward, it’s kind of ‘Okay, how can we understand this way of telling us something we are accustomed to seeing a different way?'” The topics covered in her class range from sexual identities to revolutionary history to feminism. It is a unique way for students to merge their Spanish conversational skills while dealing with cultural topics.
One of Murdrovcic’s students, Spanish sophomore Amanda Moore, watched films this semester from Argentina, Cuba, Mexico and Spain, among other countries. “I really enjoyed watching them because they’re so different from films I’m used to,” Moore said. “They often point out things that I’m not used to or things I’m not comfortable watching, but it’s really good to know about what’s going on in other parts of the world and in other cultures.” Moore cited the example of María, Llena Eres de Gracia (Maria Full of Grace), where the main character swallows balloons of cocaine while pregnant to smuggle it into the United States. The film’s main focus is what people were willing to risk for their families and aspirations.
In many ways, Latin American films utilize their meager funding to add more context to the statement the movie is trying to make. “We are considered the cinema of the third world. What that means is that we don’t have the money that they have, but we don’t simulate or lie that the movie is an expensive movie,” Murdrovcic said. “What we say is that it’s the cinema of imperfection. It’s showing what we cannot do or what we cannot achieve. It’s not like we hide behind a nice house and a non-existent car. We show the reality of it.” Though it makes attempts at it, reality is something often lost in the fantasy of Hollywood movies. Between the big-budget explosions, climactic ending of worlds and superhuman abilities, Hollywood creates things that do not exist, instead of delving into the complex realities independent films explore.
“In North America, it’s quite clear: The director tells you which characters to hate and which to love,” Murdrovcic said. “And in Latin American movies, it’s much more ambiguous…it’s a way of not giving you the results. You have to make the decisions.” The films make the viewer an active participant instead of using movies as a passive activity. The more thought that goes into the movies, the more the viewer has to think to get anything out of it.
The passivity of American films is a possible reason for their popularity among college students. Hollywood films feature the stars that routinely grace the covers of US Weekly and Esquire and the industry often creates a lighthearted and shallow production. “It’s hard to compete with the familiar, with the effortless, with the predictability of a North American movie,” Murdrovcic said. “And the attraction and the beauty.”
Hollywood goes to huge efforts to please the viewers, as shown each year with blockbusters hitting the theaters. It may be something foreign directors would have attempted more if they had the Hollywood resources. “I would say that every country has its own history of film. Hollywood just has its own identity and it happens to be in America,” Reyme said. “A lot of times, foreign films aren’t as streamlined. They’re always more about character development. I think that’s a defining factor for international art cinema across the world.” This may be a reason why many international directors make significant strides when they come to America. For example, director Ang Lee enjoyed great success with Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, winning the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2000.
In the same vein, Y Tú Mama También won the Golden Globe for the foreign film category. Director Cuarón’s American influence may have been a factor in his film success, as he went on to direct one of the Harry Potter movies. “You see how much Hollywood movies follow a set pattern, and there’s so much more the world of cinema has to offer than Hollywood can give,” history professor Ethan Segal said, who shows a film at the history department’s International Film Series. “Don’t get me wrong – Hollywood films are great, but there’s so many ways to tell a story with film.” The story-telling aspect of foreign films is often why they seem confusing; unlike in literature, films generally only tell a story one way: from a certain point-of-view and usually in chronological order.
Outside of class, MSU’s campus has a veritable marathon of international film throughout the year. This fall, the History Department put on their second annual International Film Series, which concludes on Dec. 4. The last movie is a Brazilian film, hosted by assistant history professor Erica Windler. “Hopefully, it’ll be able to provide them with a visual context for thinking about some of the issues they’re dealing with in class,” Windler said. “It’ll encourage them hopefully to keep talking about things that they’ve seen and to think about also how film serves as an interpretation of society. We hope that it will open students up, even for a brief moment, to cultures and time periods that they might not otherwise have exposure to.” The film series is a way for history professors to show films without taking up class time. The attendance at these different films ranges from as little as a few people to as many as a hundred, often depending on the film being shown, but more often whether extra credit is involved.
Aside from extra credit opportunities, if students are trying to learn a language, foreign films are a great tool. “We watch movies with different dialects. I’m really interested in different dialects,” Moore said. “I didn’t understand a Cuban film at all, but it was explained why in my phonetics and pronunciation class.” Moore will further her Spanish education in Spain next semester through an MSU’s study abroad program. She said she has definitely been turned on to foreign films after taking Murdrovcic’s class and believes she will find Spain will further her interest in Spanish-speaking film.
Not everyone can go abroad to watch films, and with the absence of a Lansing-area international film house, many students turn to campus events like the International Film Series for their foreign film needs. “I think it’s a really good thing in the sense that it’s something students can get into,” Windler said. “It gets them out in realizing that there’s more to their learning experience and their university experience than what happens in the classroom. By doing that, they hopefully form a sense of community.” Students take home something they otherwise would not have, even if it is just a minuscule look into another culture. And this experience can be shared with other students in the community.
The film series also help to bridge gaps between professors and students. For these series, the professors chose films that pertain to class, and those that they enjoy. “A lot of times it’s hard to go and look, if you’re at Blockbuster or Netflix, to pick something from this huge mess of films and know that it’s going to be good,” Windler said. “[On the other hand], you have these films that have been suggested by people that really know what’s going on and they are films we want to use to attract people. We hope that not only will they have intellectual content, but will be interesting for students and fun.” In this way, the students gain a personal insight into their professors’ views and interests.
Film is a subject that transcends many cultures, individuals and viewpoints. It has created stars and burned others out. It has had a profound effect on cultures all over the world, which is why people should not limit themselves to film from just their own cultures. “I like that it’s a form of art and it’s a very collaborative form of art that involved acting, pictures, movement – all in one,” Reyme said. Foreign film uses all those same forms of art in a different way, completing the puzzle. Giving foreign films a chance is enhancing one’s cultural education.