In Defense of Subtitles

July 18, 2013 § Leave a comment


I love foreign films.  I grew up in Denmark and went to the movies often during my high school and university years.  Denmark had and still has a respectable film industry; however, the size of the Danish economy does not allow the production of enough films to fill the movie theaters.

Foreign films give you a lot for your money.  In many cases you are viewing a travelogue of exotic and beautiful natural and historic sites.  You are exposed to the daily life in contemporary or historic time.  You can observe the difference in humor among different cultures.  You might not experience all of the above in one foreign movie, but you will also see that the common themes of movies – love, desire, anger, despair and hope – are expressed according to culture.

One thing you are not likely to see in a foreign film is a megabuck science fiction adventure, so if that is the only genre that entertains you, foreign films are not for you.

I looked up the current movie offerings in my hometown, Odense (population comparable to Cedar Rapids), in this week and next.  I would have the choice of 3 Danish, 2 Spanish, 3 French, 1 Austrian and 2 German films, besides most of the US films currently playing in Iowa City and Cedar Rapids.  Except for the Danish films, all of these movies will have Danish subtitles.  Many of my friends in the US are turned off from going to see a film with subtitles, a phenomenon I find puzzling.   The objections are that the subtitles interfere with the film, not everything is translated, and the viewer spends too much time reading the subtitles.

One has to accept that film is not an art form that primarily relies on the spoken word.  In classic theater the action is confined within 3 walls with a distance between the actors and the audience that often does not allow the observance of emotions, so the spoken word becomes very important.

Imagine a play where a couple of characters leave the stage to confront some adversaries.   Things go bad, but they manage to escape without harm and get back to the stage to tell their story.   The audience hears the clop clop of footsteps. The actors fling the door open and, out of breath, try to give a detailed description of what happened. Without the words, the audience won’t know what happened off-stage.

In the corresponding film we will see the pair dealing with the adversaries; we will see the chase and their escape, and they will return to safety and probably give each other a hug or a high-five.  We, the audience, will know everything without a word being spoken.  The camera is able to move close and capture all kinds of emotion, so that often dialogue is not necessary.  Perhaps there are minor conversations, but in reality only important dialogue needs to appear in subtitles.  Of course, in films based on dialogue, such as the French film, The Dinner Game, subtitles will be important, but here the subtitles sometimes force you to concentrate on the dialogue.

Landlocked Film Festival has always welcomed international films, and we hope that our audience will enjoy the positive aspect of the films, subtitles notwithstanding.

– Birgit Brun Coffman


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