Foreign Films Save the World!

What?! Save the world? Well, yeah. Hang on. Let me make my case. I grew up in rural Illinois in the fifties, loved reading and loved movies, and never saw a foreign film until I went to college.

I was curious, but I figured they’d be strange, esoteric. I didn’t think I could relate to the culture and wouldn’t fully understand. I didn’t know if reading subtitles would spoil the movie experience I loved so much, and I figured, like most Americans, that Hollywood was where the real professionals, the experts, the major filmmakers were, and other countries were trying to emulate us, playing catch up. What an idiot – but I think most Americans thought that then, and some still do.

It was my junior year, and I was sharing a basement and a hot plate with four other guys. It’s what I could afford. Wasn’t awful, didn’t complain, but it was so good to get out on my own at night.

I was working on the school paper and saw the story about foreign films to be shown, starting that week, every Friday night at some campus theater. All right. I’m in.

So the first film I saw was an Ingmar Bergman work, “Sawdust and Tinsel.” And it WAS strange and esoteric, and frigging hypnotizing, too. Just four or five subtitles into it, and the reading was no problem. The film was set in a circus. There was a bear. There was a ringmaster who looked like the bear. No, I didn’t get all the ideas Ingmar wanted me to, but I was pulled into his tale and holding it to my heart from the beginning: love and rage and shame and heartbreak, and in this film everybody’s heart broke, mine, too! And the bear died. Whoa. I came out of that theater as if from some shattering event – not a film, a flesh and blood event.

All right, so the Swedes knew what they were doing, from story to actor to director to cinematographer.... The film owed nothing to Hollywood and was a better, deeper drama than all but a few American films I had seen. Well, maybe that was just the genius of Bergman. Nope.

I saw fine Spanish films and Dutch and the great Italian gift of “La Strada” which broke my heart all over again. Oh? You say you have a taste for Japanese. “Woman in the Dunes” will knock you on your ass. I was emotionally punched and reeling from these films every Friday, and the final knockout came from Kurosawa and his “The Seven Samurai.”

I had seen “The Magnificent Seven,” and really enjoyed it  except for a few weak spots: Buchholz and Vaughn. I loved the story, characters – and that score! I had known, when I saw it, that it was based on a Japanese film and remembered thinking that the foreign version would be more stilted and no fun. Jeez. Kurosawa’s movie was better and deeper in every respect, so much more human, the characters more real, the action more stunning, everything working together to raise the experience from entertainment to classic masterpiece, without losing anything, neither the humor nor the fierce battles for survival.

So I was converted. I gained great respect for the films from other countries, from their classics and from their new films of the sixties, where England was on the rise, and the French and Italian and Russian and Asian cinemas were all delivering as much or more than our own films – which were now competing in the breaking of molds and the exploring of new territory.

But here is what else I learned. Here is the deeper part of this message, and it’s simple. I learned that we’re all the same, all over the world. I was watching films not about the American condition or the German condition or the Chinese condition, but about the human condition. I was learning that the wish for love, peace, a job and a safe place for one’s family is common to every country. I was learning that this comical tragedy called modern life was playing out in everybody’s love stories and dramas and crime stories and action films and comedies, and it was, in essence, the same story everywhere.

The translated books and subtitled films from other countries could teach everybody who reads and sees them that there truly is one humanity, and that there are no evil countries or pure countries. If I had had any prejudiced thoughts of race or ethnicity when I stepped into those Friday night foreign films, I would have left those thoughts right there, among the spilled popcorn and candy.

I once heard a distressing statistic, years ago, that only 9% of the American movie audience ever watches foreign films.

That’s what has to change. The more people of every country who watch the films of every other country, the more this feeling grows, that they are us and we are them. And, yeah, that could save the world.

So, how do we get more Americans to watch foreign films? I was hoping you could tell me, and tell your friends, and tell everybody. We need some new ideas for spreading this blessing around, like, for instance, instead of making an American version of every hit foreign film, just release the damn foreign film – with a campaign. People went to see “The Artist,” and even read the subtitles. People who have heard how really good a new foreign film is might just step over the rope this time and take a look. 

Here’s hoping. 


(This post will remain in this position for 3 weeks instead of one, while I give my time to the launching of my Ebook, “WRITE!” – a personal, conversational how-to on creative writing. All my posts are available on this site. Thank you. Jerry)

Copyright Gerald DiPego 2015-2017