An Immigrant’s Perspective # 4 – Foreign Films, Subtitles and Iraq

“Where did you meet them?”, I asked my mother after her new friends left our house. “At the club,” she responded, “and do you know that he speaks six languages fluently?”

Being multilingual was always a reason for admiration and a sign of higher education in my home – and especially for my mother who had limited education. But that held true not only for her, but for all of us. Young and old alike shared in respecting the skill and talent of people who could speak more than three languages.

In school we had to study at least two foreign languages. And, being a country of immigrants, we were used to hearing the “older generation” speak many languages: Hebrew of course, Yiddish, Russian, Polish, Arabic, Rumanian, Hungarian, German and Portuguese, to name just a few.

Another exposure to foreign languages came from songs on the radio and mostly from watching foreign films. The production of Israeli movies was almost nonexistent back then, so the only movies we saw were foreign. And of course with foreign films came subtitles. In fact, growing up reading subtitles was a normal part of watching a film.

Brigitte Bardot à un cocktail en 1968

My childhood and adolescence were sprinkled heavily with American films where I was introduced to Gary Cooper and Elizabeth Taylor, cowboys and indians and the expanse of the west; British films where I was introduced to Lawrence Olivier and Peter O’Toole and the wry humor of the Brits; Italian films with Sophia Lauren and Marcello Mastroianni … and who can forget Alain Delon and Brigitte Bardot who were France’s sexy export? And before Bollywood I remember the movies from India, where all of them had a theme of intense suffering followed by redemption, as well as the Spanish films sharing the same theme but in a much more melodramatic fashion. And all of those films stood in sharp contrast to the brooding, introspective and symbolic art of Ingmar Bergman.

All with subtitles, of course.

Image from the film "Matrimonio all'Itali...

Image from the film “Matrimonio all’Italiana” (1964). Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You can imagine my surprise coming to the States and realizing that no one was in awe by multilingual proficiency! Nor was it an aspiration and a goal. Moreover, Spanish which is the most common language spoken in California, was taught in school in a rudimentary fashion and most students had no desire to be fluent or proficient.

As to foreign films? They were few and far between, and only in major cities. So I guess the prevailing concept was that those who live in smaller cities are less sophisticated, or more isolated from other countries(?) Or is it that the ear of Middle America has some foreign language deficiency?

But truth be told, even in LA, most of my friends would say: “Subtitles? They give me a headache.” I guess there’s something different in the ventilation system installed in movie theatres here, because I can’t recall anyone getting a headache in Israel.

And let me take it a step further.

Without getting into politics, I was keenly aware of  how the invasion of Iraq was going to fail shortly after it started, partially because there were so many assumptions about foreign countries based on ignorance. Ignorance stemming from a belief that everyone wants to be like us, and that we have the market cornered on what’s best in life.

And even though I realize that recommending foreign films with subtitles to the State Department, our generals and President Bush would have probably not change the course of history, I cannot but speculate that something could have been improved there, had they expanded their knowledge and familiarity with other countries, their culture and customs.

If any of them had any exposure to Al-Qadisiya, the epic recounting the triumph of the Arabs over the Persians in 636 AD, they would have appreciated the extent to which pride versus humiliation were intense and organic themes in Iraq and the Arab culture.

So subtitles taught me a lot about other people and their countries, they also made me more cosmopolitan, and they definitely introduced me to the cinema of the world with its intricate visuals, their unique artistic vision and especially to unique cultural themes that were so different than mine.

Thank you foreign films! You brought so much richness into my life, subtitles and all.

Seventh Seal - Ingmar Bergman

Seventh Seal – Ingmar Bergman (Photo credit: zsoolt)

Jules, Jim & Catherine

Jules, Jim & Catherine (Photo credit: Indiewench)


About rachel bar

Psychotherapist and supervisor.
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17 Responses to An Immigrant’s Perspective # 4 – Foreign Films, Subtitles and Iraq

  1. MaryR says:

    Very thought provoking and full of wisdom…yes, we too are ignorant in many ways of what other peoples want or wish for in the future…

  2. Dalia Kenig says:

    Although we both come from a small country, we grew up with the richness of multi culturalism which at the time maybe didn’t seem that valuable, but now in our old(er) age can be appriciated
    I enjoyed reading your witty and reflective post! On the plane to SF, bye….

  3. I have always admired and even envied those people who are bi or tri-lingual. Sadly, not all Australians share my view. As for foreign films, they provide us with a richness, not found in Hollywood. And, although one has to focus 100% on the movie, I do feel sub-titles rather than dubbing, gives a more authentic feel to the experience. And you are correct in your assumption that ‘not everyone wants to be like us (American and / or Australian)’ and I for one feel grateful for the European, Asian, African etc cultural influences and experiences in my life.

  4. Martha Carr says:

    Nicely articulated Rachel! I remember in grammar school having a language teacher who spoke 13 languages! I thought he was super-human! All the kids thought he was some kind of rock star. Of course, he was foreign. On a slightly different note, an association brought on by the idea of film and immigration, my dad came to the US from Austria and the first English words he learned were from the movies. A western to be exact: “Sit down and shut up!”

  5. lylekrahn says:

    That is quite a different perspective from my experience. It would provide a lot more insight into other cultures.

    • rachel bar says:

      What is your experience Lyle?

      • lylekrahn says:

        I could probably sum it up with two things – limited exposure to other cultures and a preference not to have subtitles. You have lived on two continents and been exposed to so many different perspectives. That’s one of the reasons I find your views interesting.

  6. Maurice Labi says:

    Unlike Israelis who had films translated, the Italians went a different route when they showed American films: they dubbed them into Italian. Which explains why to this day, after years of English lessons in school, they can’t say much beyond “My name is Angelo.” In the beginning, they went as far as to dub Sophia Loren because she came from an Italian village and her dialect was too heavy for the Roman ear. I want to remind you that the subtitles in Israel often had subtitles in Hebrew and in Arabic at the bottom of the screen. That was the ultimate multitasking — choose your language, follow the action on screen, chew and spit the shells of sunflower seeds AND throw an arm around your date.

    • rachel bar says:

      I forgot about the Arabic, Maurice. Thanks for the reminder. So we were even more multilingual than I thought, even in the movies! I didn’t forget the sunflower seeds, that was before they introduced us to popcorn.

  7. godschool says:

    Fascinating train of thought, Rachel. I very much enjoyed it and agree with you, especially about the disastrous American cultural ignorance that resulted in the war in Iraq and now of course the continuing fall-out all around the middle east. I’ve just had my son and his girlfriend staying, and she can speak several languages. I have made real efforts to learn some, but I never became very good and I do think that some people have more of a facility than others. I also get aggrieved by the laziness of us Brits when it comes to learning foreign languages, and the assumption that we can get by wherever we are with English … which sadly, proves to be true and confirms us in our laziness!

    • rachel bar says:

      Yes, there are people who have an innate talent for languages, and others do not. I taught myself basic Spanish and yet I’m a failure at Italian, but regardless, the appreciation and the desire to speak the language of another nation is the first step in trying to understand. Assuming that everyone will speak your language is the mark of Imperialism. Thanks for your comment.

  8. Mary R says:

    I think that if we speak English we don’t have such an incentive to learn other languages since English is now the international language.If we had to learn we would.Though when it comes to Chines or even Russian it’s hard… and Hebrew too with the differing alphabet

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