Three Reasons to Love Non-American Films

noomi-rapace-girl-with-dragon-tattoo

Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Yes, American films are wonderful — some of the best movies are American in origin. I like them as much as my fellow citizens. However, there is something about a well-done foreign film, or better titled: a non-American film, that captures and holds my attention unlike most good American films. I find these non-Americans films unique and unforgettable in ways unlike their American counterparts.

In the past few years, many of the films I’ve watched have been directed, produced, and played by non-Americans. In this time, I’ve become more and more engrossed with foreign films and the mindset of those behind them. In my quest to understand why I’ve become a lover of all things foreign movie, I’ve discovered a few possible reasons why they are so remarkable to me, and why they could be to other Americans who haven’t paid as much attention to foreign films. Unfortunately, some non-American films are hard to find or poorly subtitled or dubbed, but if and when you do find a polished foreign film, you’ll be glad you did:

1. Surprising Plots

Watching so many domestic films, plots can become boring and begin to repeat themselves. This is because narratives are often strongly influenced by a person’s culture, experiences, and the world around them. By no fault of their own, American authors, screenwriters, and editors can end up arriving at stories that only differ from each other slightly. As diverse as Americans are, each American has the American experience and influence which informs the way they approach a film.

In contrast, foreign films can be surprising in their plots, even if the changes are subtle. Many times the change is drastic, if the culture and experiences of the scriptwriter differs greatly from that of an American. Sometimes the plot details values or lessons taught in a specific culture. Production elements and casting are unexpected, but add up to add a final touch to the film that make it its own.

2. Gritty Reality

Non-American films tend to showcase a life and culture that is more bold and less politically correct than American films. Things that American filmmakers would hesitate to include or water down are showcased with no apologies in foreign films. The taboo, abnormal, or simply harsh realities of life are presented, to much effect. In one popular foreign film, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, rape, abuse, and alternative sexuality are exposed in ways that might be considered disturbing and ill-advised in an American film.

3. Culture

If a non-American film provides nothing else, it gives a look into the culture, thinking, and behavior of people outside of the United States. Foreign films give you a way to travel throughout the globe without physically leaving the country. Accents, clothing, behavior, food, even acting, illustrate the culture being presented in the film. Even for a well-traveled person, a film can touch on aspects of culture not known to outsiders. For this reason alone, it would be great for Americans to find a space in their movie collections for foreign films.

What do you (Americans and non-Americans) think of foreign films? Do you have any film suggestions or favorites?

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24 thoughts on “Three Reasons to Love Non-American Films

  1. Well as long as you stay away from Nollywood movies, you should be OK. You get a headache from those. Seriously It’s how they film them. It’s like you get seasick.

    You haven’t watched Yesterday yet! Only film were they only speak zulu. You should watch it and write a post.

    You should totally see this movie! I’m so psyched to see it! Looks like a very funny film. I love her mother. “If you break her heart I’m going to forget about ubuntu and take revenge” so much like my mother. Sweet and hard as a rock lol.

    Plus there’s a whole lot of Swedish movies I could recommend. I’ll think about some.

  2. You guys should make the effort to watch more foreign films as without meaning to be unkind most American citizens are very insular have little idea of the rest of the world. The vast majority have never left their home state, let alone travelled outside of the USA.
    More Europeans have sampled foreign cultures as travel is easier for us.
    If you want some ideas of British made films to watch try:- Trainspotting, Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Calendar Girls, Ryans Daughter, Lawrence of Arabia, Kes, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Withnail and I, Brassed Off, The Full Monty, Get Carter, The Commitments, Monty Pythons Life of Brian, The English Patient, The Remains of The Day, Nil By Mouth.

  3. Alee,
    You are so right! My favorite bullet that you listed was culture. When you watch foreign films, you have the amazing ability to be able to experience a cultural experience that is from a perspective that is different from yours. It really adds to both your personal and cultural life/awareness’s. Thanks Alee!

  4. Well, American movies are foreign movies for me. 😛

    As a non-American, I must say there is a huge difference between Hollywood (mainstream) and indie American movies. Indie movies and authors such as Jim Jarmusch provide a it of variety with their films you can’t see in American mainstream cinematography.

    I think the main problem is the money. Hollywood invests huge money into movies and producers want it to pay back, so they tend to make movies that will appeal to the largest possible audience. It means it has to be something everyone would like to see and something nobody would be offended at. Targeting movies to this “least common denominator” often takes all creativity and realism and meaning from the story.

    Plus, let’s not forget that what Hollywood producers believe are “everyone” (the audience as a whole) is, in fact, white heterosexual men. So Hollywood movies DO end up being offensive to pretty much everyone who isn’t a white heterosexual man, but somehow producers don’t see this as a problem – so they are surprised when they see movies such as “Avatar: The Last Airbender” flop because of white washed casting.

    This “least common denominator” is what makes mainstream Hollywood movies unrealistic, naive and over the top. Sometimes, they are fun. But sometimes they do hurt your intelligence. And I’m not even talking about Hollywood trash movies, such as action movies or stupid rom coms – serious Hollywood dramas get watered down big time and many famous directors are guilty of it (Steven Spielberg, I’m looking at you).

    Non-American films operate in a different level. First of all, government itself often helps with funding. But these films usually have a lot of problems with funding, which results in smaller budgets. This makes it very painful for a director and producers to finish the film or to promote it, but at the same time, there’s less pressure on having to earn all those millions at the box office. This makes creative process undisturbed so non-American films (and, dare to say, indie American films) have more creative integrity and they tell stories as they are, not as some producer think would bring the most money.

    Also, there is the common stereotype about sex vs violence in American movies, and I must say it’s true (at least when it comes to Europe). In Europe, nudity or sex is not considered so much of a taboo. Just take a look at British show Misfits or Skins and stuff they present for mainstream teen audience. This is unheard of in Hollywood or mainstream American TV. But violence, explosions, guns, etc. are considered ok, which is seen as far worse in Europe. I sometimes wonder if that’s because of US gun policy or the fact Americans don’t know what is like to have a war on their territory. In any case, it’s another thing that influences the stories and what’s shown on screen. Somebody put it eloquently: “Americans like to watch people getting killed much more than they like to watch people being made”.

    The third point, about the culture… Now, that’s a tricky one. I must say that one can learn something about a culture by watching films, but it’s important to understand that it shouldn’t be taken literally. A film is a presentation. It doesn’t show things the way they are – even when it seems that it does. It only shows things the way people in a certain culture want them to be presented. It reflects the norms and values and the way culture presents itself and as such, it can be read by members of said culture more easily than by foreigners. I must say that non-American movies are no more realistic than Hollywood ones – I mean, they do deal with more real things and they do show certain realism. But they are still projections and representations rather than reality. Also, non-American filmmakers often use heavy metaphors so it’s another thing why what’s shown on screen shouldn’t be taken literally.

    I sure hope nobody would judge my culture by its movies (nor news, but that’s another thing). Our directors go for certain types of stories and they either use heavy metaphors, like Kusturica, or go for super-gritty stories or go for absurd stories that caricature reality. Our best films are those of the absurd kind. For example, the two probably most famous Serbian movies are 1) about a family of undertakers (5 generations or them – from a young man who’s 25 to his gran gran gran father who is about 125) in the 30s where plot includes them collaborating with gangsters who steal coffins from the graveyard so they can repaint them and sell them and a broken cremation furnace in which said 125 old character burns another character by accident. And it’s hilarous. You laugh the whole time.

    And 2) about a group of about 10 people somewhere in rural Serbia heading for Belgrade the day before World War II starts. The characters are the bus driver and his mentally impaired son, and a group of passengers. It’s mainly about them traveling and of course different personalities clash, etc. At one point, the mentally impaired son gets admitted to the army, and one of the officers says that he’ll be a perfect soldier. At the end, almost everyone dies in the bombing of Belgrade that marked the beginning of the World War II. Just like the previous movie, this one is hilarious and you laugh all the time.

    Both are full of iconic lines and dark humor and absurd and they also say a lot about the culture. However, they should not be taken literally in any shape or form! So I wonder how foreigners may perceive these films or what would they think about our culture (because the stuff portrayed is so obviously over the top for us but I wonder if foreigners would understand it). That’s one of the main problems with using films for informing yourself about a culture.

  5. Nkosazana,

    “Well as long as you stay away from Nollywood movies, you should be OK. You get a headache from those.”

    Lol, I know what you mean, but I do watch Nollywood films. Some of them are poorly shot, hence the headache, but some are really good.

    I also watch Ghollywood films (Pirates of the Night was hilarious). Love Majid Michel.

    “You should totally see this movie! I’m so psyched to see it!”

    It seems funny. I like the joke in the beginning. LOL at the ending.

    “Plus there’s a whole lot of Swedish movies I could recommend. I’ll think about some.”

    Yes, recommend some! I’m beginning to love Swedish films. As long as they’re not dubbed in English; I prefer subtitles.

  6. billy,

    “You guys should make the effort to watch more foreign films as without meaning to be unkind most American citizens are very insular have little idea of the rest of the world.”

    Well, a lot of the world has become Americanized. So in a way some Americans think that our stuff is the best, otherwise why would every want to be like us? Others would like to watch foreign films but many films, especially those that aren’t in English, are hard to find here.

    Thanks for the film recommendations!

    lhj,

    “When you watch foreign films, you have the amazing ability to be able to experience a cultural experience that is from a perspective that is different from yours.”

    Yes, it’s amazing. I do admit to liking non-American people and culture, or really anything different. So I love non-American films especially because I get to see those foreign things, up close. I also like the non-American books some of the films are based on too.

  7. Mira,

    “Well, American movies are foreign movies for me.”

    Ha, that’s why I used the term non-American films instead of foreign films.

    “Plus, let’s not forget that what Hollywood producers believe are “everyone” (the audience as a whole) is, in fact, white heterosexual men…so they are surprised when they see movies such as “Avatar: The Last Airbender” flop because of white washed casting.”

    Huh, you don’t say? Froggie loved that movie. 😀

    “As a non-American, I must say there is a huge difference between Hollywood (mainstream) and indie American movies.”

    Yes, it’s hard to get indie films on dvd/video though. As much as I like movies I rarely go to the theater or film showings because I like to rewind all of the time and watch movies over and over, which is neither practical or affordable with theater-going.

    “violence, explosions, guns, etc. are considered ok, which is seen as far worse in Europe.”

    Yes. I find the continuous violence in American films a lot harder to stomach than the sexuality in non-American films, weirdly enough. Part of the reason I don’t like war films (besides the fact that they bore me). One of the worst: Passion of the Christ. You’ve got to be joking. You mean to tell me Americans paid to make 120 minutes of torture the best-selling film to that date?

    “I must say that one can learn something about a culture by watching films, but it’s important to understand that it shouldn’t be taken literally. A film is a presentation. It doesn’t show things the way they are – even when it seems that it does. It only shows things the way people in a certain culture want them to be presented.”

    A non-American raised this point to me, and I do agree. They said the films are stereotypical and limited in the way they present the people and culture. I’d say yes, I can see that when I watch a film about a certain group of people vs. the way I know them to be. But although films can be a warped microcosm of a culture, you’re still getting a glimpse into that culture. You probably shouldn’t believe, “Yes, now I know what these people are all about.” But it’s better than complete ignorance, IMO.

    Hollywood films are stereotypical, but they do present some version of reality for some Americans. E.g. American Gangster. Is it a stereotype of urban NYC [in the late ’60s]? Uh, yes. But being familiar with the culture and people in it, I’d say it does give you a basic, if limited and possibly exaggerated, picture of how things worked in that particular place, in that particular time.

  8. Well, that movie is based on a book Alee. Writen by a Black man in fact. In Afrikaaner pov out of all things. How weird is that. Can’t wait to see it, all the lobola talk should be hilarious. When my daughters marry I’m going to bring it up for the poor sobs.

    Don’t dismiss south african movies. Much better than Ghollywood and Nollywood movies. Have you seen Tsotsi? It’s a movie most ‘Mericans have seen. But still you should watch yesterday! yes I’m going to bug you about it until you see it since you like gritty reality. Strong black mother wanting the best for her child.

    Still laugh at the absurdity of the white hunters Nigerian movie series and that they made movies called revenge of the white hunters. It’s all on youtube.

    That guy is suppose to be white lol.

  9. Well, almost everything I know about America and American culture I learned from movies and TV shows. I wonder how accurate of an image that is.

    This is a good question for Americans: can you name a film or a TV show that presents, in your opinion, a relatively realistic image of American culture.

    Yes, it’s hard to get indie films on dvd/video though.

    Ha! That’s because you’re not in Eastern Europe. Remember when I said that most stereotypes about Eastern Europeans are not true, but this one is? People download like crazy and they don’t look back.

  10. Mira, I don't feel that I have as much of a problem with "white washing" a cast. I remember watching this movie when I was younger. It focused in part on an Italian woman. This character was played by a Morrocan.

    After seeing movies like I, Robot and I Am Legend I think I understand why characters are played by actors who don't share the same racial aspect as them. Film industry is a business, they cast whoever they feel will make them the most money. The industry is also very political. Producers and directors are always paying back favors for someone so this factors into their decision making process.

    So a racial disparity between character and actor isn't always due to an attempt to "white wash" the cast to appeal more to white people.

  11. The world’s largest market for the film industry has always been the United States. Other countries, for example France, have had very successful cinematic structures of their own. The industry in the United States has always made some of the largest profits because Americans have long been such outsized consumers of entertainment media relative to much of the rest of the world.This has been changing over the past decade.

    Other markets have grown greatly, like India and China, and the people in these markets have increasingly become consumers of American films, This has been apparent in a few different ways. Global box office hauls for American films are increasingly growing and at many times are matching or eclipsing the domestic box office mark. More and more people outside of the US want these films. This in turn is influencing the behaviors and practices of the film studios, distributors and cinemas.

    The studios see how the global situation is changing and that many of their customers will be people living outside of the US. They are changing how they make movies and what movies they choose to produce.They have been making remakes of non-American films for decades, but now they are moving to tailor more of their movies to non-American audiences (specifically Chinese).

    Many films are no longer first released in the US. Release schedules are now more and more influenced by the calendar in other countries. Releases are timed where they can generate the most initial profits and buzz which isn’t always in the US.

    Cinema companies are also being influenced by globalization. AMC, one of the largest move theater companies in the US, recently was the beneficiary of a massive investment from a Chinese entertainment group Dalian Wanda. This is to help both countries facilitate further growth in the Chinese market which is booming.

    From all of this my prediction is that the American movie industry is going to benefit more and more from the effects of globalization. American movies are going to go through a period of greater change. More non-American actors will be featured in films, more non-American media will be adapted for the big screen, more non-American filming locations will be used, etc. all in an effort to draw larger non-American audiences.

    In the end change usually only comes when mountains of money are involved.

  12. The sad thing is when people download movies and other media they are actually acting to drive the prices of said media up, as well as the quality down.

  13. Alee, you said “a lot of the world has become Americanized.” Ok this may be true, but I will say that America has, in some ways, become like the world. I can have a fine dining experience at an Afghan restaurant not but five minutes from where I live. In fact, there are Persian, Brazilian, Koran, Thai and even a Vietnamese/French cafe. That place has a very interesting and tasty menu. I’ll take you there sometimes if you like. I know you would enjoy the food :p

  14. Well, I know for sure many white fans of the animated series were disappointed by Avatar: the Last Airbender casting. I don’t know why only whites were cast as the good guys and Middle Eastern people as the bad guys… Nobody can tell me this was accidental. Fans of the original series were disappointed because the whole show was clearly a fantasy based on Asian and Inuit cultures.

    It’s not that it’s absolutely horrible to cast an actor of a different racial or ethnic background for the role… But the problem is that it “somehow” happens all the time. And 9 times out of 10, they will make a character into a white person so a white actor can be cast. It’s not a problem when it happens once or even twice… But it happens all the time.

    What also happens is that POC actors are sometimes given roles of white characters (again, 9 times out of 10, supporting characters) to make a token minority so the movie in question will appear “progressive”.

  15. Btw Alee, have you heard of Soul city? Since you been in african countries maybe you have, it’s big in many countries. It’s a quite big south african soapie. Quality is so so but entertaining. I haven’t watched it in quite some time though.

  16. Nkosazana,

    “Have you seen Tsotsi? It’s a movie most ‘Mericans have seen.”

    Nope!

    “But still you should watch yesterday! yes I’m going to bug you about it until you see it….”

    Lol. I haven’t seen it but I do remember you mentioning it and I made a mental reminder to watch it…then I forgot. Oops. 🙂

    I haven’t heard of Soul City, nope.

    “That guy is suppose to be white lol.”

    LOL. Who is he?

    foosrock,

    Untouchables…is that the American one?

  17. Mira,

    “And why, why did I type “quote” instead of “em”? It’s a mystery, but in my defense, I’m sleep deprived.”

    Fixed.

    To further explain: by culture, I’m not necessarily referring to character, personality, etc of a group but more of the setting and the way they go about things. Because you have to set a film somewhere, have them wear something, eat something, say something. And all those aspects are part of the culture.

    “This is a good question for Americans: can you name a film or a TV show that presents, in your opinion, a relatively realistic image of American culture.”

    There are films that I think provide an overview of a specific subculture of American culture. Because of course there are so many subcultures within American culture.

  18. Froggie, oh, blah blah flippin’ blah. 🙂

    “Mira, I don’t feel that I have as much of a problem with “white washing” a cast.”

    I don’t see why you would! Lol.

    “Film industry is a business, they cast whoever they feel will make them the most money…”

    Hmmm…

    “a racial disparity between character and actor isn’t always due to an attempt to “white wash” the cast to appeal more to white people.”

    And you don’t think that the film industry may believe that whitewashing their casts will make them more money?

    ‘Alee, you said “a lot of the world has become Americanized.” Ok this may be true, but I will say that America has, in some ways, become like the world.’

    America has always been a mix of ethnic groups. I guess it comes down to whether Americanization is stronger and quicker than globalization.

    I wonder how long it will take before your beloved Persian and Afghan foods become just like the “Chinese” and “Mexican” foods we have here? 🙂

    *kisses*

  19. foosrock,

    Untouchables…is that the American one?

    Wot?. Blasphemy, I say!!!. Mais non, the FRENCH “Intouchables!”.

    Some people………..

  20. foosrock,

    Lol, oh The Intouchables. I heard about it, but I decided it didn’t seem as interesting as some were making it out to be. If I happen on the DVD, I may give it a shot…What did you think of it?

  21. Well I know that’s Funke. Don’t know who the mulatto(?) fellow is. I know Nigerian movies uses mulatto ppl often when they want a white fellow.

    No watching the intouchables before yesterday! Just look at the reviews yesterday have gotten! Not the trailer though.

    You should watch Tsotsi as well. About this hijacker taking a car with a baby in it and it’s on youtube I’ve seen. Pretty rugged look in Jo’burg and Soweto township. Also have you seen district 9? It got Nigerians in it 😉

    You should send you man to get all these movies Alee. It’s what men are for fetching and carrying things.

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