Sundance Film Festival is doing its best to make me give subtitled films a second chance.
I’m fully aware that there are some really good non-English language films out there, but they’re never my first choice. There’s something about needing to read during a film that makes it harder for me to get immersed in everything else that’s happening onscreen, and if I’m watching it at home I inevitably end up looking away often enough that I miss half the story. There are so many easier things for me to watch.
At Sundance, that meant that there were two entire categories of film I didn’t even look at – World Dramatic Competition, and World Documentary Competition. I didn’t even let myself read the summaries for the movies, wary of getting too tempted into something I didn’t want to make a commitment before. There were plenty of English language movies vying for my attention, after all.
But non-English language films have found their way to plenty of other categories. There are a sprinkling of non-English films in a variety of categories – U.S. Documentary has “City of Ghosts,” Documentary Premieres has “500 Years” and “Cries From Syria,” Next has “Menashe,” and Spotlight has “Frantz,” “Raw,” and “Sami Blood.” And that’s not including the movies that have a mix of English and another language, enough that it would double the length of the above list.
So I finally dipped my toe into the subtitled pool of Sundance offerings. I reviewed two films – “Axolotl Overkill,” which was German with just a smattering of English, and “Sami Blood,” which is in a few different dialects of Swedish. Though that was all I had time for this year, I regretted every year I hadn’t included a subtitled film on my list.
Because the truth is, I’ve been missing out.
Not that both movies were good. “Axolotl Overkill” suffers from many of the same failings of English-language “indie” movies, thinking that atmosphere and existential angst is an acceptable substitute for no plot. But the characters were better crafted than some of the ones I’ve seen in their English-language counterparts, and there was a distinct flavor to the movie that wasn’t quite American. It felt like seeing through a new pair of eyes, and even if I didn’t always enjoy what I was looking at the experience was still worthwhile. If nothing else, seeing English be subtitled into German was a nice reminder that English isn’t always the default.
“Sami Blood,” on the other hand, broke my heart into a thousand pieces. The story of a woman who left her people for a new life only to find that her old life never quite left her behind, it’s a quiet, wrenching story of culture and identity that could never have been properly told in English.
It’s both utterly unique to the Sami people of Sweden, and said things about cultural dislocation that can be understood by people all over the world. Watching it, I couldn’t help but think about all the similarly singular experiences I must have missed out on by avoiding subtitled movies all these years.
Well, no more. A good movie is always a good movie, no matter what language it’s in. Getting the chance to watch it is worth a little reading.