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Should films set in foreign countries have actors speaking in the native tongue?

Written by Film

Being a linguistics student, I was extremely fascinated by the fact that there is a film out there in a language only spoken by 20 people and could not resist further investigating it. SGaawaay K’uuna, translated as Edge of the Knife is a drama about a man (Adiits’ii) who causes the death of his best friend’s son and it drives him to insanity, the film is set in Haida Gwaii, British Columbia, Canada and in that region there are 20 people who fluently speak the indigenous language Haida. What that statistic demonstrates is that Haida is endangered and could easily become non-existent within the next few decades unless drastic measures are taken, and what is more drastic than a tale of a man losing his own mind? Essentially one of the big impacts of this film is that it will contribute to the preservation of the language, but I reckon it will only prolong its extinction. Mainly because being a language with only 20 native speakers and no other languages etymologically related to it, Haida will need a miracle just short of re-colonizing their territory from the Canadians to maintain its relevance. 

it is still refreshing to see films actively trying to respect the language and culture of its settings

Nonetheless, it is still refreshing to see films actively trying to respect the language and culture of its settings which is something that can easily be taken for granted as there are not many (UK/ US) films which do this. It is appreciated when a film puts in the effort to have the actors speak the language which makes sense in the context. For instance, in Inglorious Bastards – a movie set in Europe during WWII, there are scenes where the characters are speaking French and German as well as English and that is less convenient than having the film fully in English due to actors having to learn lines in languages they may not be familiar with. Additionally, some spectators prefer for the language to be in the one language they speak and not have to read subtitles. However, Tarantino still opts for incorporating all the languages in the film and I would argue this stylistic choice makes the film better; because the confrontation of languages adheres to the tone of war and opposition he may have wanted to evoke. Also linguistically speaking, it makes sense that German Nazis speak German and not English with a German accent and that a French dairy farmer speaks French.   

To loop back to my earlier point of respect, I profoundly believe filmmakers are showing their respects to natives of the land they choose to shoot on by using the native language as they are acknowledging the presence and significance of the natives by going that extra length.

Last modified: 8th May 2019

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