Why Christians Should Care About Foreign Films

This week marks the start of the 64th edition of the Cannes Film Festival, arguably the world’s most famous film festival. As always, many of the world’s best filmmakers will be bringing their films to southern France to be watched and judged by critics, fellow directors, and festival judges, not to mention a multitude of cinephiles. This year’s line-up is yet another strong one, and features titles from the likes of Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life), Pedro Almodóvar (The Skin I Live In), Lars Von Trier (Melancholia), and Woody Allen (Midnight In Paris).

As a film-lover, I’m excited about the upcoming festival and will assuredly be following the emerging reports and reviews much like my sports-loving friends would follow March Madness™ or the NFL draft. I have my favorites to win prestigious awards like the Palme d’Or, I’m curious about which films will come from nowhere to surprise everyone, and I wonder which highly anticipated films will turn out to be disappointments.

And frankly, I wish more people cared about it, too. Not out of some elitist desire to get more people to like my “cool” interest, but rather because I’ve found watching films from around the world to be so rewarding and enriching — and I want others to experience that as well. Unfortunately, talking about foreign films seems to be a surefire way to kill conversations. I’ve met many people for whom the term “foreign film” equates to weird movies with weird storylines that require you to read in order to know what’s going on. And mentioning names like Kiarostami, Ratanaruang, and Yimou will likely elicit blank stares more than anything else.

I’ve found this to be true, regardless of religious beliefs. However, at this point, I want to specifically address my fellow Christians. While I firmly believe that everyone would benefit from a little extra international cinema in their moviegoing diet, I believe this is doubly true for Christians. Or to put it another way, I think Christians have an extra reason, and perhaps even responsibility, for watching foreign films.

Christians believe that all human beings are created in the image of God, and as such, all human lives possess certain inherent traits such as value and dignity. This is at the core of our theology. And if human lives possess value, then I don’t believe that it is too much of a stretch to say that the works of their hands and minds possess value as well, however marred it might be by humanity’s shared sinfulness. Furthermore, since God is an infinitely creative being, all humans — having been created in His image — share in that creativity, and are therefore capable of creative acts that reflect and echo their Creator’s ultimate, undiminished creativity.

I don’t believe these are controversial statements within Christendom, and film can be a powerful reminder of their truth. Films can remind us of the inherent dignity of humanity by providing us with perspectives from around the globe — by allowing us to enter, in film’s inimitable manner, the lives and cultures of people from literally halfway around the world. I am not, of course, trying to denigrate American films as something that inherently less than non-American films. I do not believe, for a moment, that a film is superior simply because it has subtitles — to do so would be elitist. But foreign films offer me something that no American film can: a chance to experience a culture outside my own that I may never have a chance to experience otherwise.

This experience could take the form of education, of learning about a social/political/cultural issue that I may not have learned about otherwise. It could take the form of a story, fable, or myth that is deeply important to another culture, and that may serve as a key to understanding it. Or it could be an opportunity to simply see how another culture tells stories: how their cultural values, ideals, and worldviews have shaped their storytelling.

Just as food from other cultures can enrich and deepen our palate by exposing us to new ingredients and recipes, films from other cultures can enrich and deepen our understanding and compassion by granting us glimpses of reality from the perspectives of individuals in cultures far removed from ours. Or, to put it another way, film helps us actually see the Imago Dei — the image of God — in immersive and affecting ways.

There’s an intriguing passage near the end of the twenty-first chapter of the Book of Revelation that I some times think about when I think of other cultures. Earlier in the chapter, we read a dazzling description of the celestial city, with its pearly gates and streets of gold. Then immediately following that passage, in verses 22-26, we read the following:

And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day — and there will be no night there. They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.

Revelation can be a tricky book to interpret, but that being said, I find this passage fascinating because it seems to imply that there’s some aspect of heaven’s beauty that is enhanced by “the glory and the honor of the nations”. In other words, the glories — the great accomplishments — of the world’s many cultures will be welcomed into heaven and paraded through its streets. And this may just be the cinephile in me talking, but I’d like to think that includes cinematic accomplishments — i.e., the beauty and truth that those cultures have captured on film for all the ages — as much as anything. And while I ask this somewhat cheekily, I also ask it honestly and earnestly: if foreign films are going to be welcomed into Paradise for all of eternity, then how can I not give them similar treatment here on Earth?

Next week, I’ll be posting a list of 10 foreign films that I recommend for Christians interested in exploring and experiencing world cinema.

About Jason Morehead

Jason Morehead lives in the lovely state of Nebraska with his wife, three children, zero pets, and a large collection of CDs, DVDs, books, and video games. He's a fan of Arcade Fire and Arvo Pärt, Jackie Chan and Andrei Tarkovsky, "Doctor Who" and "Community," and C.S. Lewis and Haruki Murakami. He's also a web development geek, which pays the bills — and buys new music and movies. Twitter: @jasonopus. Web: http://opus.fm.

  • http://alienman.blogspot.com/ Brad Williams

    I’m sure that there are foreign films that are good. But how does watching a foreign film share a difference in a trait that we all have in common? In other words, if the image of God is the same in an American as it is in a Spaniard, what exactly is he going to showcase that I haven’t already seen?

  • http://opus.fm/ Jason Morehead

    @Brad: You asked some very good questions, questions I think I addressed in the article when I wrote:

    …foreign films offer me something that no American film can: a chance to experience a culture outside my own that I may never have a chance to experience otherwise.

    This experience could take the form of education, of learning about a social/political/cultural issue that I may not have learned about otherwise. It could take the form of a story, fable, or myth that is deeply important to another culture, and that may serve as a key to understanding it. Or it could be an opportunity to simply see how another culture tells stories: how their cultural values, ideals, and worldviews have shaped their storytelling.

    But perhaps a more concrete example might help. Next week, I’ll be sharing a list of foreign films that I think would be of great interest to Christians. I don’t want to spoil too much — and I hope you read that article as well — but one of the films on the list is an Iranian film about the plight of women in that country. It’s a sobering, saddening film that is hard to watch, but it:

    1) Provides a perspective about an important issue that I might not have learned about otherwise;
    2) Forces me to remember that there are real human beings, crafted in God’s image, who suffer grave insults to their dignity and value; and
    3) Was filmed in a remarkable, courageous way that also provides me important information about both the positive and negative aspects about the culture in question.

    I think these things are important for me as someone who likes films. But I think that, as a Christian who likes films, they take on an especial importance when I take the image of God, and all that entails, into consideration.

    Does that help at all?

  • http://goodokbad.com Seth T. Hahne

    I like taking in foreign creative expressions because they often traffic from a perspective I would not otherwise have access too. Many of my favourite books, movies, and comics hail from non-English-speaking countries. And I’ve learned TONS from the experiences gathered there.

    Still, I’ve done the same from some great English-language product as well. Big Machine let me peek into a very particular black American experience. The Unconsoled offered a twisting search for life and meaning and purpose. Snow Falling on Cedars spoke to WWII in a way that was unique and human. A Thousand Clowns took on the uselessness of a capitalist society in a way that I hadn’t seen before. Blankets approached a theory of the sacred that I was unable to apprehend through other means.

    So I think that if one looks for it, one can find all the kinds of things one can find in foreign cinema in English-language cinema, from compelling perspectives on lives and people to challenging cinematic direction that exercises the mind. That said, I can’t think of a single reasonable argument why someone who actually likes movies wouldn’t watch foreign films. Especially those who like to watch movies that are more than mere entertainment.

    Seriously, not watching foreign films is like saying you like books but won’t read anything by authors whose last names start with S–Z.

  • http://alienman.blogspot.com/ Brad Williams

    @Jason – I agree that watching foreign films would be a great way to understand the culture of another country, or at least part of it. If that is true, I wonder what our movies say about the USA? The part that I was not quite connecting with is how you connect cultural studies to the study of the image of God. What do you think the image of God is? If it is like blue eyes, then we’ve already seen it.

    I wasn’t trying to denigrate the watching of foreign films at all. I think it could be quite educational about people and culture. I am not convinced, however, that it will reveal more of the image of God in man. I think the only way to discover that is through Scripturally informed set of glasses.

    What movies would you recommend that might help me understand what you are saying? I don’t have any knowledge of foreign films. I’ve probably seen two movies in the past six months, I don’t watch the Academy Awards, and so I really wouldn’t even nknow where to begin.

    @Seth – Your vast reading has corrupted your good English. I see that you have spelled favorite with a “u”, indicating that your assimilation is complete.

    I wasn’t trying to say that I would never watch a foreign film. I am skeptical as to whether they are more capable of revealing the image of God than American films or by being observant at the mall. I don’t watch many movies. Perhaps it is precisely because I have been skipping the foreign flicks. They just do not interest me that much. The last good movie I saw that really was worth the ticket was The Kite Runner. Was that a foreign film?

  • http://opus.fm/ Jason Morehead

    @Brad: One thing that I didn’t address in my article is the danger of judging a culture based solely on one aspect, e.g., their films. I shudder to think at what people think of America based solely on what comes out of Hollywood, just as I’m sure people in Japan shudder to think at what people might think of their country based solely on, say, anime. That can lead to a highly romanticized view of a culture or to an unfairly damning view, and both are skewed and wrong.

    Regarding what I think the image of God is, I think that one of its key aspects is that, as I wrote above, every single human being possesses inherent worth, dignity, and value. Films, which do not possess the image of God in and of themselves, can nevertheless serve as powerful, even humbling reminders of that essential truth.

    You’re right, that a “Scripturally informed set of glasses” is absolutely key to perceiving the image of God. But obviously, we need to look at something with those glasses, and I think that it might as well be foreign films.

    As for foreign film recommendations, you’ll just need to check out the second part of my article next week. But I believe that The Kite Runner was technically an American production, even though it did feature a foreign language.

  • http://alienman.blogspot.com/ Brad Williams

    I look forward to the recommendations. I now have Netflix, mainly for my wife. But since I have it, I’ve looked at what is availible and have had real trouble trying to figure out what to watch.

    The last things I watched, btw, were not movies but television series. I watched, and practically ran to the mailbox for the new Battlestar Galactica series. I also watched Firefly and mourned that it had so few episodes.

    Do they make foreign film sci-fi?! Now that would be awesome!

  • http://opus.fm/ Jason Morehead

    Yes, they do make foreign sci-fi. For example, there are a number of fantastic sci-fi anime features and series, e.g., the “Ghost in the Shell” franchise (which is one of my favorite sci-fi/cyberpunk titles).

  • http://alienman.blogspot.com/ Brad Williams

    @Jason

    I think we have to be careful not to mix the evidence of the image of God with the actual image of God. It’s like mistaking good works for the gospel. The gospel leads to good works, but the gospel isn’t good works. The image of God leads to creativity, logic, beauty, etc., but these aren’t the image itself.

    Whatever the image of God is, it has to be more than inherent worth and value. All things have that. Would the image of God be that humans simply have that to a greater degree?

    Really though, the image of God question is separate from the value of foreign film though. I agree that I could learn much by watching them.

  • http://opus.fm/ Jason Morehead

    @Brad: At this point, I feel like we’re kind of saying two sides of the same coin. I basically agree with everything you said above. Of course, creativity, logic, beauty, etc. don’t contain the image of God in and of themselves any more than films do but they can serve as powerful reminders of it, and avenues for glimpsing and perceiving it.

  • https://facebook.com/kerosinevents EM 2012 Trier

    I was going to write BYE BYE but the other comments were so much better than mine. She has turned her life around and YAY for her! I hope she gets more work. I have to check out MelancholiaReport this comment as spam or abuse


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