STORIES

Collage from photos by Charisma Lee

Stories

Film Sightseeing: Cinema Without Subtitles

When you need a break from sightseeing, a trip to the movies might reveal more about a new culture.

“How did you find out about this?” the woman next to me asked, not unkindly. She must have taken notice of my foreign features, as she and her husband walked past to find their seats in the movie theater.

I turned. Tried to smile in the dim light. Explained that I was visiting for the next few days and had already taken in Istanbul’s requisite sites. I was also interested in the film sights. The ads were all over town. Since I’m not interested in the bar or clubbing scene and didn’t know anyone in town, I figured that I’d take a trip to the movies to try to catch some of the local film festival offerings that were happening at the time.

Fliers for local film festival in Paris, France.
photo by Charisma Lee

I pointed to the director’s name on the program. “I’ve seen only one other movie by him though,” I confessed.

“Oh,” the woman chuckled. “You mean Nuri Bilge Ceylan,” she corrected. Instead of a mellow s or more assertive k, the Turkish c was more of a silky zh sound, like how the first two letters blend in “judge.”

Since I’m not interested in the bar or clubbing scene and didn’t know anyone in town, I figured that I’d take a trip to the movies to try to catch some of the local film festival offerings.

This was a rare instance of chatting. Maybe the nature of the festival itself encourages this camaraderie. You compare filmographies, soundtracks, venues, and other festivals. You recommend additional screenings. And once in a while, you spot an obvious nonlocal—a tourist, perhaps—and wonder why they would spend their time in your beautiful, engaging city sitting in a dark room staring at a screen. Alone.

Multiplexes, movie palaces, historic theaters, cinematheques, small screening rooms, outdoors—at home or abroad, I go to the cinema on my own often enough that I usually think nothing of it. But when traveling, I tend to plan in advance. I scan local listings in alternative newspapers and read blogs. At times I visit the venues’ websites. Or I might randomly pass by a theater and have a look at what’s on. Information in hand, I can later casually stroll up to the ticket seller with the title and time. With confidence. It has to be so plotted, especially when I am still wobbly with the language, or cannot speak it at all. Negotiation through gesticulation.

Jackie Chan cinema in Beijing, China.
photo by Charisma Lee

Sometimes I have a discount: as a student, or a teacher, or because it’s Monday or Wednesday. Sometimes it’s free: I’m a member of a film club, or it’s a preview, or it’s a community gathering. Whatever the reason, no amount of stigma of seeing a movie alone will block me from my celluloid comforts. Ducking into a screening room does help to dial down the anxiety I often experience as a very visible woman-of-color traveler. I’m protected from inquisitive glances and would-be questions, and, as the credits roll, I give myself a break from my own hyperawareness of being other(ed). I give myself my space to just be.

While traveling, there’s pressure to pursue “adventures,” experiences that differ from our daily grind. Since the traveler is away from home, locals don’t expect visitors to benefit from familiar securities. Most travelers plunge ahead with little trepidation. But from the perspective of this traveler, doing so remains tinged with imperialist logic. However mindful travelers are in their consumption of countries, cultures, and customs, the competitiveness borne of the never-ending hunt for the extraordinary arms travelers with unnecessary arrogance. Worse, this makes it all too easy to discount the potential of the everyday. I’d like to believe that traveling offers rewards in its more placid (as well as its titillating) state; moviegoing just might qualify as this.

While traveling, there’s pressure to pursue “adventures,” experiences that differ from our daily grind. Since the traveler is away from home, locals don’t expect visitors to benefit from familiar securities.

At the movies, the traveler might run the risk of not understanding etiquette. In Amsterdam, I found out how strict assigned seating rules were, even though there were only five of us in the theater. In a sold-out screening in Manila, I discovered the opposite and huddled with my cousin on the steps of the theater. In a residential Montreal neighborhood, my listening skills were tested as the full force of spoken Québécois battled with my Parisian-influenced understanding of French. And in Dresden, I mistakenly bought a ticket for a screening of Sex and the City 2 dubbed in German. Since then, the word schwanger always conjures a pregnant Charlotte.

A local cinema in Kuopio, Finland.
photo by Charisma Lee

Abroad or at home, I have enough appreciation of the cinematic medium to believe that it can and does serve to highlight our common humanity. As a 20-something ambling about in La Rochelle, France, I remember buying a ticket to an afternoon screening of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage. The film, originally made as a TV miniseries, examines the journey of a bourgeois couple played by Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson. Its nearly three-hour running time didn’t deter me; I had nothing else to do and knew no one in the town. At the time I also knew nothing about Ingmar Bergman or long-term relationships. I had been drawn to the movie by a still I came across in a magazine. The couple is in bed. An open book lies on Josephson’s lap; he’s turned to Ullmann, in the middle of making a point. The shot evokes a history of building emotional intimacy through many conversations, both deep and mundane. Audience members don’t need to know Swedish to empathize with the exasperation on Ullman’s face, or the confusion on Josephson’s.

I like the feeling of being able to watch a movie anywhere in the world, in whatever language and whatever context—with or without subtitles.

Cinema encourages us to simultaneously look into a mirror and to look beyond it. Especially while traveling, I watch movies to savor the sharing of both differences and similarities. In other words, I am at home. I like the feeling of being able to watch a movie anywhere in the world, in whatever language and whatever context—with or without subtitles. And that you can do so with your friends, with your kids, with your partner, with your date—or with complete strangers. During a rainstorm in Rome, and during summer in Mexico City. At a student showcase in Quebec, and in a Beijing shopping mall. In the dark and in the light, in the morning and at night, the reel unwinds, and you know you never are truly alone.

Leave a Reply