Beyond the Headlines

September 10th, 2012 by Michael White

Why the benefits of enjoying foreign works of culture transcend simple entertainment.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

In an international news industry that by necessity requires editors to focus on seismic events with beyond-the-border repercussions, educating audiences about the societies in which these events occur often proves a challenge overwhelming enough to be considered low-priority. To infuse international news stories with cultural context, foreign correspondents typically rely on the analysis of university professors and other regional experts – statistical surveys and journalistic synopses attempting to capture the most essential aspects of a society’s identity in a mere sentence or two of summary. Direct reactions from citizens on the street are commonly relegated to the final paragraph of a given news article, a quote from someone with a strong opinion from this perspective, often followed-up in future coverage with a quote from someone with a strong opinion from that perspective. And when it comes to efforts to provide historical context, we’re more than familiar with news anchors ending their segments with nuts-and-bolts announcements of the following nature: “Since the 1953 armistice, the two Koreas are still officially at war.” “Over the last fifty years the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland have claimed the lives of over 1,800 civilians and 1,100 security force members.”

For reasons largely related to budgets and word counts, it’s practically unavoidable for journalists to present highly simplified portraits of nations of individuals, neatly categorizing them to the point that readers and viewers never come to experience the true flavor of their lives. In the worst cases, audiences can even end up drawing wildly inaccurate conclusions about the societies being reported on, for example by assuming that the vast majority of Saudi Arabians are millionaires, or that the average Mexican family counts at least one cartel member among them.

Still, most of us lack the resources and motivation to fly from one country to country in an attempt to develop accurate impressions of the people and cultures we’re constantly reading about, especially when it comes to countries that regularly make front-page news for the types of dangers that warrant State Department travel advisories.

But luckily there are other methods of rounding out one’s perspective on foreign societies than overseas travel, and making regular excursions into foreign cinema and contemporary literature-in-translation certainly ranks among the most rewarding. After watching films by directors such as Russia’s Andrey Zvyagintsev or Greece’s Theodoros Angelopoulos, or reading novels by Perú’s Mario Vargas Llosa or South Africa’s Nadine Gordimer, one can’t help but win a much broader perspective on these societies by exploring the ins and outs of the interpersonal lives of their average citizens, characters dealing with everyday complications that often weigh just as heavily on their hearts and minds than the events commonly associated with them in the media. Even when native filmmakers and novelists focus on subjects commonly covered by foreign correspondents, it’s quite different to explore such subjects from the perspective of a local whose primarily goal isn’t to define their country so much as it is to win their audience’s interest in a story and a set of characters who merely exist in their country. For the avid consumer of such works, over time these stories stretch into each other, overlapping and interweaving in formation of a human tapestry much more indicative of a society’s true identity than even the most thoughtful news accounts aiming to present a comprehensive cultural perspective.

Of course there remain obstacles to convincing Americans to delve headfirst into foreign literature and film. For those of us whose typical reading material consists largely of page-turners from the bestsellers’ list, we might find that the foreign works most commonly found in translation are highly literary, not the sort of light reading one might gravitate toward at the end of a stressful day. And for whose taste in movies owes much to Hollywood’s fondness for big-budgets and megastar celebrities, growing accustomed to reading subtitles and watching films that don’t always easily fit a particular genre does require pushing beyond our typical comfort zones.

That said, there’s certainly no shortage of diversity in the styles and subjects of novels-in-translation, and those writers fortunate enough to see their works made available in English tend to be considered the best of the best. As far as movies go, in an age of digital filmmaking and an explosion in financial investment in the film industries of developing countries, these days traditionally non-film producing countries are putting out hundreds of movies each year, everything from suspense thrillers to gross-out comedies to character-driven narratives of the type commonly screened in American independent cinemas. Given the vast libraries and home delivery services of companies like Netflix, winning access to these movies is easier than ever, and being forced to read the dialogue still seems a small price to pay for the adventure of stepping out of one reality and into another, one that’s taken for granted in almost every non-English speaking country in the world.

We’ve all been taught that we shouldn’t judge others until we’ve walked a mile in their shoes. I agree with the spirit of this motto, though when it comes to attempting to understand societies that drastically differ from our own, I think a hundred miles should be considered the minimum for anyone hoping to win an authentic understanding. Especially when it comes to countries constantly described in the media as crime-ridden, unsophisticated or intolerant, not only is it fascinating and educationally appropriate to push beyond the headlines by seeking out literary and cinematic stories of everyday citizens to add to these accounts, in this writer’s opinion our future of peace and mutual prosperity depends on it. Getting to know people we see as wholly dissimilar to ourselves almost always increases our ability to relate to and sympathize with them by making obvious what most of us innately know and simply tend to forget, which is that most human struggles aren’t nearly as unique as our international borders might indicate. While our circumstances might drastically differ, the vast majority of us desire health and prosperity, security and respect, friendship and love. It’s just that the vast majority of us don’t usually make the front pages.

Recommended reading:

“White Tiger” by Aravind Adiga (India), “Death in the Andes” by Mario Vargas Llosa (Perú), “The Farming of Bones” by Edwidge Danticat (Haiti), “The Bridegroom and Other Stories” by Ha Jin (China), “Platform” by Michel Houellebecq (France), “To The End of the Land” by David Grossman (Israel), “The Angel of Galilea” by Laura Restrepo (Colombia), “Zigzag Through the Bitter Orange Trees” by Ersi Sotiropoulos (Greece)

Recommended viewing:

“Tulpan” (Kazakhstan), “Beijing Bicycle” (China), “Talk To Her” (Spain), “Ajami” (Israel and Palestine co-production), “Persepolis” (Iran), “The Child” (Belgium), “Duck Season” (Mexico), “Central Station” (Brazil), “The Return” (Russia), “The Silences of the Palace” (Tunisia), “Tokyo Sonata” (Japan)

Michael J. White’s work has appeared in Conjuctions, The New York Times Magazine and The Chicago Review. His first novel, “Weeping Underwater Looks A Lot Like Laughter” (Putnam), was nominated for the Barnes & Noble “Discovery Award” in 2010.