Yesterday, I attended the premiere of a beautiful film as part of the Glasgow Film Festival. I was drawn to this film due to my interest in languages and subtitling. The screening information described the film as ‘An inspiring, bittersweet documentary about language, communication and national identity with multi-coloured subtitles reflecting the different languages being spoken’.
Now, I was wondering how this would work since the blurb also noted that the film is set in Zambia where the official language is English, and there are seven national languages and 72 ethnic languages spoken. The attention paid to translation, subtitles and languages in this film may be, in part, due to the theme of languages being one of the reasons for the making of the film, but I was so impressed with Alastair Cole, the Director’s attitude towards these important processes. During the Q + A following the screening, he praised the work of the translators and interpreters he worked with in Zambia, and also Elena Zini’s innovative subtitling work. Although Alastair learned Nyanja prior to the project, he noted that he learned to speak a different kind of Nyanja to that which he encountered in the village, so although he was able to follow the events in the classroom, the help of interpreters and translators was invaluable.
There are 4 main languages spoken in the film, English, Soli, Nyanja and Bemba, and all of them are subtitled. That’s right, all of them. This was, in my opinion, an excellent choice – English is treated in the same manner as the other languages, they are treated as equals. The colours used aren’t the garish cyan and fluorescent pink usually encountered in multicoloured subtitles; they’re pastel colours, orange and blue and green. These colours are playful and reminiscent of childhood afternoons spent colouring in. In my opinion, they work wonderfully within the setting of the Zambian classroom full of quiet children learning English through repetition, song and dance.
The decision to treat the subtitles as an integral part of the film was a bold one, given the status of translation and subtitled films, but here’s the thing: without those excellent subtitles, the viewer would not have access to half of the linguistic issues faced by Annie, the school teacher who is trying to teach 6 year-olds English through another language they don’t really understand. On top of the moving insight into the lives of the children in the class and their families, the film is interspersed with beautiful images of the village and surrounding scenery through the seasons. For this reason, I would recommend it to you, whether you have a personal interest in language or not.