Subtilting within reason

Dear Doc Doctor:
Should I provide subtitles for the subjects in my documentary who speak Spanglish, or other "hybrid" languages in America? I heard sub-titled films are harder to distribute.

Is it true?

The world of languages and dialects can become quite complex in the United States, where so many nationalities converge. And it is true that in mainstream America there has been an historical resistance to foreign (read: subtitled) films. As far as subtitling films with subjects who speak parts of a language we can understand and parts we cannot, the issue exceeds the practical and spills over to the socio-political.

For example, Mick Csáky, Chief Executive and Creative Director of the England-based production company Antelope, recalled during a co-production panel at the last Real Screen Summit: "Bob Marley: Rebel Music (Jeremy Marre, 2000) was subtitled for British television because Jamaican English is hard to comprehend for those that are not used to it. To my surprise, we had to remove the subtitles for the American version, not because Americans understand Jamaican English better than the British, but because apparently it would be politically incorrect to subtitle African Americans and African Caribbeans."

Though at first this anecdote seemed the eccentricity of an overly cautious producer, I then remembered that it wasn’t the first time I had come across such a situation. While subtitling is perhaps intended to make a film more inclusive, the subtext implies that the film that requires subtitling cannot be understood by the masses, and therefore does not belong.

As usual, I advocate the middle path for which Sandi Simcha Dubowski’s film Trembling before G-d (2001) is a good example. The subjects in the film integrate religious Hebrew words and Yiddish dialect into their everyday language. Quite elegantly, Dubowski starts subtitles in English just a few words before the foreign word appears, and continues for a few lines after. At times where no direct translation is possible, the subtitles read like a mini-dictionary entry. This smart approach made the documentary accessible to all audiences and has helped to build its success in the micro-cinema circuit and grassroots/outreach screenings.

I would encourage this not-quite-subtitles tactic for films that include cultural slang and regional dialects. As per the socio-political aspects of what constitutes a separate language, who belongs and doesn’t, and what should be officially bilingual… Big sigh! We will all have to move to Quebec and see how they manage.

Dear Doc Doctor:
I am African American, and I have several ideas for my first long format documentary film. But I feel pressured to represent the issues of my culture as a whole—both for moral reasons as well as funding and distribution opportunities. Can you help me with how to handle this situation?

Cultural identity is an important area to explore as an artist. And in my experience, most first time documentary filmmakers choose to explore issues that are closer to home. If you identify yourself as being part of a particular social or ethnic group, then that exploration might make you feel compelled to try to speak on behalf of the entire group. But at heart you can only ever speak for yourself.

Examples abound inside and outside communities of color, and range from the explicit personal documentary to the more detached fly-on-the-wall. In many cases, self-exploration is part of the path to establishing a career in nonfiction film.

Filmmaker Thomas Allen Harris started his career with Vintage: Families of Value (1995) a portrait of three African American families, and then went deeper with the very poetic and multi-award-winning That’s My Face (2001), a self-portrait of African American identity and spirituality. With his most recent film, The Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela, he continues his focus on the African Diaspora, while moving in a direction away from himself as a subject.

With her film Flag Wars (2003), Lynda Goode Bryant witnessed her hometown go through the process of gentrification. She is now making The Vote, a cinema verité look at America’s 2004 presidential campaigns and primaries, representing a sharp departure from her previous film, for which she received ample funding and support.

If we don’t care to have a closer look, it does feel at times that funding and distribution is ethnically earmarked, leaving "us to talk about us" and "them to talk about anything they want." While I don’t intend to undermine the socio-political issues in this country, it might be more useful at this point in your creative process to understand the subtle differences and undercurrents of the situation.

In short, some organizations fund content, others fund artists and others still, fund both. For example, The National Foundation for Jewish Culture "supports the creation of original documentary films and videos that promote thoughtful consideration of Jewish history, culture, identity, and contemporary issues among diverse public audiences." On the other hand, NALIP (National Association of Latino Independent Producers) has a "commitment to Latino/Latina media and filmmakers, regardless of the form or content of their work."

The path of the filmmaker might seem shaped by outside forces, but the real itinerary can only be decided by the inside force: you. #

Want to ask the Doc Doctor a question for a future issue of The Independent? Write to her at

About :

Internationally renowned author and story consultant Fernanda Rossi has doctored over 300 documentaries, scripts, and fundraising trailers including the 2009 Academy Award® nominated The Garden by Scott Hamilton Kennedy and the 2007 Academy Award® nominated Recycled Life by Leslie Iwerks. In addition to private consultations, lectures, and seminars worldwide, she has served as festival juror and grant panelist. Ms. Rossi shares her knowledge and research of story structure and the creative process in columns and articles in trade publications. She is also the author of the book Trailer Mechanics: A Guide to Making your Documentary Fundraising Trailer.