The language dilemma: The issue of language when it comes to local filmmaking

- Gugulethu Khumalo

Filmmaking has never been so accessible or democratised, from new film festivals prioritising marginalised groups stories and voices to various grants and funding projects reaching all corners of the world, down to the supercomputers in our pockets that we call cell phones, that are now able to shoot and edit feature-length films and content, the sky is truly the limit, no?

Once you have that million-dollar idea and have also managed to secure that million dollar funding, how do you go about packaging that story? Do you write and package that story for a global audience in the unofficial language of the world, English or do you honour the authenticity of the story and use the native tongue of that setting? Either way, it has come to be a double-edged sword in the artistic process many might encounter.

While authenticity and homegrown pride may be factored in the filming process and though the film process is democratised now, more than ever, the shadow of a colonial legacy remains looming over us and a pressure to package it in language and aesthetic in a ways that are palatable to various international audiences accustomed to a certain dominant conventions. While some various avenues and platforms do honour and celebrate the multiplicity and diversity of ideas in their respective languages, it is still quite limited and a multiplicity of films, diverse in language, genre and content find themselves boxed into one aptly named category of ‘Foreign film’, a category expected to house and judge a multiplicity talent and language under a single umbrella.

One could argue that films such as Tsotsi and the acclaimed film Parasite are proof that the most important thing in a film and viewer experience is the idea and the story, but we need to keep in mind moments such as those are outliers in cinematic exceptions in the film industry, fuelled by several factors and global events pushing them to the world stage and capturing global attention the way they have. And even within the world of foreign indie film and television, there still seems to a mini hierarchy among the non- English languages, where french, german and Spanish films take the foreground, washing up all the acclaim and attention and leaving a very small space for the perceived smaller languages in the world such as Xhosa, Zulu and even Luganda. It begs the question, does the film festival space need to start on a clean slate once the world opens up?