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Films show prevalence of English

CANNES, France -- The woman hopes to slip illegally into Afghanistan from Iran to save her sister's life. She is helped along the way by a sympathetic doctor. The film is by one of the great Iranian directors. You are already imagining the subtitles at the bottom of the screen, but no: The woman has been living in Canada, speaks English, and narrates the journey into a tape recorder. And the doctor is a black American; they speak English together.

There was a time when English was limited to films from English-speaking countries, but no more. At this year's Cannes Film Festival, more than ever, English is the international language. "Accent is on English," says the headline in the Cannes edition of the Hollywood Reporter. It is one of six daily trade journals published here in English; another is in French, and one is bilingual.

The Reporter article notes a trend toward English-language co-productions even from non-English countries. In Germany last year, 23 percent of all movies were filmed in English. In France, 13 percent. The film I described above is the searing, heartbreaking "Kandahar," by Mohsen Makhmalbaf, a leader of the Iranian cinema which has taken world festivals and markets by storm. It's a French-Iranian co-production, but most of the dialogue is in English.

That isn't just a ploy to crack the American market, which is so provincial that foreign films of any description are avoided. It's a play for the world market, for audiences not only in England, Canada and Australia but in markets including Scandinavia, Germany, Holland, France, Hong Kong, India and South Africa, where English is spoken by most educated filmgoers.

Is something being lost in the translation? Is it reasonable that a film set in Iran and Afghanistan should be in English? Soon after seeing "Kandahar," I was debating this point with Gerson and Uma da Kunha, from Bombay. She is a producer, casting director and subtitler, he is a poet, actor and political activist. They said I was wrong to think of English as the possession of English-speaking countries.

"It is quite plausible that an Afghan, raised in Canada, would try to return home on a family mission, and that she would find an African-American along the way," Gerson de Cunha said. In the movie, the black American is presented as an idealist who originally went to Afghanistan to join in the war against the Russians; now he is disillusioned with both sides, especially with the fearsome fundamentalist Taliban regime, and tries merely to help people he comes into contact with.

English was once seen as a colonial language, Gerson told me, but has now escaped the possession of the former colonial powers and is making its own way around the world. "Without English," he said, "there would be no way for the intelligentsia in India to communicate with one another. It is the major reason India has been so successful in Internet technology."

We were speaking, of course, in English. I also unthinkingly used English yesterday in discussing films with Michel Simon, the leading French critic, and Anant Singh, the leading distributor from South Africa, and with every single retail, restaurant or hotel clerk I encountered. I can read French subtitles and newspapers, but have no confidence in speaking it.

"The people you are speaking to do not think that way," Uma told me, because they use English the same way you do. The da Cunhas told me of a meeting they had just come from, where the Germans and Italians had only English as a common language.

Then again, at a dinner for the Independent Film Channel, I found myself talking with Catherine Verret, vice chairwoman of Unifrance, the French film giant, and she switched into French. Funny, I thought: She doesn't realize she's no longer speaking English, which has been our common language for 25 years. "English?" I gently prompted her. "Mais non!" she said, and continued in French. The scary thing was, I could even understand what she was saying, which translated as: "It is time for you to speak French!" I couldn't agree with her more.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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