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My Fave Five Cross-Cultural Movies

I love good movies. I could watch Casablanca a hundred times.  I think maybe I have.  As I have written about before, stories are a huge part of worldview. Movies sometimes tell those stories very well if you are willing to watch for them. I like these five (there are more) not necessarily because they are hit movie classics, but because they can teach you something about living and learning cross-culturally. A couple of them you may have never heard of, but that’s ok, I like them anyway. I ended up choosing these five for their availability either from Netflix to rent or on Amazon as a purchase. I had to drop a couple out that are, I believe, equally as good.

You need to watch these as movies, but also as windows to other worldviews. These are all excellent portraits of other cultures and how cross-cultural issues impact our understanding of these cultures. They also need to be watched just to enjoy them, like taking a moment to enter into another world. We travel to do that, but film allows that privilege also.

Here are my fave five:

Cool Runnings (1993) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0106611/: This is a fantastically funny movie.  It is one of those “based in a true story” types that portrays how the Jamaican Bobsled team first entered the Winter Olympics.  Obviously it involves a huge culture clash.  There are two great quotes  “All I’m saying, mon, is if we walk Jamaican, talk Jamaican, and *is* Jamaican, then we sure as hell better bobsled Jamaican.”  Now when they try to adapt and use German to help get the rhythm of the start down, they actually try saying “Ein, Zwei, Drie,”  like the Germans and the Swiss.  They fail miserably.  The best cross-cultural line in the movie is “Feel the rhythm! Feel the rhyme! Get on up, its bobsled time! COOL RUNNINGS!”  That is phrase that takes them down the hill in what was a great start to the run.  When you travel somewhere else, be yourself, but also, feel their rhythm, feel your own.

Como Agua Para Chocolate (1992) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0103994/: Magical realism for some is a literary technique used by Latin American authors and others, to portray “common” life.  It is much more than a literary technique; it is life in most of Latin America.  The magic of everyday life is no better portrayed in film, than in in this movie.  What makes it even more exciting is that most of the magic is in the kitchen.  There is no more exotic magic than a Mexican kitchen.  The husband and wife team of Laura Esquivel (the authoress) and Alfonso Arau (Director) made this movie a wonderful classic of Mexican culture and more importantly the whole world of Latin American magic and life.

The Mission (1986) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0091530/: If you have to see just one of these movies, make it this one.  The Mission is beautifully shot, has an incredible score and tells a hard, difficult, cross-cultural story.  It details how the Portuguese attempt to “conquer” the land of an indigenous tribe.  It tells the story of a Jesuit priest who lives among the tribe in the jungle.  It deals with all of the possible cross-cultural occurrences: The indigenous people with the Jesuit, he with them, the Jesuit versus the Portuguese, the Portuguese against both of them.  If you understand the cross-cultural relevance of this film, you will begin to understand real cross-cultural living and why so much of Western culture gets it so wrong sometimes.

El Norte (1983) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0085482/: This movie deals with the difficult question of illegal immigration.  It details the story of two young Guatemalans who cross México in order to enter the United States. It is funny, poignant, heart-warming, and sad.  For those who know Spanish, the scene of the two young people riding with the Mexican trucker who is trying to help them “pass” through México is terribly funny. This movie helps you see the issue of immigration from their eyes and see our culture, including the “land of golden opportunity myth” from a wonderful perspective.

Amistad (1997) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0118607/: This is another true life story. It explores what happened when in 1839, a mutinied slave ship ended up in the United States. One of the turning points in the movie is when John Quincy Adams, played by Anthony Hopkins, tells the lawyer (Matthew McConaughey) defending the former slaves, “Well when I was an attorney, a long time ago, young man, I err… I realized after much trial and error, that in the courtroom, whoever tells the best story wins. In unlawyer-like fashion, I give you that scrap of wisdom free of charge.” I believe the point the movie makes is that whoever can listen to the best story is the one who wins. That is what happens in the movie; people including their lawyer for the first time, actually listen to the former slave’s stories of who they are, how they were taken, and why they mutinied. Listening and understanding the other’s worldview stories are how you understand their worldview. This movie describes how that is possible.

Ok, I said five, but since writing this I have to include another The Best Great Marigold Hotel (2011) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1412386. Perhaps it is because I identify so much with a group of retirees (being a future one) that I like this movie. There is more than that. Thousands of people are being convinced that their retirement will be better if they move or invest in another country. This movie plays out one of those possible scenarios. This one deserves a whole separate blog, which it may get, simply because the characters are well, expat characters you meet if you live in another country. So here, the question is, if you jump in, perhaps over your head, how do you stay afloat?

Here are a few questions to ask yourself as you watch these movies:

  • What does this movie say about another culture?
  • What does it say about my culture?
  • Who are the people in this story and more importantly what does their story say to me?
  • What characteristics of the other culture can I discern from this movie?  How can I learn if those perceptions are correct?
  • How does their world look differently after watching this movie?
  • How does my world look differently after watching this movie?
  • How can my interaction with another culture be different understanding these issues?

Well, those are my five (six) favorite movies.  You may have your own or want to comment on these.  Watch them with cross-cultural eyes and you will learn a great deal about living, communicating and understanding another person’s culture.

Runners-up for my fave five who might get a mention sometime later:

  • Hawaii
  • Banana Joe
  • The Air Up There
  • Un Día Sin Mexicanos
  • The Ghost and the Darkness

Please leave comments below or feel free to write me with comments at therebedragons@austin.rr.com. I am available for cross-cultural training or coaching, just write me at the address above.

–  Dr. Michael McAleer

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