[lg policy] Spain: Trumpeting Catalan on the Big Screen

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Thu Mar 11 13:43:52 UTC 2010

March 10, 2010
Trumpeting Catalan on the Big Screen

BARCELONA, Spain — Here in the principal city of Catalonia, the native
language, Catalan, is heard just about everywhere except in the
movies. But that may be about to change because the local government
is expected to pass a bill requiring that at least half the copies of
every film from outside Europe, including all major American
productions, be dubbed in Catalan. That prompted 576 of the 790 movie
houses in Catalonia, a region slightly bigger than Maryland, to close
for a day last month in protest. Industry leaders recalled that
Catalonia’s government, which enjoys a broad measure of autonomy from
Madrid, made a similar proposal in 1998 but backed down in the face of
opposition from theater owners, film distributors and foreign
production companies. “They say it’s necessary for the government to
make a rule, because the private sector doesn’t do it,” said Camilo
Tarrazón Rodón, president of the Association of Film Businesses in
Catalonia, which opposes the bill.

Film attendance has declined in recent years, he said, with the
exception of an uptick last year thanks to the arrival of digital and
3-D. “Banks are not lending, companies have business problems and kids
look at films on cellphones,” Mr. Tarrazón said. “How can we pay for
it?”  With an influx of immigrants to prosperous Catalonia — about one
million of the 7.3 million population are newcomers — the region has
been struggling to maintain what it considers its Catalonian soul. The
bill is but the latest attempt to assert Catalan culture and its
language — similar to Spanish, but also to French and Italian — yet
with its own history, poets and prose writers. By law, schoolchildren
are required to receive their education in Catalan. In a further blow
to Spanish culture, a referendum before the Catalan Parliament would
end bullfighting, another Spanish passion, here altogether.

The draft film law comes at a time of deep uncertainty for the central
government in Madrid, which is struggling with a severe economic
crisis and high unemployment. But it also highlights Barcelona’s
curious role in Spanish culture, even as it seeks to assert its
distinctness. Oddly, Barcelona is the capital of Spain’s publishing
industry, and roughly three-fourths of all books purchased in the
region are in Spanish, said Joan Manuel Tresserras, 55, a former
communications professor who is now the Catalan culture minister. Half
of all radio programs are heard in Catalan and a majority of plays in
the city’s theaters, with the exception of musicals, are in Catalan.

“We think we need a more diverse cinematic culture, a wider range of
opportunities,” he said, seated under two big canvases by the
20th-century Catalan painter Miquel Barceló. Under Franco, the use of
Catalan was discouraged, Mr. Tresserras said. That eased after
Franco’s death in 1975, but even two years later, Mr. Tresserras, then
serving in the army, said he spent three days in solitary confinement
after officers overheard him speaking Catalan. Mr. Tresserras says
moviegoers do not go to films in Catalan because so few are shown —
about 3 percent of all movies — that they are not aware they might
have that alternative. But theater owners and distributors say there
are few films in Catalan because moviegoers do not want them.

The magazine Cineytele said that in tests at a multiplex in Barcelona,
only 12 of 131 moviegoers chose Catalan when offered the choice of
seeing the same foreign film in that or Spanish. Not everyone is
convinced. “Most theater is in Catalan, and there are no complaints,”
said Rosanna Rion, 46, who grew up speaking Catalan and teaches
English at Barcelona University. “These tests — I’m not so sure about
them.” What major film producers, including American majors, have told
the government here is that they fear, in addition to the additional
cost, a possible knock-on effect. “They fear that Galicia or the
Basque countries, or even the Bretons or Corsica, in France, could be
next,” said Joan Antoni Gonzáles, 61, who is secretary general of
Catalonia’s Federation of Audiovisual Producers, which last year broke
away from Spain’s national organization. The draft law would not
affect films that were shot in Spanish, or European films unless more
than 15 copies are circulated, so the brunt will clearly be felt by
American productions.

Mr. Gonzáles says he believes that Parliament will “make the law
sweeter for the majors,” possibly by having the government pay for the
dubbing — a task made easier by the introduction of digitalized films.
Last year, box office revenue at Catalonia’s film theaters rose by
almost 10 percent, thanks mainly to the introduction of digital and
3-D blockbusters like “Avatar,” he said. He cited a recent film,
“Elegy,” by the Catalan director Isabel Coixet, an adaptation of a
Philip Roth novel in which a college teacher becomes obsessed with a
student, played by Penélope Cruz. “Elegy,” he said, was shown in seven
theaters in the original English with Catalan subtitles, and was a
total success.

Some visitors to Barcelona feel the city is sufficiently cosmopolitan
to absorb any languages. “Most of my courses are in Spanish, though my
American literature courses are in English,” said Luigi Suardi, 23, an
Italian exchange student at Barcelona University. He said his friends
spoke a mix of Spanish and Catalan. “People living in Barcelona don’t
have strong feelings” about language, he said, adding, “It’s difficult
for small countries.” Enric Juste, 33, a documentary filmmaker, said
that above all, Catalonia lacked original films with subtitles. “There
is no tradition here of using subtitles,” he said. “People are not
used to such films.”  He favors the draft law, dismissing critics who
say films in Catalan do not draw viewers. “But there are so few films
in Catalan, you’re talking about a situation that, at the moment, is
fiction; you cannot talk about a situation that doesn’t exist.”


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com


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