It is a longstanding tradition that the day prior to the Academy Awards, the directors of the films nominated in the foreign-language category take to the stage of the Samuel Goldwyn Theater and talk about their work and the state of international cinema.

This year, the film-makers in question, Denmark's Susanne Bier (After The Wedding), Mexico's Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth), Germany's Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (The Lives Of Others) and Canada's Deepa Mehta (Water) - France's Rachid Bouchareb (Days Of Glory) was en route from the Cesars and unable to participate - genuinely appeared to respect one another on a personal and professional level.

Rather than a formal process of questions and answers, a free-flowing dialogue occurred among the quartet that was eclectic, organic and spontaneous.

And, somewhat ironically, it allowed for fierce disagreement on at least one issue. The subject of commercial success arose and it was quite obvious that three of the group were envious of Pan's Labyrinth's American box office.

Crossing borders

The quartet tried to grapple logically with what it is that allows a film to cross borders and connect across cultural and language barriers.

Del Toro referred to film as the cultural equivalent of Esperanto, and that analogy at least connected with the other nominees. Perhaps emboldened, von Donnersmarck suggested that wider acceptance might be attained by dubbing rather than subtitling.

The statement drew a collective shudder, not only from his fellow nominees but from the capacity crowd of 1,200 people.

The Mexican director asserted that "to alter (a film) in any way is a crime". His German brother-in-celluloid countered with the argument that asking an audience to read a translation distracts them from the image. "Yes," replied Bier, "but the (actor's) voice is unique and cannot be replicated."

Her words reminded me of a German friend's confession that he was disappointed when he heard Clint Eastwood for the first time in English. He had grown up with the actor's films dubbed by a huskier, basso performer and was taken aback by the wispier reality of Dirty Harry's voice.

Most US movies go out internationally dubbed into the appropriate language of many export nations. However, there is a double-standard that has evolved in many parts of the world in which purists insist that original language with subtitles is the only way to see a movie.

It is also a surefire way to ensure that it will not be seen by the majority of cinema-goers.

Lip service

On a basic level, one can appreciate the argument for subtitling. Anyone who has been subjected to one of the myriad instances of crude dubbing, in which lip movement is a vague approximation of dialogue, will understand why its detractors can be so fierce in their opposition.

But dubbing need not be grotesque: some years ago, a version of the 1977 Alain Resnais film Providence was shown in France. Great pains had been taken with the French dub of the English-language film, including voice-casting Gerard Depardieu, Jeanne Moreau and Maurice Ronet in the leads.

Both subtitles and dubbed versions had their own merit, but there is much to be said for the Paris initiative of playing an equal number of dubbed and subtitled versions so that both artistes and barbarians can sit in the dark and share in the experience.

- E-mail Len Klady at