Over the last month, the Hispanic Studies Department hosted weekly film screenings of Spanish movies with the aim of deepening students’ familiarity with the culture of Spain and enhancing their language comprehension. With a different title shown every Friday of Nov. at 7:30 p.m. in the Foreign Language Resource Center Screening Auditorium in Chicago Hall, the Film Festival offers an out-of-class opportunity for language learning that goes beyond textbooks and worksheets.
Spanish Language Fellow Rebeca García organized the Festival with the goal of sharing with Vassar some of the art and popular cinema of her homeland of Spain. García said, “[The Festival] is a good way to show this place my culture, my country, my traditions and in a funny and dynamic way.”
According to Associate Professor and Chair of the Hispanic Studies Department Mihai Grünfeld, watching films can supplement the study of Spanish language. “An image is worth a thousand words,” said Grünfeld, adding, “It’s very easy to speak about a culture through a film.” For as long as Grünfeld can remember within his 27 years of teaching at Vassar there has always been one type of film series or another in academia.
Hispanic Studies, he went on, analyzes the art, traditions and histories of the Spain and Latin America. With classes examining novels, poetry and other forms of media, be they visual or textual, Grünfeld said, “[In] a department like ours the intent is to teach cultural studies, and movies are just a small part of that.”
Associate Professor of Hispanic Studies and Director of Latin American and Latina/o Studies Eva Woods believes that a region’s language and culture are inextricably linked. “Language is culture and culture is language. You are automatically studying language when you study culture,” explained Woods. In the case of cinema in Spain, she explained, this statement holds especially true.
Film occupies an important place in the society Woods claimed, saying, “Spain has always been a very cinephile culture. In the 1940s, for example, Spain was in post-war economic crisis after their [Civil War] and Spain, being one of the poorest countries in Europe, nevertheless had more cinemas per capita than any other country in Europe at the time.”
In personally selecting each of the Festival’s four films, García said she tried to impart a panorama Spanish culture and history. The Festival’s opener on Nov. 1 was La Lengua de las Mariposas (1999). García said the subject of the historical drama, which tells the story of a schoolboy in the region of Galicia during the Spanish Civil War, is still relevant to the present. She claims understanding contemporary Spain begins with understanding the conflict that tore the country in two.
If the first film dwelt on the darkest chapter of Spain’s recent history, the second, Volver (2006) flung students to present day Spain. The film is lighter in tone said García, and is directed by Pedro Almodóvar, the most famous living Spanish director.
The following week García showed Blancanieves (2012). Set in the 1920’s, the film is a silent black-and-white re-imagining of the Snow White fairytale. The movie showcases the region of Andalucía, which is an area of southern Spain and “corida de toros,” bullfighting. Both, according García, are intimately tied to Spain’s cultural identity.
Friday Nov. 22, in what will be the final film of the festival, García picked a personal favorite of hers. Primos (2011) centers on three cousins who return to the village where they spent their childhood summers. García said the film captures faithfully parts of her experience growing up. “I want to show Spanish culture: my normal day in Spain, how we speak and how we interact,” García stated.
Along with offering audience members a glimpse to a variety of cultures, films such as the ones featured in the Festival give students a chance to hear Spanish being spoken by native speakers in everyday situations.
Unlike conversations held in class, said Grünfeld, dialogue in films is fast and fluid. “The movie language is alive as it would be if you and I [were] speaking. You hear the language at work,” said Grünfeld.
When Emma Kading ’14 was spending a semester abroad last year in Buenos Aires she said she enjoyed going out to see Argentinean films at a little movie theater she discovered where a ticket would cost only a few pesos. When she got hooked on an Argentine television series she also began picking up popular slang that she never learned in the classroom. “There are still phrases that I use know that I totally stole from the TV show,” said Kading
In the months prior to her arrival to Vassar, García admitted to how she watched movies and television in English. “It was one of the ways of preparing my travel to the United States,” she said.
Visual media alone, though, Kading cautioned, is not enough to learn a language. She said, “I do think it is more valuable to read in Spanish because you have to actually sit and comprehend what you are reading and you pick up vocabulary more easily.”
The times Kading has found watching films to be a useful part of learning are when it creates real life context for course topics.
In one such case, watching a Columbian movie about children scratching out a living in urban slums gave her a new perspective on a Spanish Picaresque novel from the 16-century that she had read in class.
She said, “It’s being able to see where what you’re learning fits into the world, even if it is a completely fictional story.”