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01/07/2010 - 13:05

Catalan in cinemas, at long last?


In May, 1.9 million cinema-goers in Catalonia were greeted by a 22-second spot after the trailers, showing an empty cinema and a dramatic piece of news delivered by a voice off screen: «If the Cinema bill is adopted in its present form, you won't be able to see some of the films we've just presented».

This is just another chapter in the story of the efforts being made by Catalan cinema-owners' guild (Gremi d'Empresaris de Cinemes de Catalunya) to have the language clauses in the bill currently in the Parliament of Catalonia withdrawn.

On February 1st, 74 cinemas across Catalonia had held a one-day lockout, for the same reason. (More information in page For the future of cinemas, Catalan and jobs, yes; quotas and unemployment, no was the dramatic appeal.

The guild claimed that implementing the law would bring down the number of cinema-goers, in the worst scenario, by 80%: from 20 million to just 4 million a year.

What is it abut the bill, we may ask, that scares them so dramatically?

Readers might think that few films are dubbed into Catalan. This is not quite exact because a very large amount of dubbing and subtitling that goes on in television. There is a list of the 8303 films dubbed and subtitled by Catalan TV's Servei Català del Doblatge.

All the same, in cinemas the supply and consumption of films dubbed or subtitled in Catalan is very small indeed: as to statistics, is information about the period between 1998- 2001 and for 2006. The figure has never reached 4%!

Why is it, then, that there is so little Catalan in cinemas? The explanation is to be found in a recent report. Franco decreed, in 1941, that call foreign films had to be dubbed, imitating similar legislation by his Fascist colleague Benito Mussolini. This allowed strict censorship to be applied. Though it was repealed in 1947, the damage had been done: the local market was completely accustomed to this new format, and since then the industry has done little to change things of its own free will.

Official attempts in the 1980s and 1990s to encourage dubbing and subtitling in cinemas (consisting of full coverage of the costs, plus advertising) made very little headway: the industry, and particularly the Hollywood distributors, dragged its feet. In 1998 a toothless decree Decret 237/1998 de mesures de foment de l'oferta doblada i subtitulada en llengua catalana (which contained no penalties for non-compliance) by the Catalan government laid down a 25% quota for films subtitled or dubbed into Catalan (more information in and in Padrós). The decree was repealed several years later after an "agreement" with distributors -which was never honoured- to gradually increase the proportion of films shown in Catalan.

What is the fuss about right now? Let us take a quick look at the source of the current controversy.

The Cinema bill contains a language clause: clause 18. In essence, it states that «When a film is shown for the first time in Catalonia in dubbed or subtitled format and more than one copy, the distributing companies must distribute 50% of all analogical copies in Catalan (...) The distributing companies and cinema-owners have to guarantee a linguistic balance in the distribution and showing in cinemas, bearing in mind criteria of population, territory and screen presence (...) They also have to guarantee a balance between Catalan and Spanish in the advertising of the films affected by this clause». Films made in Europe (including made in Catalonia and Spain) are exempted from these conditions, when fewer than 16 copies are distributed in Catalonia.

The text to be put to the Plenary for adoption was published on May 17, 2010.

The justification for the clause -attached to which there will be a five-year transitional period for the full implementation of the clause- is stated in the preamble: «film shown in the Catalan language not effectively guarantee the right of the citizens of Catalonia to choose him in the language of the country».

Opposition to the clause comes from those who make passionate appeals against "imposing" languages, and in favour of "freedom" and unbridled market forces. None to my knowledge, however, has anything to say about the vast number of norms which even today make the use of Spanish compulsory. Over 500, in fact. It is to be hoped that once the Parliament has legislated, the guild will release other data which apparently show that their ominous forebodings are largely unfounded, and that the effects of the Act will turn out to be of benefit to all. Among other things, it can shatter the false relationship between the jet set, luxury homes, sexy film stars and the image of wealth and power visible in (many!) Hollywood films, and the language in which they reach the general public: Spanish. People simply burst out laughing when Paul Newman first spoke in the cinema in Catalan (The Verdict, 1982) and were amazed at how quickly JR had learned Catalan (in Dallas; Spanish TV dropped the series before the summer in 1983, and Catalan TV took it up in the autumn!).

It is also to be hoped that there will be a greater increase in the presence of subtitled films, as in virtually all the rest of Europe (apart from the largest countries).

Miquel Strubell
Professor of Languages and Cultures Studies of Open University of Catalonia