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Foreign Choices

This describes a study group that some retirement learning institutes in the Boston area are offering in 2021. Group leader is J Adrian Zimmer.

One way to gain a better understanding of a foreign culture is to watch people making decisions in it. In "Foreign Choices" we will discuss decisions being made in six different foreign films. Chosen from mostly European cultures these films require their protagonists to make life changing decisions. Class discussions will emphasize those decisions in the context of their ambient cultures.

We can gain some understanding of the difference between the depicted cultures from the work of Dutch psychologist Geert Hofstede who has measured cultures on six different dimensions:

  1. Power Distance: A higher value means those lower in any hierarchy are less able to express their opinions freely.
  2. Individualism: A higher value means individual independence is more valued and close links with others are less influential.
  3. Uncertainty Avoidance: A higher value means people will dislike ambiguity and tend to ignore alternative points of view.
  4. Masculinity: A higher value means people of both genders tend more to assertiveness and to admiring material rewards and heroism. There is no expectation that both genders be equal in this tendency, only that both genders will behave more in a way that we tend to think of as masculine. A lower value means people tend more towards cooperation, modesty, and quality of life.
  5. Long-Term Orientation: A higher value means planning for the future is more important.
  6. Indulgence: A higher value means there is more tolerance for letting people do their own thing.

Each of these dimensions is rated very high or very low in at least one of the six depicted cultures.

Here are the six films:

  1. "Sin Nombre", Cary Fukunaga, 2009 in Spanish. Fukunaga grew up in California and has no Latin background. However he is fluent in Spanish and spent considerable time in Mexico researching this film including travelling with migrant caravans and meeting gang members in jail. His protagonists are a gang member Casper and a young Honduran teenage girl Sayra in need of help getting across Mexico to the U.S. Early in the film Casper must decide whether to risk the gang's wrath for Sayra's sake. Other decisions concerning loyalty occur in the film as well.
    Mexican culture is high on power distance, uncertainty avoidance, and indulgence. It is low on long-term orientation.
  2. "Ida", Pawel Pawlikowski, 2014 in Polish. Ida is an 18 year old Catholic novitiate who is sent out into the world to learn her family heritage before she takes her vows. She is introduced to the world of communist Poland by her aunt who is Jewish, noncomformist, and a judge. Of course by the time Ida must decide whether to take her vows she has learned of lifestyle choices unknown to her at the start of the film. The film is black and white and the cinematography quite artistic.
    Polish culture is high on uncertainty avoidance and low on indulgence.
  3. "The Guilty", Gustav Möller, 2018 in Danish. Asger is a Copenhagen policeman temporarily demoted to serving as the Danish equivalent of an 911 operator. While trying to help a woman Iben who is being abducted Asger decides to overstep both his 911 and his police roles. This film is unusual in that all the action happens over the phone. That does not detract from the suspense; the story could have been a radio drama. But the many views we get of Asger in his 911 office enhance our understanding of his personality.
    Danish culture is low on power distance, masculinity, and uncertainty avoidance.
  4. "The Lives of Others", Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006 in German. Georg and Christa-Maria are caught between East German censorship and a corrupt politician. Their apartment is secretly monitored by Stasi agent Gerd. Trying to live ordinary, decent lives in a corrupt system, all three have decisions to make but it is Gerd's evolving attitude towards his work that stands out for us.
    German culture is high on long-term orientation. Possibly East German culture was high on power distance but the Hofstede site has no entry for East Germany.
  5. "Sand Storm", Elite Zexer, 2016 in Arabic. Elite Zexer is an Israeli writer, director, and film professor. She spent five years interviewing in Bedouin villages to prepare for this film. Her Bedouin characters, Suliman, Jalila, and Layla, are father, mother, and daughter. Suliman's decisions are determined by his village's conservative culture. We don't notice that bias at first because he allows his marriage-age daughter to attend college. Things change when Layla falls in love with a classmate. It is Jalila and Layla's evolving decisions that make this movie interesting.
    Bedouin culture is high on power distance and low on individualism and long-term orientation. But note:

  6. "Summer Hours", Olivier Assayas, 2009 in French. This movie shows how previous decisions constrain future decisions. Frederic, Adrienne, and Jerome are three siblings who have chosen culturally and geographically separate lives. When their mother dies, it becomes clear they can no longer hold the extended family together and must find a way to sell off the artifacts of their mother's artistic and gentile lifestyle. Their own progeny, who have benefited on holidays from their grandmother's lifestyle, are oblivious to the decisions being made around them. A comfortable, drama-free film, "Summer Hours" manages to include a demonstration of how generations keep their sex lives from each other.
    French culture is high on uncertainty avoidance.

In class we will take a more nuanced view of the Hofstede ratings than indicated above. We will also rely on some anecdotal evidence from foreigners living within the target cultures.

This study group is preferentially formatted as 6 three-hour sessions involving both a showing of the film and some discussion. However, all six movies can currently be streamed online. So the study group can be formatted with 6 sessions in which it is assumed participants have found a way to watch the films on their own. If one film becomes unavailable online it would then be necessary to schedule an additional session in which the film is shown.

Five week versions of this study group are possible. In that case the film "Summer Hours" will be omitted.

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