Parents, teachers, volunteers: Get ‘Foreign Letters’

https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-0806_Film_Movement_Foreign_Letters_Ela_Thier.jpgClick the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

REVIEW by
ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm

Parents, teachers, community leaders and youth-group volunteers—listen up!
Here’s an inspiring film to enjoy with kids—and it’s a DVD you won’t spot on the shelves of your Target or Walmart store. Amazon sells Foreign Letters—but you’ll also want to learn about the Film Movement series, at the end of this review.

What’s more? You get two versions of the movie in the same DVD case. That’s because Israeli-American filmmaker Ela Thier first produced a 15-minute version of this story, called “A Summer Rain.” Her short film was so highly praised that Thier summoned the resources to produce a 99-minute feature film, “Foreign Letters.” This dual-version DVD presents all kinds of possibilities for viewing. By far, the feature film is the most fun and the most powerful, in the end, but the short film is delightful and underlines the same basic message about the wonders of cross-cultural friendship in a very brief viewing.

The movie plots revolve around two immigrant girls—one who arrives in the U.S. from Israel and one who comes from Vietnam. In the short film, they are 11. In the longer film, produced later, they are 12—which reflects the fact that the same girls play the roles in both movies. (Director Thier plays the Israeli girl’s mother and her performance signals how much she loves this movie.) The story is set in the 1980s, so that we have letter-writing pen pals, a manual typewriter and the plot doesn’t get mixed up in a tangle of cell phones and Facebook groups. Ela Thier wants to focus the story on the day-by-day way these two girls find each other and build an unlikely friendship. The 1980s setting slows everything down to just the right pace. Viewers also will be pleased to know that Thier doesn’t feel any need to draw on the stereotypes of Hollywood suspense. There is no violence here—except for some verbal bullying at school—and no one dies.

Another eye-opening sub-plot of the feature film involves experiencing English as a Second Language (ESL) classes through the eyes, ears and mouths of kids trying to conquer a new language. In years of reporting on cross-cultural issues, I can’t recall another film that shows us such scenes in ESL classes.

When this movie is funny, it’s funny because it’s soooo true. Many scenes are absolutely “spot on”—especially if you can remember being a kid or you are a parent now. For example, the two girls break through their initial shyness, then they declare themselves best friends forever. Then, they sit down one afternoon and write up a solemn all-time friendship pledge—which is precisely the moment when they have a huge argument and things go awry! Too true, hmmm? Makes you smile and nod your head just reading this simple description of the scene.

I won’t spoil the major plot points by revealing them in this review, but—as a film reviewer, I really do urge you to get this film—so I will tell you the concluding theme: Nothing can destroy a true friendship. When we see these two little girls in a dramatic urban setting in the film’s final scene—both proud and happy at last—your eyes are sure to glisten and you may even want to clap.

There is so much to discuss with kids in this film: Why do you think the pretty little blond girl and her creepy looking “friend” would say such a hurtful thing to the Israeli girl? Why did the Vietnamese girl refuse to let anyone but her Israeli friend ever step inside her family’s home? And what was the Vietnamese mother doing on the floor? Has one of your parents ever cooked anything like that mother was cooking? Was the Israeli girl’s mother also having a hard time adjusting to life in the U.S.? There are so many great scenes that the conversations with kids could roll for quite a while.

Plus, there’s so much to do with kids: During the film, we see the girls writing letters, drafting a plege sealing their friendship, jotting down their fondest hopes, drawing pictures and even designing their own logo for their friendship. We see them saving things in keepsake boxes. There’s an easy transition from watching the movie to asking kids to try one of the projects the kids undertake in the movie.

LEARN MORE ABOUT THE FILM MOVEMENT SERIES

Based in New York City, Film Movement is a popular distribution network for foreign and independent films, featuring a huge array of award-winning films. Click here to learn about Film Movement’s monthly DVD series for home viewing. Or, if you are a librarian or are interested in a group showing of Film Movement movies in your part of the country, click here to learn about Film Movements various options for “Non-theatrical Screenings.”

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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

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