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Seeing a movie in Brussels: a maze of dubbing and subtitles

17:38 15/01/2014

Movies are a form of escapism for many movie-goers, and for expats living in Belgium, seeing actors from back home is of real importance. That is why sitting through a French-dubbed version of George Clooney or Keira Knightley in a Brussels cinema can be teeth-grinding. However, the situation is not as grim as these dubbed versions may sound.

Brussels independent cinemas nearly always offer films in their original language with subtitles in French or Dutch or both. The big chains (UGC, Kinepolis) offer both the original version (marked “VO” or “Version Originale”) and a dubbed French version (“VF” or “Version Française”) throughout the day in their programming.

One acronym to look out for when checking movie times is “VOST”, followed by “FR”, “NL” or “BIL”. This signifies that the film is in its original language format (VO) with subtitles (ST) in French, Dutch or both (BIL).

So, while it is probably easy for adults to find a film’s original version in most Brussels cinemas, the same cannot be said for children’s films. All children’s films showing in Brussels are dubbed in French or Dutch.

The French cultural exception strikes again

When asked to explain the lack of children’s films in other languages – particularly English, given the large expat community – Brussels cinemas point their fingers at the local film distributors. “The cinemas can only project the films they receive from their distributors,” explains a UGC employee.

As for the distributors, press attaché Isabelle Couvreur of Kinepolis Film Distribution explains that “Belgium receives most of its international film releases from various French distributors.”

These French-distributed films come to us thus dubbed according to its ‘cultural exception’ rule, which handles cultural products differently from other products to promote its culture in the face of global hegemony.

A decade-long debate, there are many decent arguments for and against the French cultural exception, particularly as we enter into the digital era. Still, the strongest argument that keeps the French-dubbing industry alive is simply commercial.

“Dubbing is the way to go if we want maximum viewing numbers for our programmes,” Christel Salgues, head of dubbing at TF1 explained in a interview. “A 2007 study showed that airing a programme with subtitles led to a 30% drop in audience.”

English-speakers, speak up!

French cultural exceptions aside, it is still surprising that, given the ever-growing English-speaking expat community in Brussels, no children’s films are available in English, even if the original language is English. It’s even more perplexing when you walk into a cinema in Flanders and see that you can see them in their original language (along with Dutch subbed versions).

When asking more community-oriented cinemas, like Cinema Vendôme, why they lack these films, the response was: “Demand for such viewings is not sufficient in the community to support such an initiative.”

So, English-speaking expats, perhaps it is high time to fill in one of those customer satisfaction forms at your local cinema.

photo by Amit Patel/Flickr

Written by Kelly Hendricks



Completely agree. And it is even more perplexing that still no cinema venue has come forward to offer to pick up where Kinepolis left off and screen the excellent NTLive plays from London despite a 7-month campaign to find a new location in the capital of Europe.

Jan 18, 2014 13:15