Speaking in Tongues

Australian multicultural pubcaster SBS shares little company in its quest for subtitled films. 'We love subtitles, and we want people to express themselves in their own language as much as possible,' says sbs preview manager Mark Atkin. 'The more subtitles the...
February 1, 2000

Australian multicultural pubcaster SBS shares little company in its quest for subtitled films. ‘We love subtitles, and we want people to express themselves in their own language as much as possible,’ says sbs preview manager Mark Atkin. ‘The more subtitles the better as far as we are concerned.’

So when French production company Les Films D’Ici approached Atkin at the International Documentary Forum in Amsterdam to help fund The Gospel According to the Papuans, it Seemed a perfect match. Gospel is a 60-minute one-off about a remote tribe in Papua New Guinea, struggling with assimilation into Western religious and cultural beliefs, and is told entirely in the obscure Papuan tribal language. ‘It’s pretty representative of the type of documentaries SBS shows that nobody else in this country does,’ says Atkin.

Gospel also fit in nicely with SBS’ millennial broadcasting plans. The producers chose to film the tribe at a point when a large number of its members were about to be baptized. When older members of the tribe resist, they face strong social pressure to convert made urgent by the approach of a new century. ‘[Christian missionaries] were trying to get people to become baptized in a hurry by saying the year 2000 is coming and the world’s going to end in flames,’ explains Atkin. ‘You are someone who has killed a hundred people and you’ve slept with

lots of women. Unless you get baptized now you’re going straight to Hell, very soon.’ Gospel was broadcast in SBS’ regular cultural documentary slot About Us, Friday December 24th at 8:30 p.m.

SBS pre-purchased Gospel and invested about US$4,500 (AUS$7,000). ‘It really is an astonishingly small amount,’ Atkin apologizes, ‘but I know it helps. These are small films, but I think they’re really important. And they only really get commissioned by small broadcasters.’ Other broadcasters that contributed to the doc include Canal+ France, RTBF in Belgium, Austria’s ORF, Finland’s YLE, TFO in Canada, and various cultural institutions in France.

The SBS charter dictates that its programming be multicultural and multilingual. For Atkin, this means distinctive docs of a high quality. ‘We would like people to be able to tune into SBS and know immediately that it must be SBS, because of the type of programming that we carry,’ says Atkin. He adds, ‘We’re very interested in people representing their own point of view and in cultural preservation. I thought this documentary was quite important because you actually see their culture being diminished as they take on Western values.’ Another stipulation of the SBS charter is that 50% of programming must be shown in a language other than English. SBS subtitles most of their foreign language programs in-house, including Gospel, and often sells the version they produce to international English-language broadcasters.

Although SBS pre-buys the majority of their programs, SBS International – the commissioning unit – works with Australian producers. Coproductions are rare.

While Atkin recognizes the nature of SBS’ programming and their use of subtitles restricts the number of people in their audience, he explains that ‘the reason we can do that is because we’re publicly funded.’ Even so, the public serves them well. ‘We get a better audience for our second run of films than for our first because people see them and talk about them afterwards to all of their friends. Then we get lots of requests for [those films] to be repeated.’

About The Author
Andrew Jeffrey joined Realscreen in 2021 as its news editor. Here, he helps to oversee assignment, reporting and editing for Realscreen's daily newsletter. Prior to his work covering documentary and non-fiction film and TV, he worked as a reporter and associate producer for CBC Edmonton, and as a reporter for The Star Calgary, where he covered daily news on beats such as local and provincial politics, health care and harm reduction, sports and education. His work has appeared in other Canadian news outlets such as TVO, the Edmonton Journal and Avenue Magazine.