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Birdman, Or the Unexpected Virtue of Bilingualism

Writing a work in a non-native language is a daring task, perhaps even a bit pretentious. We all know about the limitations that this entails. Some take it as a challenge, others may feel a little more comfortable, but at the moment of writing something a little longer than just a song, things can get pretty complicated.

A peculiar and anecdotal thing happened at the Oscars ceremony the other week: the award for best original screenplay was given to four writers for a movie that was spoken in English, but only one of them was a native of this language. We must not allow this fact to go unnoticed, not only because it’s unusual for a screenplay to be written in another language, but also because it’s even stranger for it to then win such an award.

Though there are precedents from recent history in this category, none compare with the one mentioned. For example, Pedro Almodovar won this award for Talk to Her, but the screenplay was written in Spanish. On the other hand, in 2005 the French writers Michel Gondry and Pierre Bismuth earned this award for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, though their role was limited to only creating the story, as the American Charlie Kaufman was who wielded the pen when it came time to set out the dialogue.

For now at least, we don’t know much about the process undertaken to write it. Alejandro Iñárritu, one of the writers and directors, commented that they would have Skype calls to develop the plot, as the writers were based in Mexico, Argentina and the United States. But despite the scarcity of details, one thing is clear: language is no longer a barrier.

It’s true that the Birdman screenplay doesn’t contain lines that are overly belabored, or that are harmonious with or specific to the language. Everything that’s said is said directly and any insinuations can be read between the lines, without the need to sound poetic or be artificial (which is common when writing in another language). Its depth lies in what it says, and not in how it is said. It doesn’t seek to transcend (as is done by the main character), and it is aware of its own limits.

The moral of the story is clear here: We’ve got to be bold enough to leave the comfort zone of the language we’re used to. Just so it’s absolutely clear — “no guts, no Oscar.”