• Subtitles don't always clear everything up anyway... (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
Our bold experiment in visual captioning...
By
Jeremy Cassar

28 Sep 2016 - 11:10 AM  UPDATED 28 Sep 2016 - 11:10 AM

I’ve watched a freight container full of (primarily subtitled) international programming of late, and I can honestly say that j'ai pris l'habitude de les, which is Google Translate for “I have grown accustomed to them”.

For some borderline bonkers reason, I decided to take one of SBS’s new offerings and watch an episode without English subtitles, then go another round with them activated.

I chose the second episode of Kabul Kitchen —the French-produced, Afghanistan-set, Moroccan-shot dramedy based on the true story of a bar in the middle of wartime Afghanistan, and the French ex-pat that fights to keep the place alive.

Here are the results.

 

An unnecessarily complicated language barrier

Why I chose a show largely spoken in French yet set in Afghanistan is anyone’s guess. It’s a combo that without subtitles sends your head into a cultural tangle. While French presence in Afghanistan is common, when the language is spoken against the sandy streets of Kaboul, it lends the show a surreal bent — something that didn’t even occur to me when watching the subtitled pilot.

And then, just when you’re settling into interpreting the story from images, tone of voice and your knowledge of the occasional French word, a bunch of characters launch into Arabic, forcing you to recalibrate all over again.

 

I was 100 percent sure Sophie was Jacky’s daughter, until a weird scene where he walks in on her in the nude

Once I rewatched with subtitles, I realised the context of the scene. But without them, when Jacky (Gilbert Melki) opens the bathroom door to a nude Sophie (Stéphanie Pasterkamp) and looks her up and down, it felt like the moment out of a romantic comedy.

Even though I was certain they were father and daughter, I still checked Google to see whether I’d missed a huge aspect of the pilot. I hadn’t.

Turns out Jacky just wanted to use the bathroom and when she appeared at the door naked, he felt as any estranged father would — awkward.

 

I understood a subplot without the need for subtitles

Sophie, Jacky’s westernised humanitarian of a daughter, watches how a fundamentalist Kabul classroom operates from the sidelines. A clown is entertaining a class full of children – both boys and girls. The clown places a red nose on the teacher. Just when I thought the teacher would lose it, he laughed and clapped along. Wow, a lovely scene.

Instead, that was merely a bit of pre-class entertainment. The teacher removes his red nose and announces the beginning of class, which immediately prompts all the female students to vacate the building.

Sophie is flabbergasted when she discovers the girls don’t sit class, then has a heated conversation with some man, which I assumed was her angling to do something about this inequality.

Turns out I was pretty much on the money. The man was an educational officer and she was proposing they open a girls' school.

 

Hearing the name of French actor Alain Delon helped me get the gist of a subplot

I knew enough about Alain Delon’s '60s sex symbol status to know his films wouldn’t exactly cut the fundamentalist mustard.

So when Jacky heads to Google to type in the man’s name, then later mentions the name again as he hands over a burnt CD to one of his waiters, I assumed Jacky was doing the good thing and burning a violent movie for a young, enthusiastic cinephile.

I was close. Jacky was burning a Delon film for the waiter’s father, and not to entirely altruistic ends.

 

Certain aspects were clear without subtitles

  • Jacky is having heated issues with his daughter over his behind-closed-doors dealings.
  • Jacky pays off police officers and officials to keep his place running.
  • Axel (Benjamin Bellecour), Jacky’s intermediary and quasi-advisor, develops a bond with Sophie, despite her father’s obvious annoyance.

 

The main plot of the episode wasn’t clear - here was my ridiculous assumption vs the reality

Assumption: An Afghani colonel (Simon Abkarian) visits the Kitchen, much to Jacky’s chagrin, since Afghanis aren’t allowed in the bar due to the serving of alcohol. I merely thought the colonel wanted to get a glimpse of the scantily clad women, and that Jacky thought the man was bad for business.

When Jacky stands before a panel of council elders, I assumed he was arguing for the colonel to leave the place alone. Somehow, he tricks them into agreeing.

Reality: The colonel was surveying Jacky’s set-up, and subsequently ordered for the swimming pool to be shut down until Jacky builds a wall around it, so kids can’t peer through at all that ex-pat flesh.

Jacky tells the elders he’ll build the wall, but that it will take up to a year. When the elders enforce that the pool remain closed for that time, he agrees, but then points out to each elder that they will go without whatever he usually brings them: employment for their family members, contract work on their site and, once again, Alain bloody Delon.

 

En conclusion

The only real benefit of watching without subtitles was the ability to scrutinise the actor’s faces and absorb their performances in a purely emotional fashion. Even then, unless encountering a primarily visual moment like the clown/classroom scene, the episode is rendered mostly open to interpretation.

Depending on how you like to watch TV, that could be a good thing.

 

Seasons 1 and 2 of Kabul Kitchen are available on SBS On Demand. Watch the first episode right here:

more on the guide
Is Kabul really a wild expat party town?
If recent ‘Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’ and ‘Kabul Kitchen’ are to be believed, Afghanistan’s capital is basically the Wild, Wild East for expats looking for a good time – but how accurate is this really? Australian photographer Andrew Quilty aims to show what day to day life there is really like in a captivating new photo series.
5 ways Kabul Kitchen is different to your neighbourhood restaurant
Watch Kabul Kitchen now on SBS On Demand.