It was Nelson Mandela who said “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”
The voiceover is the language of the film. If it speaks in English it speaks to the audience’s head. If it speaks in chiVenda it speaks to our souls.
This is the paradox of subtitling. It seems like we need an intellectual step in order to read. But it is US who are making that intellectual step. Whereas the narrator is speaking directly from the soul – and hence the film itself speaks from its own, unique soul. This soul speaking is the greatest gift of the cinema experience. Is there a single Japanese film that has a voiceover in English? Korean film? Italian film?
The sound of Elelwani speaking her own language is the authentic root of our compassion for her predicament. It is exactly that sound that we care about. When she narrates her name in English there is a remove, a step away from her soul, that prevents the film from touching the great emotional depths it is capable of.
Most importantly the name Elelwani is about memory, about remembering. But it is always in the mother tongue that we remember most deeply, that we feel most deeply. If her voiceover is in Venda then the film takes us to the deepest places of memory, the deepest register that the character is capable of reaching. English does not go there.