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Foreign Policy: How the Oscars Slight Global Cinema

by Zeba Blay on February 24, 2013

Nairobi Half Life (Image courtesy CNN

Film still from “Nairobi Half Life” (image via CNN)

In 2009, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences sparked a flurry of debate when it was announced that the Best Picture category for the Oscar would be expanded from five to ten nominees. According to then-academy president Sid Ganis, the increased number would “allow Academy voters to recognize and include some of the fantastic movies that often show up in the other Oscar categories, but have been squeezed out of the race for the top prize.” Much of the discussion hinged on whether a lengthened list of nominees would somehow diminish the prestige of the award — that year genre films like Avatar and District 9 were recognized alongside more traditional Oscar-bait like An Education and The Hurt Locker. The legitimacy of the Academy Awards, some critics declared, was diminished.

This problem of plenty was — and remains — in stark contrast to the Best Foreign Language Film Category. Here, nominations are Spartan in their restrictiveness, as the Academy limits submissions to one per country and five nominees overall. It’s a particularly bitter pill for film industries in developing regions in Latin America and Africa. But at least for the 2013 season, one silver lining has emerged from this dreary playbook: Amour. Michael Haneke’s much lauded and deeply depressing French language feature has made Academy Awards history as the first Austrian movie to be nominated for both Best Picture and Best Foreign Language film, in addition to Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay nominations. (It’s a distinction that only three other films have made: Costa-Gavras’s Z [1969], Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful [1998], and Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon [2000]).

Yet Amour’s success belies the ringing failure of the Academy’s inadequate process for selecting, considering, and honoring the bevy of excellent films from around the globe. As it stands, the road for any hopeful Foreign Language nominee is marked by many bureaucratic potholes. It’s a representative race: countries, not studios, submit films to the Academy. Films must have a predominantly non-English dialogue track, and international co-productions can be disqualified for not being authentic to their country of submission. So, despite being shot in Albania with Albanian actors and in the Albanian language, director Joshua Marston’s Forgiveness of Blood was disqualified from the race in 2011 for being funded by an American producer.

 Amour,  Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Film still from “Amour” (image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

“I think there’s a problem with the system,” said Marston to Variety at the time, “when Hollywood claims to know better than the submitting country whether a film belongs to them. It is incredibly disempowering and disenchanting for a country with a young film industry.”

This year, an unprecedented 71 films were officially submitted, amongst them Kenya’s first ever submission, Nairobi Half Life, and Cambodia’s first submission in almost twenty years, Lost Loves (neither made it past the first round). Later, a 9-film shortlist was announced, and then nominees were further whittled down after a series of special screenings (Foreign Language is the only category in which Academy members must prove they have seen all nominated films in order to vote), culminating with five official selections: Austria’s Amour, Canada’s War Witch, Denmark’s A Royal Affair, and Chile’s No.

A French film executive expressed frustration over the lack of French nominees in this year’s race (France’s submission, The Intouchables, failed to make it past the shortlist), telling  Deadline: “It’s unbelievable that producing 200 movies a year France has not been able to win a single [Foreign Language Oscar] in 20 years.”

The issue is much more pronounced when considering those countries that have produced fewer films, in even less time. When the Foreign Language category was first introduced to the Oscars in 1947, an overwhelming number of the movies recognized were mostly European, with Italy over the years earning the most wins of any nominated country (13, with an additional 27 nominated films), and France with the most nominations (36, with 12 wins). The French executive’s frustration must pale in comparison to his peers who hail from the younger, smaller film cultures that have just begun to come into their own.

No one needs to be told to see Lincoln or Silver Linings Playbook, but if there’s one thing that the Oscars do for foreign film, it’s to bring a larger audience to work otherwise little seen. Even a nomination can bolster the careers of budding filmmakers in countries such as Taiwan, where Ang Lee’s Foreign Language nominations for his 1993 and 1994 films The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman launched his international career. He’s continued to produce, as well as shoot and edit a majority of his films in Taiwan, including this year’s Best Picture nominee Life of Pi.

The Foreign Language category represents an exceedingly small proportion of the international film community, presenting only a handful of movies to reflect a worldwide cinematic landscape. Seven of the nine films on the shortlist this year were European, and while Chile’s No sets the important precedent of being the country’s first nomination, and War Witch, though technically Canadian, tells an African story (calling into question the stipulations that have knocked out films like Forgiveness of Blood), Asian, African, and Latin American nominations have still been lacking in recent years.

Perhaps an American awards show ostensibly designed to honor the American film industry should not be criticized too strongly for how it chooses to recognize the international film community — an argument that may hold up until you consider the actual viewership of the Academy Awards. This Sunday, when the show broadcasts from Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre, it will be to an increasingly global audience that — in numbers — outstrips the American one. Last year, the awards show telecast was beamed to over a hundred countries worldwide, reaching potentially billions of viewers in contrast to the 39 million Americans who ended up tuning in. This global audience no doubt produces increased revenue for the Academy.

If the rules and regulations of the category, which were designed to level the playing field, seem to have done the exact opposite, the question of whether the Academy Awards can maintain their relevance in world cinema remains. Like ceremonies past, this question of legitimacy will likely be asked again, and how the Academy chooses to answer it will speak volumes in the future.

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  • Caroline

    My country’s movie didn’t make it also. It’s ‘The clown’ from Brazil. If anyone has the chance to see it, please do. It’s a great representation of how the circus is still important in less fortunate areas. It also has great cinematography. Very similar to Wes Anderson’s style of filming. It is very melancholic though.

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