When director Alfonso Cuarón accepted the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2019 for Roma — the first Mexican film to win this award — he said in his speech, “I grew up watching foreign-language movies and learning so much from them and being inspired, like Citizen Kane, Jaws, Rashomon, The Godfather, Breathless.” He then quoted French director Claude Chabrol, who once said, “There are no waves, only the ocean,” and said he felt all of his fellow nominees were part of this one body of water.
Just moments before, actor Javier Bardem presented the award in Spanish, referencing both the political climate and the significance of the award itself: “There are no borders or walls that can restrain ingenuity and talent. In any region of any country of any continent, there are always great stories that move us and tonight we celebrate the excellence and importance of the cultures and languages of different countries.”
With 10 nominations, Roma was the Oscar frontrunner that evening. But even with Cuarón’s win for Best Directing, the award went to Green Book, a film critiqued for being a “white saviour” film.
It was a cold reminder that whatever is deemed “foreign” is outside Hollywood’s centre, unable to play with the rest.
That same pattern might play out yet again this year. Korean film Parasite is one of the most acclaimed Best Picture nominees. But it faces stiff local competition in 1917, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, The Irishman, the list goes on.
The Oscars are not an international film festival. They’re very local.
And it has one major, absurd thing working against it: The film is entirely Korean, and for English-speaking audiences, that warrants subtitles. For film-lovers, that’s hardly a difficult ask, but for the broader American film-going audience, it’s an undeniable obstacle for a night at the movies.
As Parasite director Bong Joon-ho said while accepting the Golden Globe for Best Foreign-Language Film months ago, “Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”
It’s another layer to the #OscarsSoWhite movement that began several years ago in calling out the lack of diversity among nominees. The Academy responded in several ways, including changing the name of “Best Foreign-Language Film” to “Best International Feature Film.”
The rules for eligibility for this category, however, remained the same: at least 50 per cent of the dialogue in the selected film must be spoken in a language other than English, even if it was made outside of the U.S.
That’s an odd rubric to follow, as proven by Nigerian film Lionheart, a family drama about a woman fighting to keep her father’s business moving forward in a struggling industry. Although some Igbo is spoken, the movie is mostly English, which is the official language of Nigeria due to its colonial history. Nevertheless, Lionheart — Nigeria’s first-ever submission to the category — was disqualified from Oscar consideration this year.
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The film’s director, Genevieve Nnaji, tweeted regarding the news in November, “This movie represents the way we speak as Nigerians. This includes English which acts as a bridge between the 500+ languages spoken in our country; thereby making us #OneNigeria. … We did not choose who colonized us. As ever, this film and many like it, is proudly Nigerian.”
With this rule, the Academy is essentially banning Nigeria from ever competing. While international films can still compete in other categories, that’s a more difficult feat: American audiences don’t have as much access to these works and, again, are more reluctant to hit up a matinée if it means reading subtitles. International films with smaller budgets especially have fewer resources and finances to build Oscar campaigns on par with, say, a Scorsese or Tarantino film. A category like Best International Feature, then, is necessary if only to give international filmmakers space.
More than ever before, it is time for a reevaluation of age-old regulations.
Consider Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, an American film about a Chinese-American family. It was placed in the Best Foreign-Language Film category at the Golden Globes because it is mostly spoken in Mandarin. That made it ineligible for the Globes’ Best Musical/Comedy category. It was also nominated under the BAFTAs’ sloppily named Best Film Not in the English Language category.
And yet, because of its American roots, The Farewell was ineligible for Best International Feature at the Oscars. It was also shut out of all other categories.
All of which begs the question: What amount of “foreign” is too much? Too little?
After the Lionheart fiasco, Wang tweeted, “This calls attention to the delineation of ‘foreign film’ vs. ‘foreign-language film’. Which makes more sense? Can a ‘foreign film’ be in OUR language (i.e. English)? Can a domestic (i.e. American) film be in a foreign language? What does it mean to be foreign? And to be American?”
The Academy may not have intended to do so, but it certainly provided a kind of answer: Since the award category’s introduction in the 1950s, 83 per cent of the time it has gone to a European country, according to Vulture, and only three films submitted by African countries have ever won.
The mess doesn’t stop there. From the very beginning of the selection process, things get complicated. Each country chooses its own entry, and can only submit one. This presents a few problems. This year, France was able to get through Les Misérables, but the much acclaimed Portrait of a Lady on Fire was shut out. As well, more politicized features are often ignored by governments keen on sending more peaceful representations to the stage.
The examples are endless. Iranian director Jafar Panahi and his family were unable to attend the Cannes Film Festival premiere of his 2018 feature 3 Faces, which criticizes Iran’s history of patriarchy, because they had all been arrested nearly a decade before and charged with creating anti-Iran propaganda. Although he received a six-year jail sentence and was banned from making movies for 20 years, he created several films anyway, including the documentary This Is Not a Film, about his time under house arrest. The film was smuggled out of the country in a birthday cake so it could make its Cannes premiere. All of which is to say, for Iran to ever submit a film for Oscar consideration that is even remotely politically charged is highly unlikely.
It’s clear there are a number of issues to be tackled in the way of patching up the category, but it’s not an impossible mission. It could include the Academy installing a committee — much in the way it does for Best Documentary nominees — exclusively for selecting Best International Feature nominees, taking the process out of governments’ hands, and allowing for a lengthier shortlist and more submissions per country.
In a recent Vulture interview, when asked what he made of the fact that, prior to Parasite, a Korean film had never been nominated for an Oscar, Bong said, “It’s a little strange, but it’s not a big deal. The Oscars are not an international film festival. They’re very local.”
Indeed, relative to the cinema of anywhere, from Korea to India, Hollywood is a small pond. If the Academy proclaims to be the arbiter of taste in regards to film, it’s time it widened its scope. Language is simply one way of defining a culture; to decide that those who don’t speak English live on the periphery of what is considered great cinema is blatant, archaic marginalizing the Academy should be well past.
Originally posted 2020-04-06 18:39:16.