When the Academy Award for Foreign-Language Film is announced from the stage of the Dolby Theater the evening of Feb. 26, 2017, the winner will be one of these nine films:
Australia, Tanna, Bentley Dean, Martin Butler, directors
Canada, It’s Only the End of the World, Xavier Dolan, director
Denmark, Land of Mine, Martin Zandvliet, director
Germany, Toni Erdmann, Maren Ade, director
Iran, The Salesman, Asghar Farhadi, director
Norway, The King’s Choice, Erik Poppe, director
Russia, Paradise, Andrei Konchalovsky, director
Sweden, A Man Called Ove, Hannes Holm, director
Switzerland, My Life as a Zucchini, Claude Barras, director
This is the so-called “shortlist” selected from 85 movies that were submitted last year by country committees around the world. It seems as if the submission list grows each year.
It is unlikely that most viewers of the Academy Awards telecast on Feb. 26 will have heard of most of the shortlisted foreign films; they receive little if any, domestic distribution outside of Los Angeles and New York. However, in an ever larger global marketplace, this single Oscar has become increasingly more visible. The path to winning it is little known, even to many Academy members.
The current procedure is this: Academy staffer Meredith Shea and Foreign-Language Film Chairman Mark Johnson review the submissions before the early October deadline. A few films may be flagged for Executive Committee discussion before final acceptance and scheduling. Some countries have well-established submission procedures; others, especially those entering for the first time, or movies with significant contributors not citizens of the submitting country, may require further clarification. Some films, such as this year’s Toni Erdmann, employ some English dialogue; rules state that English must not be the principal language. (This year, Anglophone Australia submitted a film made on the island Tanna, Vanuatu, made in the aboriginal languages of Naval and Nafe.)
The 85 films submitted in 2016 were screened in four groups. All AMPAS members are encouraged to participate in the voting process by choosing a group, with about 21 films in each group. Two films are shown each evening in either the Samuel Goldwyn or Linwood Dunn theaters, with additional non-Academy screenings in outside venues. To qualify to vote in the general committee’s first-round voting, about 65 percent of the films in your group must be seen. The Academy explained the nomination process:
Foreign Language Film nominations for 2016 are determined in two phases.
The Phase I committee, consisting of several hundred Los Angeles-based Academy members, screened the original submissions in the category between mid-October and December 12. The group’s top six choices, augmented by three additional selections voted by the Academy’s Foreign Language Film Award Executive Committee, constitute the shortlist. The shortlist will be winnowed down to the category’s five nominees by specially invited committees in New York, Los Angeles and London. They will spend Friday, January 13, through Sunday, January 15, viewing three films each day and then casting their ballots.
After the Phase 2 special committees select the five nominated films, this list, like other categories, are voted on by the entire Academy membership, a recent rules change. Previously, before screeners were sent out for this category, a member wishing to vote in this and several other categories, such as feature documentary and shorts, needed to verify that he or she had seen all the nominated films in that category. Enabling the entire membership to vote for the foreign-language film has significantly broadened the industry’s awareness of this award and of the rich diversity of cinema around the world.
I am fortunate to have served on the Foreign Language Film Executive Committee and have seen the passionate love these members have for international cinema. (This past fall, I was in production on a film in Atlanta and returned to LA in time to see only a handful of the submitted movies, but I am serving on the Los Angeles group for the second-phase viewing.)
Here (in no particular order) are trailers for 2016’s nine short-listed films:
Tanna: A Romeo/Juliet love story set amid two Yakel People rival tribes.
It’s Only the End of the World: In French, with Marion Cotillard, who has become this generation’s Jeanne Moreau.
Land of Mine: In Danish and German, about young World War II German POWs defusing thousands of Nazi land mines.
Toni Erdmann: An “absolutely nuts” father/daughter comedy.
The Salesman: A drama from Asghar Farhadi, framed around a theater company’s performance of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” Farhadi’s film from 2011, A Separation, won the Oscar in this category.
The King’s Choice: Another World War II drama, this one about the Nazi invasion of Norway.
Paradise: In Russian and German, a stark black-and-white Holocaust drama composed in the clasic Academy aspect ratio.
A Man Called Ove: A kind of flip side to Toni Erdmann, miles distant from the dour dramas we often associate with Swedish cinema.
My Life as a Courgette (Zucchini): A charming stop-motion-animated story of an orphaned boy and his companionsliving in a children’s home.
This year’s shortlist is especially Eurocentric, with five titles coming from Western Europe and none from Asia or Africa. The sole “diversity” film (if you don’t include Iran) is from Australia, the tale of a so-called “primitive” culture.
Each year there are several films, some nominated, some not, that continue to stay deeply alive in my memory, often from countries with minimal history in this category. In recent years, the Arabic Middle East and Africa have submitted films that were nominated, most notably last year, when first-time entrant Mauritania offered the visually stunning Timbuktu, a film about ISIS’ invasion of a small village, one of those films that still haunt me with its courage and stylistic conviction.
Just the year before, a love story from Palestine titled Omar, set against the Israeli conflict, unleashed heated controversy but also had its passionate supporters. Sometimes, it is not so easy to separate politics from art, even in the realm of cinematic art.
Even more controversial in its almost documentary narrative was the unlikely entry from Israel in 2008, Waltz with Bashir. An animated film, it is the story of veteran Israeli soldiers trying to recall their incursion in 1982 into the Lebanese refugee camps of Shatila and Sabra (sometimes called Israel’s My Lai).
Another nominated war memory film, The Missing Picture (2013), was from Cambodia’s holocaust, documenting the slaughter of Cambodian citizens by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. It uses archival film footage mixed with crudely carved clay figurines to tell the filmmaker’s personal story— too painful to recount as objectified documentary.
Also inn 2013, Academy Award-winning director Danis Tanovic made a deeply moving movie in a documentary style—- of a poor Roma family in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Titled An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker, it was photographed with a Canon 5D for a budget under $100,000. The film made the January shortlist but did not receive a nomination. Still, it focused tremendous attention on the plight of the Roma people in its home country, a direct consequence of the attention the film received at the Berlinale and at the Academy. (It is a film I spoke for strongly as its immediacy was a testament of the social power that cinema can still embody.) Its deliberately harsh vision of poverty and suffering among “Gypsies” may have been too visually raw for some viewers.
At Berlin, in addition to receiving the coveted Jury Prize, this film won the Best Actor award for Nazif, the family’s father— a non-actor. There is an Al Jazeera YouTube video of his triumphant return to his village, holding aloft the Silver Bear to his neighbors, a deeply moving intersection of art and real life.
These trailers are just a sampling of the wide-ranging films that are offered every year for Academy consideration. Some feature international movie stars. Many do not, and it is often these films that are the real surprises, opening unexpected windows into worlds far removed from our privileged American perspective.
Last year, when the Hungarian film Son of Saul won the Academy Award, another intense portrait of a single character also received a nomination. Theeb, from Jordan, is the story of a boy who assists a British officer in World War I. It was photographed in some of the same sites used in Lawrence of Arabia, and although its style is very different from that of Son of Saul, it presents an equally compelling vision locked into a single character.
The first official Academy Award for Foreign-Language Film was given in 1956 to La Strada, Federico Fellini’s portrait of the waif Gelsomina (played by the director’s wife, Giulietta Masina).
From 1947-1955, there was no Oscar category for foreign-language film, but the Academy gave an “honorary” award to a foreign film in all but one of those years (1953). The first such recipient was Shoeshine, directed by Vittorio de Sica, who returned two years later with The Bicycle Thief. Both films have the portrait of a child at their core.
The Oscar for foreign-language film is usually accepted by the film’s director, but it is actually awarded to the submitting country. As you might imagine, the statuette can end up in any number of unexpected places.
In his book Totally, Tenderly, Tragically, film critic/essayist Phillip Lopate wrote an essay titled “Anticipation of La Notte: the Heroic Age of Moviegoing,” which was partly a memoir of his student days as a cinephile at Columbia University, but more an analysis of the impact foreign films had on his generation of New Yorkers. At the time, the American film industry was experiencing not only a collapse of the studio system, but also a paucity of movies taking a hard look at the American scene. (A few films, like Sweet Smell of Success and Hud, were exceptions.) Academy Film Scholar Tino Balio’s book The Foreign Film Renaissance on American Screens, 1947-1973 makes a strong case for the commercial viability of foreign films from post-World War II to the emergence of the American “film-school brats” in the 1970s.
On the surface, foreign movies do not have the cachet they once had on U.S. screens, but each year the entries in the AMPAS foreign-language-film competition give evidence of a vibrant cinematic continuity in a global market that is increasingly dominated by comic-book mayhem and exploding body parts.
2016’s Oscar nominations will be announced on Jan. 24. Wikipedia has published the full list of the Foreign-Language Film submissions along with some insightful notes on the challenges that come before the Executive Committee each year.
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