The Long Shot: Language barriers

Posted by · 9:37 am · February 9th, 2012

This may come as a shock to readers accustomed to my usual tone of weary despair when it comes to the category, but I”m about to write in defense of the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.

Reluctant defense, mind you – I”m not going to get either impassioned or affectionate for the award that recognized “Departures” over “The Class,” “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow” over “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” and “Woman in the Dunes” and never even shortlisted “Persona,” “The 400 Blows” or anything by Kieslowski. For reasons both within and beyond their control, it”s a troubled category and always has been. But unlike most of the Academy”s many problem areas, it”s a highly self-aware and self-medicating one, forever adjusting its voting process to address blind spots.

The adjustments sometimes cause blind spots of their own, like a game of cinematic and bureaucratic whack-a-mole, but you can hardly accuse them of shrugging their shoulders. When arcane eligibility bylaws about the required language of national submissions took Michael Haneke”s “Hidden” out of the running, rules were promptly changed the next year; when voters failed to place critics” darling “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” into the nine-film shortlist in 2007, branch leaders were sufficiently embarrassed to devise the executive-committee safety net that stands today.

The system has been tweaked sufficiently that, as I wrote in my Oscar Guide piece on the category last week, this year”s field of nominees feels like the least controversial or fussed-over in many a year: the nominees range from major world cinema stories (“A Separation”) to bold, slow-burning festival discoveries (“Bullhead”) to the kind of lesser-known, soft-lob Oscar bait that traditionally dominates the race (“Monsieur Lazhar”), but there”s comparatively little kvetching about this omission or that inclusion. If “A Separation” actually pulls off the win, as is likely, it”ll be the category”s most universally approved champ in well over a decade. Coming on the heels of last year”s ballsy nomination for “Dogtooth” – the kind of cooler-than-thou critics” pet for whom an Oscar nod piques as many fans as it pleases – has the Academy finally cracked the code?

Well, no. The five films assembled this year may make for a respectable list, but hardly one that reflects the year in international cinema from the perspective of either critics (in which case aggressively auteurist submissions like “The Turin Horse” or “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” would take precedence over sweet nothings like “Lazhar”) or audiences (in which case crossover art house hits like “The Skin I Live In” or “Troll Hunter,” both BAFTA-nominated, would have been submitted by their countries of origin in the first place). The foreign-language Oscar remains the only reason films like “In a Better World” or “The Secret in Their Eyes” even momentarily enter the critical conversation; it”s a false distinction that can”t help but look random to any filmgoer who sees more than five foreign films a year.

The Hollywood Reporter recently featured a conversation between features editor Stephen Galloway and the Academy”s foreign language branch chairman Mark Johnson, in which Galloway takes Johnson constructively to task over the numerous flaws and inequalities in their voting system. It also highlighted the damned if they do, damned if they don”t nature of the process. Many of the core problems, of course, exist at the very opening stage: handing national committees the responsibility of selecting one film to represent their country in the race is, as Johnson fairly points out, fairer on smaller industries that might otherwise be drowned out by world cinema powerhouses like France, but puts an undue amount of artistic trust in panels that may have political motives, questionable taste, or both. (See Italy”s selection last year of the syrupy melodrama “The First Beautiful Thing” over international art house phenomenon “I Am Love.”)

The counter-argument, of course, is that these committees can also pick more exciting, lower-profile entries from their national cinema than Academy voters would. Sweden took flak in many quarters two years ago for failing to submit “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” for the Oscar, but the little-seen film they chose instead, “Involuntary,” was infinitely more unusual and accomplished. Critics wailed last year when Belgium ignored the Dardenne brothers” umpteenth Cannes winner, “The Kid with a Bike,” in favor of eventual nominee “Bullhead” – but the country chose arguably the more challenging film.

One of Galloway”s suggested fixes is a best-of-both-worlds compromise, in which major festival prizewinners are automatically added to the longlist of national submissions, but even that seems randomly selective, given the eccentric whims of even the loftiest Cannes juries. It would be simply another case of the Academy deflecting blame and diluting authenticity by relying on other people”s judgment.

Perhaps the fairest and most radical overhaul would be to instigate a change similar to that recently made in the documentary category: scrap the external submission process and instead pick the five nominees from the list of foreign language features theatrically released in the US over the calendar year, similar to any major category. It would cure the category of some of its blinkered exclusivity – how can you expect regular viewers to invest in a category where many nominees won”t yet be released for months? – and doctored sense of self-apology, though it wouldn”t necessarily make for better nominee fields.

General voters picking from a year”s worth of releases would be as likely to pick a “Dogtooth” over a “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” as they would to vote for “Drive” over “The Descendants” in the Best Picture field, after all. Is it worth potentially increasing the category”s blandness in order to make it a fairer reflection of the Academy”s taste, and equally, the public”s awareness of world cinema? The special treatment currently given the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar may be starting to pay off with some necessary and unexpected choices, but it”s not making an already ghettoized category seem any more democratic.

For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter. 

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