This year's foreign Oscar race reflects a growingly global medium

Posted by · 6:15 am · September 20th, 2012

Last year, Oscar analyst par excellence Mark Harris, whose insights we’ll be missing this awards season, wrote a description of the average Best Foreign Language Film voter that was so specifically accurate that all I can do is quote it: “They like spending a weekend Learning About Other Cultures. They want to see movies that are ‘thought-provoking,’ but not too disturbing or unsettling. They”re more open-minded about content than they are about style. And more than anything, they like movies that depict the drawbacks, rituals, sociological peculiarities, class inequities, or historical scars of whatever country they”re from.”

If that’s true, however, such voters are going to be a bit flummoxed by a few of the most prominent contenders in this year’s race. Many will admire “Amour,” Michael Haneke’s study of withered French intelligentsia, set within the spacious confines of a Parisian apartment — but there will be some who wonder, “Wait, are we in Austria?” Similarly, a lot of voters will likely be into the German-set, German-language Holocaust survival tale “Lore,” while others might be twiddling their thumbs, waiting impatiently for the kangaroos to bound onto screen. It’s Australia’s submission, after all.

Joining the group of culturally muddy submissions is “War Witch,” a moving, immersive portrait of the horrors endured by Central African child soldiers that was a critics’ favorite back at the Berlin Film Festival, where it won Best Actress for its 13 year-old non-pro lead Rachel Mwanza. (A few months later, it won both the Best Narrative Feature and Best Actress awards at the Tribeca Film Festival — and duly secured US distribution with Tribeca Films.)

Hard-hitting enough to jolt conscientious voters to attention, yet not too violent or despairing to turn them off entirely — there’s a vein of tradition-rooted magical realism running throughout that lends proceedings more exotic appeal than a faux-gritty docudrama approach — it’s an audience-friendly wild card that’s well worth remembering in this race.

So, what lucky African nation submitted it? None, actually: Canada did. Though there’s nothing in the film to suggest the connection — bar a hefty proportion of French dialogue — “War Witch” is a wholly Canadian production, from Montreal-born filmmaker Kim Nguyen. On the hand, the film is an obvious choice for the country: give or take Xavier Dolan’s less acclaimed (and less Academy-friendly) “Laurence Anyways,” it’s their highest-profile festival success from the 2012 circuit. On the other, well, it’s not an obviously Canadian choice at all.   

The submission of these films is healthy proof that the Best Foreign Language Film award is slowly growing out of the Academy’s archaic conception of it as a kind of elementary-school cultural fair, where nations were emphasized more than the films themselves. (To this day, the statuette is officially awarded to the winning country rather than the winning filmmaker, who at least gets to keep it as a kind of representative figure.)

That the Academy is allowing such hybrid-identity films to compete acknowledges that the notion of films and filmmakers belonging to single countries is an outdated one in this era of global film production — an era where even a brand-name Hollywood director like Brian De Palma had to call on France and Germany to finance his latest film. At the same time, their admission shows up the quaintness of the Academy’s existing system for the category, whereby the longlisting process is outsourced to competing countries, each required to select a single film to represent their entire national industry.

It’s a system that has long discriminated against outstanding foreign-language films whose only crime was to have had more than one country involved in its production — and one that has long been plagued by inconsistencies and double standards in the Academy’s own rulings on eligible national identity. Take 1994, for example, when two films in Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s landmark pan-European “Three Colors” trilogy were entered into the race. Switzerland claimed “Three Colors: Red,” a co-production with France and Poland, as its entry, and won the lion’s share of critics’ awards going into the nominations — only for the Geneva-set film to be disqualified by the Academy for not being sufficiently Swiss in its makeup.

In the same year, however, Poland was allowed to compete with the preceding chapter, “Three Colors: White,” despite it being no less international a co-production. (The irony, meanwhile, is that France wasn’t involved at all — despite the whole trilogy being themed around the country’s own national flag and identity.)

The Academy’s reasoning was that since the director was a Polish citizen, that made “White” a more valid submission than “Red” — which one might accept as a logical, if dispiritingly literal, stand if not for the fact that Japanese maestro Akira Kurosawa’s “Dersu Uzala” had won an Oscar nearly 20 years before… for the former Soviet Union. And the following year, Frenchman Jean-Jacques Annaud’s “Black and White in Color” pulled off an upset… for the Ivory Coast. Had the Academy specifically altered their policy, or were they merely making up the rules as they went along?

Odd kerfuffles like this continued to plague the category until matters came to head in 2005, when the Academy again took it upon themselves to disqualify one of the most acclaimed submissions in the race. France, Austria, Germany and Italy had all contributed to the production of Michael Haneke’s wholly Paris-set, French-language “Hidden,” but it was Austria who — as both a co-producing country and as the director’s home state — elected to enter the film. When the Academy ruled that the film had too many French elements to qualify as Austrian, the ensuing uproar was only amplified by the fact that no similar objection had been raised four years previously, when Austria had submitted Haneke’s “The Piano Teacher” — a Vienna-set film, sure, but one also made in French, in collaboration with France and with three French leads. Was it now merely a film’s milieu that made the difference?

Realizing that such arcane semantics regarding national identity were only digging an already irrelevant category’s grave deeper, the Academy wisely loosened the rules: from 2006 onwards, it was confirmed, films were no longer required to be in an official language of the submitting country, nor was the narrative required to take place there. The change bore fruit in its very first year, as Canada’s entry “Water” — an Indian-set, Hindi-language period drama from Canadian-Indian filmmaker Deepa Mehta — snagged a nomination. (On a less momentous but not insignificant note, nobody complained that Mexican nominee “Pan’s Labyrinth” told an entirely Spanish story with a heavily Spanish cast and crew.)  

So, progress. Not that the fundamentally dated architecture of the category isn’t still causing trouble. Last year saw Finland free to submit the French-language co-production “Le Havre” — but U.S.-born director Joshua Marston found himself disqualified from the race for the second time after his Albanian-made, Albanian-set film “The Forgiveness of Blood” was entered by Albania — the Academy only acting after rival filmmakers from the country voiced their displeasure. Marston had endured this disappointment seven years previously, when his arthouse hit “Maria Full of Grace” was entered by Colombia, and DQ’d on the same grounds. The keepers of this category may have got the idea of films having heavily-stamped passports, but globe-trotting filmmakers remain a problem for them.

Still, with “Amour,” “Lore” and “War Witch” — and others possibly yet to come — all raising the profile of melting-pot filmmaking in this year’s foreign-language race, it’s a happy sign that this beleaguered category is slowly inching its way around its own most restrictive obstacles. (We can only hope that obstinate voters of the variety described by Mark Harris don’t hold certain films’ mixed blood against them. They didn’t with “Water.”)

At some point, I’d venture, the Academy will have to scrap the national submissions process entirely, and take responsibility for choosing the best in the field — the way it does in every other category. For now, however, we’re in what will likely be a long, curiosity-riddled interim stage. I was discussing this on Twitter yesterday with another entertainment journalist who felt it was “silly” for “Amour” to be the Austrian submission. Well, yes and no. What silly is for there to be an “Austrian submission” in the first place.   

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