How Oscar chooses foreign language film nominees

[21 February 2008]

By Jan Stuart

Newsday (MCT)

It’s become the annual head-scratching rite of Oscar night. Without fail, the nominees for the best foreign language film are announced, and we stare at the TV in befuddlement. What are these movies? Where did they come from? Who picked them? And why isn’t (fill in the blank with the name of your favorite foreign film from last year) on the list?

Sometimes it feels like you have to speak a foreign language to comprehend the foreign language film Oscar.

The Oscar nominees for best foreign-language film of the year: 12 (Russia) - Director Nikita Mikhalkov won an Oscar for “Burnt by the Sun,” and has emerged as the most painterly of Russia’s living directors with such films as “Oblomov” and “A Slave of Love.” In his latest, a jury of 12 decides the fate of a Chechen teenager accused of murdering his stepfather. BEAUFORT (Israel) - The one that aced out “The Band’s Visit” as this year’s Israeli entry, Joseph Cedar’s drama involves an Israeli platoon leaving the country’s last outpost in Lebanon. THE COUNTERFEITERS (Austria) - This year’s concentration-camp entry, from director Stefan Ruzowitzsky, involves a Nazi plot to flood the U.S. and British economies with false bills manufactured by camp prisoners. KATYN (Poland) - Polish directing giant Andrzej Wajda (“Man of Marble,” “Kanal”) was awarded an honorary Oscar in 2000 for “five decades of extraordinary film direction.” Wajda’s latest drama brings a human dimension to the 1940 massacre of captured Polish army officers. MONGOL (Kazakhstan) - A 9-year-old boy flees his home in 12th century Mongolia and grows up to become Genghis Khan. This epic horse opera from director Sergei Bodrov was a sleeper hit at September’s Toronto Film Festival.

If nothing else, a movie has to speak a foreign language to win. That is the rude awakening suffered by the producers and artists behind “The Band’s Visit,” the understated, critically acclaimed comedy from Israel that was deemed ineligible by the motion picture academy because its characters conversed in English.

According to a clause in the Academy’s special rules for the best foreign language film award, “the recording of the original dialogue track as well as the completed film must be predominantly in an official language of the country submitting the film except when the story mandates that an additional non-English language be predominant.” The clause ends by saying, in don’t-even-think-about-arguing boldface, “Accurate English subtitles are required.”

The irony of the snub has not gone unnoticed by Oscar watchers. “The Band’s Visit” follows a day and night in the life of an Egyptian police band that gets waylaid in a barren Israeli hamlet. It’s about people of clashing cultures who are compelled to use the lingua franca of English to communicate and connect. In its abiding faith in the common humanity of all people, “The Band’s Visit” could be said to be the ultimate foreign language film Oscar candidate - but for its thematically essential want of a foreign language.

After its commercial U.S. release this Friday “The Band’s Visit” may prove to be this year’s “Volver,” Pedro Almodovar’s popular and critical success, which failed to pick up a foreign-film nomination in the 2006 Oscar race. Instead, the prize went to a then-unknown German film called “The Lives of Others.”

Others might save the “Volver” designation for “La Vie en Rose” and “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” two French-produced films that together picked up an impressive total of seven Oscar nominations (including a best actress nod for Marion Cotillard) in the former and a best director shot for Julian Schnabel on the latter but, on the face of it, seemed to have lacked the right stuff for the best foreign language category.

Top among the other snubbed 2007 releases that join “The Band’s Visit” in Oscar ignominy are “Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days,” the searing Romanian film that has received some of the best reviews in recent months; Ang Lee’s “Lust, Caution” from Taiwan (Lee was purportedly the only Taiwanese national with a primary function in the production), and “Secret Sunshine,” a fellow Cannes and New York Film Festival hit from South Korea.

So how does the Academy arrive at its cockamamie list of five nominees? Each year, every country is invited to submit what it considers its best film, chosen by a jury or organization that “should include artists and/or craftspeople from the field of motion pictures.” Presumably, this leaves room on the committee for everyone from KGB functionaries to tax attorneys who did their undergraduate thesis on the Marx Brothers, despite the rules’ insistence that the country certify that “creative talent of that country exercised artistic control of the film.”

It is at this stage that “La Vie en Rose” and “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” were out of the running, since France chose to submit “Persepolis,” an animated film about life in revolution-era Iran. The Academy opted to nominate “Persepolis” as an animated film instead, invoking a clause that says foreign language award submissions may also be considered for other categories.

From the various countries’ submissions, 63 movies were deemed to be qualified for this year’s foreign language film Oscar. These were then screened by a Phase I committee, which consisted of several hundred Los Angeles-based Academy members who then whittled the 63 films down to nine. However, as bloggers have complained, not all 63 were screened by everyone on the committee. The short list of nine was cut to the final five by a Phase II committee, made up of 10 randomly selected members of the previous group along with 10 other “specially invited contingents” from New York and L.A.

Drop-kicked from this year’s short list were Serbia’s “The Trap” (Srdjan Golubovic, director), Italy’s “The Unknown Woman” (Giuseppe Tornatore), Canada’s “Day of Darkness” (Denys Arcand) and Brazil’s “The Year My Parents Went on Vacation.”

The bias toward L.A. members in the Phase I committee speaks volumes about the absence of so many New York Film Festival entries or New York releases in the nominating selection (only one of this year’s five nominees has had a New York theatrical run thus far). Oscar nominators are a decidedly feisty lot, and don’t like to be told by East Coast cognoscenti what or who they should be getting excited about.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/how-oscar-chooses-foreign-language-film-nominees/