Best Foreign Language Film

Will the winner of this year’s Academy Award for “Best Foreign Language Film” truly live up to that claim? Like the questions raised in recent years about the nominating procedures of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for the “Best Documentary Feature” (when such films as The Thin Blue Line, Hoop Dreams, and Roger & Me were denied nominations), controversy has swirled this year around the Academy regulations determining the eligibility of foreign-language film nominees.
The Academy’s Foreign Language Film Award Committee consists of seven hundred volunteer members divided into three groups, each of which is assigned an equal number of films to view. They vote on a scale of six to ten for each film screened, with the top five selections of the entire committee then being cited as the nominees for Best Foreign Language Film. A second round of voting includes screenings in New York and Los Angeles for all Academy members, who, if they wish to vote in this category, must certify that they have seen all five nominated films.
While the Best Foreign Language Film Award is not the most widely followed or celebrated category of the Oscars, in terms of film culture this award is extremely important. The winner and the other nominees enjoy critical attention and exhibitor interest otherwise difficult for foreign films to achieve in the U.S. In the present era of international coproductions and the virtual globalization of the film industry, however, not to mention the political complexities of our modern world, the Academy’s definition of “foreign film” has been criticized as historically outdated, politically insensitive, and culturally myopic.
For the Oscars, a foreign film is defined as “a feature-length motion picture produced outside of the United States of America with a predominantly non- English dialogue track.” The dialogue “must be predominantly in a language of the country of origin except when the story mandates that an additional non-English language be predominant. Accurate English subtitles are required.” The submitting country must certify that “creative talent of that country exercised artistic control of the film.” For this year’s nominees, the film must have been exhibited theatrically for at least seven consecutive days between November l, 2001 and October 31, 2002. And most importantly, “Only one picture will be accepted from each country,” with the entry being made “by one organization, jury or committee which should include artists and/or craftspeople from the field of motion pictures.”
The problem of categorizing films as national productions was dramatically illustrated this year when Elia Suleiman discovered that his Divine Intervention, winner of the European Film Award and the International Critics Jury Prize at Cannes, was ineligible because the Academy does not consider Palestine a nation. In this regard, the Academy cites U.N. membership as its guidelines. Nonetheless, the Academy has allowed cultures with nontraditional diplomatic status to submit on their own or as distinct administrative units of larger nations. These include Hong Kong, Puerto Rico, Wales, and Taiwan.
Other subjective decisions also come into play. Although Britain this year submitted the Hindi-language film, The Warrior, as its official entry for “the best British foreign language film,” the Academy judged it ineligible since it decreed that Hindi is not “indigenous” to Britain. The Warrior, nominated for three British Academy awards, was written and directed by second- generation British filmmaker Asif Kapadia and produced with British financial backing.
This national approach is also understandably subject to all sorts of commercial, cultural, and political pressures. During the Pinochet regime, for example, any film made by Allende sympathizers (not to mention Chilean cinema in exile made by such filmmakers as Patricio Guzmán and Miguel Littin) would have been inconceivable as a national entry of Chile. In like manner, no film hostile to Castro would be entered by Cuba. Nor is China likely to submit a nationalistic Tibetan film. In short, controversial political films or films from contested states are categorically shortchanged by the existing rules.
The rule of theatrically exhibiting a film for seven days in the country of origin is rational enough for stable democratic countries, but it is impossible for any politically oppositional film in many nations today. Nor is it feasible for a nation in the midst of a civil war, under bombardment, or in a war of national liberation.
The one-film-per-nation rule, clearly intended to make the selection process more orderly, is particularly inappropriate for countries with active film industries. In any given year such countries might have a terrific comedy, an engaging musical, and a first-rate drama. We also know that national cinemas tend to have golden eras characterized by a surge of quality films. Just remember the Italy of yesteryear when Fellini, De Sica, Antonioni, and Rosi might all release new films the same year.
A third problem stems from the criterion that a film must represent a specific country. Since more and more films are coproductions, assigning them a country of origin is both arbitrary and culturally meaningless. A notorious Academy miscue came in 1995 when Switzerland’s official entry, Red, was denied because the language was French, the setting was Switzerland, and director Krzysztof Kieslowski was Polish. At time when overcoming nationalistic antagonisms is a pressing cultural priority, Red was disqualified for not being sufficiently French, Polish, or Swiss! Curiously, the Academy this year accepted, as a Swedish entry, Lilja 4-ever, a film primarily set in Russia with predominantly Russian dialog. It also accepted, as an entry from Afghanistan, Fire Dancer, a film set in New York and dubbed into native languages.
In a recent Los Angeles Times article that addresses many of these issues, Lorena Munoz observes that the Academy could have film producers or distributors make submissions, a process similar to that of the Golden Globes. The problem of the volume of entries, however, is formidable (this year saw a record fifty-four entries) and the Academy, unlike the Golden Globes, requires its voting members to see all the submitted films. Rather than eliminating national entries, the Academy might consider supplementing the selection process by adding a sort of wild-card foreign-language film category, whereby a panel of American or foreign critics and other specialists could recommend noteworthy films. By taking more direct responsibility for its selections, the Academy would bolster the legitimacy and prestige of these awards and give the American public a better sense of what, indeed, may be the best foreign films of that year.

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