After years of unfair and close-minded restrictions on Oscar’s Foreign Language Film Award, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has finally approved some changes that should open up the category to a broader range of movies. But the new rules are also strange and byzantine, allowing for a set of choices that could be just as surprising as before. The most significant change — one that answers several criticisms — is that submitted films no longer must be in the official language of the country submitting the film. (So, for example, last year’s Italian entry “Private,” which was in Arabic, would not be disqualified.) This is a must-needed adaptation to the globalized film industry, and I, for one, am glad they’ve adopted the new stance. At last, Austrian Michael Haneke, who frequently directs in French, may finally show up at the Oscars.
But the second procedural change signals a weakness in the whole process and doesn’t remedy the long-criticized practice of lumping movies in three section unfairly (where Tsai Ming-liang is matched against “The Chorus”). Now split up into two Phases, the voting process goes as follows: first the same several-hundred L.A. based committee views the submissions, but instead of picking the top five, they select a shortlist of nine potential nominees. Then, a second committee — made up of ten randomly selected members of the original committee, ten Los Angeles-based members not on the original committee, and ten New York-area members — will view the shortlisted films in a three-day bicoastal marathon and select the nominees from that field.
While it’s nice to know that New York-area members will now be included in the voting process, I have to wonder how come there are only ten? And how come it’s taken decades for them to be included in the process? Will the ten new Gotham members have enough power to throw out drivel like “The Chorus” and “Merry Christmas”? And who are the ten new L.A. members and what qualifies them to be on the Phase II committee if they weren’t already on the Phase I committee? It’s nice to know that AMPAS recognizes the system for selecting the foreign language film Oscar doesn’t work, but is this really the best way to fix it?