It’s generally an assured equation: Oscars + Foreign Language Film Category = Outrage. Sometimes, the fault lies with Academy voters (as it did when “Departures” won the Oscar in 2008 over what most viewed as two greatly superior nominees – “Waltz With Bashir” and “The Class;” or when “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” “Persepolis” and “Volver” were all left off the ballot in 2007). And sometimes, the national submission committees are at fault (like in 2010 when Italy submitted “La Prima Cosa Bella” over “I Am Love”).
Last year, there were quite a few controversies from both sides of the equation. Albania originally submitted “The Forgiveness of Blood,” but it was rejected due to protest of Bujar Alimani, the director of another Albanian film, “Amnesty.” He made the case that “Blood” shouldn’t be eligible to represent Albania because its director, Joshua Marston, was American born and most key crew members were American. The Academy disqualified it and Albania instead submitted Alimani’s film.
Then there was Puerto Rico, which tried to submit a film — Sonia Fritz’s “America” — but was rejected because of a new rule that doesn’t allow films from US territories to compete in the Foreign Language Film category. But Puerto Rico had been regularly — and successfully — submitting films since 1986, getting a nominaton in 1989 for Jacobo Morales’s “Santiago, the Story of his New Life.” The Puerto Rico Film Commission appealed to the Academy to change its mind, noting its previous Oscar nomination in the category as well as the presence of non-independent territories like Greenland, Hong Kong and Palestine, but AMPAS refused to change its tune.
Another questionable move came care of Russia, which chose Nikita Mikhalkov’s “Burnt By the Sun 2: Citadel,” which is a sequel to a film that won this award back in 1995. However, unlike its predecessor, this film has not been well received. It currently holds a D+ average on Criticwire, one of the worst averages in the entire system. It also hasn’t been embraced by the Russian public, having only managed to gross $2 million there despite a massive $45 million budget (its considered one of the biggest flops in the country’s cinematic history).
While the Russian Oscar selection committee indeed voted for its submission, committee head Vladimir Menshov was adamantly against the decision, asking for reconsideration. One clear alternative suggestion was Andrey Zvyagintsev’s “Elena,” which was quite well-received in Cannes last year, but Russia didn’t budge (and didn’t receive a nomination).
In the end, the Academy managed a pretty respectable quintent of nominees based on what had qualified, including Joseph Cedar’s “Footnote,” Michaël R. Roskam’s Belgian “Bullhead” and Asghar Farhadi’s eventual winner “A Separation,” which few would disagree was one of the more deserving winners in the category, well, ever. Though they did also overlook the acclaimed likes of Aki Kaurismaki’s “Le Havre,” Wim Wenders’ “Pina,” Valerie Donzelli’s “Declaration of War” and Bela Tarr’s “The Turin Horse,” it was overall definitely one of the better years for the category.
While the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has not yet released a final list of thus year’s submissions for their Foreign Language Film category (they are expected to do so in the next week or so), already submissions from 47 different countries have been made public; another 15-20 are still to come (63 ended up submitting last year).
Before we get into a few controversies from this year’s growing list (though admittedly there’s less than usual so far), there’s quite a few positive things to note as well. Some really exceptional, challenging work is in contention that collectively represents an impressive year in world cinema. Michael Haneke’s “Amour” (Austria), Cate Shortland’s “Lore” (Australia), Pablo Larrain’s “No” (Chile), Christian Petzold’s “Barbara” (Germany), Nikolaj Arcel’s “A Royal Affair” (Denmark), Ursala Meier’s “Sister” (Switzerland), Rama Burshtein’s “Fill The Void” (Israel) and Cristian Mungiu’s “Beyond The Hills” (Romania) have all been submitted so far.
Whether or not any of these end up making it on the Academy’s short list is a whole other story (though if “Amour” doesn’t, it would be a legendary snub), especially considering quite a few of them are not exactly mainstream. But, hey, if “Dogtooth” could make it two years back, anything’s possible.
The list so far is also notable in the impressive amount of female-helmed films. Two years after a woman won the award (Susanne Bier’s “In a Better World”), aforementioned examples from Israel, Australia and Switzerland join the likes of Bosnia and Herzegovina (Aida Begić’s “Children of Sarajevo”), Japan (Yong-hi Yang’s “Our Homeland”), Palestinian Territories (Annemarie Jacir’s “When I Saw You”), and Slovakia (Iveta Grofova’s “Made in Ash”). That’s seven films so far. Not exactly a fair ratio, but sadly progressive when it comes to women working behind the camera (though notably not included among these is Susanne Bier herself, whose “Love Is All You Need” was snubbed by Denmark in favor of “A Royal Affair” — though most critics would probably agree with that decision).
Meanwhile, the most prominent controversy so far involves a country that will not compete at all.
Following its groundbreaking win last year (the first for a Middle Eastern counrty), Iran’s government-controlled cinema agency has called for a boycott of the Oscars just a day after the country’s official selection committee had selected “A Cube of Sugar” by Reza Mirkarimi as the official Iranian submission. The boycott came to the extremely controversial “Innocence of Muslims” video on Youtube, which originated in America and has resulted in multiple demonstrations and outbreaks of violence across the world. which has prompted multiple demonstrations and outbreaks of violence across the globe in the past month.
Much less extreme examples of controversy on behalf of selection committees include France’s submission of Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano’s box office powerhouse “The Intouchables” over the Jacques Audiard’s much more critically acclaimed “Rust and Bone.” Many groaned at the decision, though it’s easy to see France’s reasoning. “Rust & Bone” is a challenging film about a killer whale trainer (Marion Cotillard, who could still very well get a best actress nomination) who suffers a horrible accident. On the other hand, the light, feel-good “Intouchables” — about a friendship between a wealthy quadriplegic, and the young and poor man hired as his live-in caregiver — is right up the Academy’s alley and is probably one of the category’s frontrunners. It also has the backing of Harvey Weinstein, who France clearly owes a debt to after last year’s Oscarian domination of “The Artist.”
We’ll have to wait until January to see if France’s plan works out. The 85th Academy Award nominations will be announced January 10, 2013.
Check out Indiewire’s latest chart of Oscar predictions here, including a quick take on the foreign language race.