This year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film
will be chosen from a field of 76 entries, with each feature submitted to the
Academy by its respective country. Sixteen of these submissions, or just over 20%, are directed or co-directed by women. This week, the American Film institute
screened three of the women-directed candidates at AFI FEST in Los
Angeles. Read about them below.
Canada’s entry is the French-language Gabrielle, written and directed by Louise Archambault. The film won the Audience Award at the
Locarno International Film Festival, where it premiered.
Twenty-two-year-old Gabrielle (Gabrielle Marion-Rivard)
suffers from Williams Syndrome, a neuro-developmental disorder that causes
cognitive disability, decreased inhibition and a buoyant, social personality. In early scenes we see her embarking upon a
romance with Martin (Alexandre Landry), a fellow member of her choir, which is
practicing for a backup performance with Quebec singer Robert Charlebois. When the two sweethearts are caught
half-dressed in Gabrielle’s room at the group residence where she lives, their
courtship is put on hold by Martin’s mother, who fears it will become sexual. Frustrated by the control others have over
her life, Gabrielle becomes determined to live on her own as an autonomous
adult. While the ending feels a bit
rushed, the film is a joyful reminder that the desires for love and
independence are universally human.
In the Q&A after the film, Archambault explained that
the idea for the film came to her while watching a disabled woman floating
playfully in a swimming pool. The woman
was singing and seemed very happy, said Archambault, but the people around her
looked uneasy. “I wanted to talk about
happiness in outcast people,” she said of the film. “Then I met Gabrielle.”
Actress Gabrielle Marion-Rivard, who plays Archambault’s
lead, has Williams Syndrome herself and was also present at AFI’s
screening. Though this was her first
feature film, the actress said she wanted to continue acting because when
watching movies, “Everybody is so alive.” Entertainment One recently obtained U.S.
distribution rights for the film, which will get a U.S. theatrical release later
this winter. The charm with which
Marion-Rivard infuses the character of Gabrielle makes the film likely to be
well-received by American audiences.
Georgia’s entry, In
Bloom, just won AFI’s New Auteurs Special Award for Personal
Storytelling. Set in Tbilisi in 1992,
the story follows two girls, Eka (Lika Babluani) and Natia (Mariam Bokeria), as
they navigate a culture undergoing an agonizing transformation in the wake of the former Soviet
state’s declaration of independence from the disintegrating Soviet Union. Writer / co-director Nana Ekvtimishvili told
her screening audience that everything in the film is in some way related to
her life as a young teenager in early 1990s Georgia. The AFI jury called the film “an exemplar of
personal history as political history.”
Eka and Natia grow up in a Tbilisi plagued by economic
turmoil and civil war, where citizens seem more angry at each other than at any
of the governmental forces shaping their lives. In a world where the imposed authority of the Soviet Union had been
lifted but a solid democratic authority not yet constructed, this
breakdown in socio-political order is mirrored in the domestic lives of the two
heroines. Eka’s father is in prison, and
Natia’s family is constantly fighting over her father’s alcoholism. Pushing their way through the bread line is
the girls’ daily chore — a critical responsibility since there seems to be
little else to eat. On her way home from
school each day, Eka is bullied by a couple of boys, one of whom carries a
knife, while Natia does her best to spurn the advances of an aggressive local
who is determined to marry her. When another
boy gives Natia a handgun as a gift, it becomes even more apparent that this is
not your typical coming-of-age story.
Though sometimes it’s hard to determine whether this is
Eka’s or Natia’s story, against this backdrop it is Eka who stands out as the
story’s voice of mercy, asserting that no matter what the circumstances, it is
possible to be both strong and good.
Written and directed by Mira Fornay, Slovakia’s My Dog Killer was one of three Tiger
Award winners at the International Film Festival Rotterdam in early
February. Early on, the film signals its
concern with racism as we learn that Slovakia’s right-wing extremists are
celebrating the anniversary of the first Slovak State, a Nazi-aligned
government that deported an estimated 70,000 Jews from Slovakia, most of whom
ended up at Auschwitz.
Though shots are sometimes static and the film is slowly
paced, it becomes clear that our main character, Marek (Adam Mihal), is being
pulled in several directions. He has
been tasked by his father to convince his estranged mother (Irina Bendova) to
sign papers to sell their flat so that the father can pay debts and save his
vineyard. Shunned by Marek’s community,
the mother lives in another village with her young son, Lukas (Libor Filo), the
child of her adulterous affair with a Roma lover (often called “gypsies,” though this moniker is considered derogatory). Meanwhile, Marek tries to fit in with a crew of skinheads who are
quick to brand him a “crossover” when they learn he has a Roma half-brother.
The film’s focus is the anti-Roma hatred in Europe, which we
see as Lukas tries to follow his older brother into a cafe but is stopped by a
sign that reads “No Romas Allowed.” A
cafe patron complains loudly about this ethnic minority, saying that its
members steal and live off of government welfare. To them, Young Lukas is a “little
scum” and Marek’s mother a “whore [who]
popped out a gypsy.” In Slovakia, a
country where 80% of the Romani are
unemployed and many of them live in makeshift shacks on the perimeters of
villages, this conflict is not some remnant of the past but an ongoing,
present-day issue that the country has yet to resolve.
Marek’s motivations in the film’s final climax are
ambiguous, causing the film to suffer from a lack of clarity in later scenes. Still, Fornay’s film and the fact that
Slovakia has chosen it as its Oscar entry represent a meaningful effort to
consider sympathetically one of Europe’s most disadvantaged minorities.
Overall, the three films are linked by their concern for
some of society’s most vulnerable groups: the disabled, adolescent girls, and ethnic minorities. In the coming months, members of the Academy
will trim the Best Foreign Language Film submissions down to five nominees, to
be announced January 16th.
Mary Caroline Cummins is
a programmer at the Newport Beach Film Festival and a Lecturer in English at the University of California, Riverside.
She also run the Orange County Women and Film Meetup, which organizes weekly
trips to theaters for movie fans who want to see films written and directed by
women and runs her own blog, Mary at the Movies.