Foreign Oscar Quandary: Academy Nixes "Maria," Colombia Adds "El Rey," and Other Stories from the Foreign-Lingo Category
by Anthony Kaufman
Like Bush's America, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences doesn't exactly know what to do with the rest of the world. Sometimes, foreigners are embraced; other times they are shunned. Sometimes, they seem to fit into their best-laid plans; sometimes they are steamrolled.
The Oscar category for Best Foreign Language film is fraught with so many intricate procedures and regulations that both industry insiders and outsiders never fail to be surprised by its outcome. After last year's official nominees were announced -- the Neverlands' "Twin Sisters" (Miramax, never released), Japan's "The Twilight Samurai" (Empire), Czech Republic's "Zelary" (Sony Classics), Norway's "Evil" (never acquired) and the eventual Canadian winner "The Barbarian Invasions" -- many called for an overhaul of a process that produced such an odd group.
Even before this year's 49-film official Oscar submission list was announced last week (a drop from recent record highs of 56 and 55 entries in recent years), trade magazine Variety was crying foul that a number of this year's most high-profile foreign-lingo pictures were shut out of the category. For various reasons, box office winners "Hero," "Maria Full of Grace," "The Motorcycle Diaries," and upcoming major releases "A Very Long Engagement" and "Bad Education" will vie for prizes in every category -- except Best Foreign Language film. "What's wrong with this picture?" asked Variety's Timothy M. Gray.
"The system is well thought-out," says Reid Rosefelt, a veteran publicist for several foreign Oscar winners ("All About My Mother," "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" "Burnt by the Sun"). "But if it's supposed to be about finding the best film of the year, it's definitely not doing that. But if it's about giving each country a chance, no matter how tiny, then that would be the case."
If, for instance, a change in rules allowed for the year's best foreign language U.S. releases, the category would be decidedly different: most likely, dominated by the most popular films. But by allowing countries to submit what they deem to be their most promising contenders and by splitting up the final batch of submissions into three groups, for a Foreign Language Committee voting body that skews older, the final tally may not exactly reflect the "best" foreign language films of the year. A lot can happen on the way to the Kodak Theater.
First, there are the nominating organizations in each respective country. Rarely, do they follow the same guidelines. After Almodovar won best foreign lingo prize for "All About My Mother," for example, his subsequent pictures "Talk to Her" and "Bad Education" were not chosen to compete. "'Talk to Her' had a better chance than 'Mondays in the Sun,'" says Rosefelt. "So if they were just strategically trying to win, they would have chosen 'Talk to Her.' But Pedro had already won his awards, so they thought, 'why not give this other guy a chance.'" This year, Alejandro Amenabar's "The Sea Inside," starring Javier Bardem as a quadriplegic trying to die with dignity, beat out Almodovar's "Bad Education" for Spain's Oscar spot.
Several other countries had tough choices to make: Germany, for instance, chose the last days of Hitler bio-pic Oliver Hirschbiegel's "Downfall" over Berlinale fest winner and box office champ "Head On"; in a surprise move, Denmark selected Jorgen Leth and Lars Von Trier's docu-experiment "The Five Obstructions" instead of acclaimed dramas such as Susanne Bier's "Brothers" and Annette K. Olesen's "In Your Hands"; and Israel picked Joseph Cedar's '80s-set domestic drama "Campfire" over Eytan Fox's popular "Walk on Water."
Senegalese director Ousmene Sembene's critically acclaimed Cannes sensation "Moolaade" -- which none other than critic Roger Ebert called "a possible winner in the best foreign film category" -- was not submitted, at all, by Senegal. While the film's U.S. distributor New Yorker Films could not confirm the reasons for the oversight, possibilities may include a preponderance of creative talent from France and Burkina Faso that would disqualify the film or simply a disinterest in the Oscars by Sembene or Senegal's film industry.
In one of the more notable rejects, Colombia selected American director Joshua Marston's "Maria Full of Grace" to be that country's submission. But the Academy disqualified the film, citing rule #3, which states, "The submitting country must certify that creative talent of that country exercised artistic control of the film." After a failed appeal to put "Maria" back on the ballot, Colombia has chosen a different film, "El Rey" (The King), directed by Jose Antonio Dorado, to represent the nation.
But the choice of Marston's debut film -- and its rejection -- reveals some of the intricacies of the Academy guidelines. Rule # 3 is often cited as a reason for eliminating pics. The Ukraine's entry "A Driver for Vera" was also deemed too Russian to qualify as Ukrainian.
According to Academy communications director John Pavlik, there is "wiggle room" in the meaning of the phrase: "creative talent of that country exercised artistic control," but at least 2 out of the 3 positions of writer, director and producer must come from the country of origin. Despite the fact "Maria" has Colombian producers and has been embraced by Colombia, winning the "Best Colombian Film" prize at the country's Cartegena International Film Festival, Marston, an American, wrote and directed "Maria."
"The committee tries to be as liberal as possible in determining that rule," says Pavlik, "but when you're trying to reward a specific country the committee feels it needs to be created from people from that country." In the past, he continues, "We actually nominated a Uruguayan film only to discover it was Argentinean. There was plenty of press about that one."
But in an age where the film industry is increasingly global, with international co-productions par for the course, can films and filmmakers really be identified with a single nation? "The Motorcycle Diaries" was directed by Brazilian Walter Salles, written by Puerto Rican screenwriter Jose Rivera, and produced by a collection of American, British and Argentines. If a film has no single country from which to be submitted, should it be penalized for its mixed identity?
The same fate befalls foreign-language films made in the United States, like "Maria Full of Grace" or the recent "La Ciudad," also produced by "Maria's" Paul Mezey. "If the prize is about best foreign language film," asks Reid Rosefelt, who is repping "Maria," "why can't you choose a film made in America?"
Citing Ireland's 2000 Welsh-language entry "Solomon & Gaenor" and this year's South African submission, "Yesterday," directed by a white South African in the Zulu language, Rosefelt continues, "If other countries that are predominantly English-language can submit foreign language films, why can't the U.S.? It's a multicultural world, and there's going to be more of that happening."
Pavlik says there's no mechanism in place, because English is considered to be the official language of the U.S. and there are no official organizations for submitting foreign language films made in the U.S. However, Academy guidelines state, "Films involving subcultures that speak a non-English, non-official language may qualify if their subject matter concerns life in the submitting country."
Recalling a Navajo language film submitted to the Academy, Pavlik says, "I suppose you could say it's coming from the Navajo nation, but it's really the same kind of situation that happened with the UK Hindi film ["The Warrior"]. Yes, there are tons of Hindi in the UK, but it's not the official language of the country."
Dennis O'Connor, head of HBO Films, which backed "Maria Full of Grace," tries to see the brighter side of the Academy's rulings. "It's a fluke that there happens to be several prominent foreign language films and none of them are their country's submissions," he says. "But maybe it's a sign of maturity that they're all competing for main categories against all these Hollywood studio films."
The five nominees for Best Foreign Language film will be announced on Tuesday, January 25, 2005. If past years were any indication, guessing would be folly. But this year's likely contenders could include Zhang Yimou's "House of Flying Daggers" (China), Alejandro Amenabar's "The Sea Inside" (Spain), Gianni Amelio's "The House Keys" (Italy) and wild cards including "Up and Down," by former Czech nominee Jan Hrebejk, "Downfall" or "Yesterday."