Screeners Debate Aside, Oscar Foreign Language Race Kicks Off
by Brian Brooks
Jack Valenti made it official on Tuesday, announcing an agreement among the Hollywood studios, and their respective specialty divisions, to end the practice of distributing screening tapes and DVDs in awards season campaigning. That aside, today Oscar season will kick into gear in the best foreign-language film category as the deadline passes for individual countries to submit official entry forms for their selection in the race for the Academy Award. Last year saw a record 54 countries submit titles for consideration for one of the five nomination slots, with Germany's "Nowhere in Africa" by Caroline Link winning the coveted honor and later earning more than $6 million at the box office in the United States. Other nominees included "El Crimen del Padre Amaro" (Carlos Carrera, Mexico), "Hero" (Zhang Yimou, People's Republic of China), "The Man Without a Past" (Aki Kaurismaki, Finland), and "Zus & Zo" (Paula van der Oest, The Netherlands).
While the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) is planning to release the full list of titles for consideration later this month, a number of countries have already announced their selections. Among the films already submitted, four have U.S. distribution deals with Sony Pictures Classics including Brazil's "Carandiru" by Hector Babenco, which was in competition at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival, as well as France's "Bon Voyage" by Jean Paul Rappeneau. Other Sony Classics titles are Germany's "Good Bye, Lenin!" by Wolfgang Becker, which screened in competition at the 2003 Berlinale, and Korea's "Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... And Spring" by Kim Ki-Duk, which picked up multiple awards in Locarno and screened to critical acclaim in Toronto.
Miramax Films also has three films in the running so far, including Argentina's "Valentin" by Alejandro Agresti, The Netherlands' "Twin Sisters" by Ben Sombogaart, and Canada's "Les Invasiones Barbares" (The Barbarian Invasions) by Denys Arcand. "Barbarian" won two prizes this year in Cannes for best actress (Marie-Josee Croze) and best screenplay (Denys Arcand) as well as the best Canadian feature film prize at the 2003 Toronto International Film Festival. Palm Pictures has distribution rights for two titles that are submitted for consideration so far: Denmark's "Reconstruction" by Christoffer Boe, which received the Camera d'Or at Cannes 2003 and Icelandic entry "Noi Albinoi" by Dagur Kari which won honors in Edinburgh and Rotterdam earlier this year. Thailand's entry "Last Life in the Universe" by Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, which received a best actor nod in Venice in the upstream competition for Tadanobu Asano, is expected to be released to by Palm as well.
Afghanistan has submitted "Osama," which was acquired by United Artists, while Norway's selection, "Kitchen Stories" by Bent Hamer won awards at festivals and has been picked up for U.S. release by IFC Films. New Yorker Films will release Turkey's entry "Uzak" (Distant) by Nuri Bilge Ceylan. It played in competition earlier this year in Cannes where it won the grand jury prize and an award for best actor.
Other films already submitted by nations include Belgium's "Verder Dan De Maan" (Sea of Silence) by Stijn Coninx; "Sexual Dependency" by Rodrigo Bellott from Bolivia which was the winner of the FIPRESCI Award in Locarno; China's "Warriors of Heaven and Earth" by He Ping and Egypt's "Saha El Layaly" (Sleepless Nights) by Hany Khalifa; and Bosnia and Herzegovina's "Fuse" by Pjer Zalica (Bosnia and Herzegovina won the best foreign language Oscar in 2001 for Danis Tanovic's "No Man's Land").
Also entered so far are Hong Kong's "Infernal Affairs" by Andy Lau (the Academy allows Hong Kong separate consideration from the rest of China); Hungary's "Forest" by Benedek Fliegauf; Israel's "Asonot Shel Nina" (Nina's Tragedies) by Savi Gavison; Mexico's "Aro Tolbukhin: En la Mente del Asesino" (Aro Tolbukhin: In the Mind of a Killer) by Agustin Villaronga, Lydia Zimmerman and Isaac Pierre Racine; and Sweden's "Ondskan" (Evil) by Mikael Hafstrom, which screened this year in Toronto.
A number of rules govern the eligibility of a film before it makes its way to the offices of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles from its country of origin. AMPAS defines a foreign-language film, first off, as "a feature-length motion picture produced outside the United States of America with a predominantly non-English track." The film must have been "publicly exhibited" in the submitting country on 35mm or 70mm film for at least seven consecutive days in a commercial motion picture theater for, in the words of the AMPAS official rules, "the profit of the producer and exhibitor [and] advertised and exploited during its eligibility run in a manner considered normal and customary to the industry" between November 1, 2002 and September 30, 2003.
A number of other rules apply as well: The language of the film must be mostly in an official language of the country submitting the film. South Africa, for example, could not submit a film that was predominately in Japanese. Exceptions are made, however, for "sub-cultures" that speak non-English, non-official languages or for films that "mandate that an additional non-English language be predominant." Finally, the submitting country must certify that creative talent of that country "exercised creative control" of the film, and of course, the Academy has the right to make the final determination on matters of eligibility. Official rules of the Academy state that "only one picture will be accepted from each country." This rule caused a bit of a ruckus for the 2003 Oscar race with the official entry from Spain. The Spanish selection committee submitted "Mondays in the Sun," the multiple Goya-winner (Spain's highest film awards) by Fernando Leon de Aranoa for consideration, bypassing "Hable con Ella" (Talk to Her) by Pedro Almodovar, the country's most famous director and winner of the Oscar for best foreign language in 2000 for "All About My Mother." In the end, Almodovar received a separate nomination for "Talk to Her" for best achievement in directing and won an Oscar for the film's screenplay.
After the dozens of submissions are received, the films will be screened by the Academy's Foreign Language Film Award Committee, which votes by secret ballot to nominate five foreign-language pictures for the Oscar. Films submitted for consideration may also qualify for Oscars in separate categories but this, too, is governed by another set of rules and regulations including dates of a film's commercial release in Los Angeles County and so forth. The five nominees for 2004 best foreign-language film award will be announced, along with nominees in all other Oscar categories, on January 27.
[Eugene Hernandez contributed to this report.]