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WORLD CINEMA | The Foreign-Language Oscar Race: Where (Almost) Anything Can Happen

WORLD CINEMA | The Foreign-Language Oscar Race: Where (Almost) Anything Can Happen

You’ve got to hand it to Bulgaria, Chile, and the Philippines: Year after year, the countries proudly enter their most celebrated films into the race for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film–with not a chance in hell of winning. And poor Portugal: it holds the record for most submissions without ever receiving a nomination. With the exception of Bosnian director Danis Tanovic‘s “No Man’s Land” victory in 2002, the prize has never gone to a director from a developing country.

But such cruel realities won’t stop an increasing array of countries from joining the Oscar competition. This year, we offer the best of luck to Estonia’s “The Class,” Bangladesh’s “On the Wings of Dreams,” Bolivia’s “The Andes Don’t Believe in God,” and, of course, Portugal’s “Belle Toujours.” But you can bet everyone’s money will be elsewhere on Oscar night.

This year’s official list won’t be announced until Friday, Oct. 12, but the big contenders are already taking shape: “Persepolis” (France), “The Counterfeiters” (Austria), “The Band’s Visit” (Israel), “The Orphanage” (Spain), and “Lust, Caution” (Taiwan) are in the lead, with a number of others in striking distance, including “Caramel” (Lebanon), “Mongol” (Kazakhstan), “Jar City” (Iceland), “Secret Sunshine” (South Korea) and Romanian Cannes winner “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.”

But the Oscars aren’t Cannes, and anything can happen on the road to the foreign-language prize. As Sony Pictures ClassicsMichael Barker says, “After twenty-six years, I’ve ceased to be able to predict what movies these countries will enter and what movies get in the final five, and what movies will win. It’s a very unpredictable process.”

Indeed, two of Sony Classics’s frontrunners “Persepolis” and “The Band’s Visit” have already been caught up in local spats. “Persepolis,” for example, an animated adaptation of Marjane Satrapi‘s graphic novel, was a less obvious choice for Oscar than Olivier Dahan‘s bio-pic of much-loved French singing icon Edith Piaf “La Vie en rose.”

A huge phenomenon in France and the third-highest grossing French film in the U.S., “La Vie en rose” would have seemed the expected choice for France’s seven-member selection committee–which includes Unifrance chief Margaret Menegoz and Cannes’s Thierry Fremaux–especially given past popular French selections such as “The Chorus,” “Merry Christmas,” and “Orchestra Seats.”

“It’s so bizarre,” says “La Vie en rose” producer Alain Goldman. “Obviously, they did not think let’s get the one that has the most chance to win, because then they would have picked ‘La Vie en rose.’ It was such a good contender to win this year, and they knew that, so I would really like to understand why,” he wonders. “What was their goal?”

After 14 years of leaving the Oscars empty-handed (France last won in 1993 with “Indochine“), the French selection committee intentionally may have chosen a film not so stereotypically French: “Persepolis,” which is Iranian as much as French, won Cannes’ Jury Prize and plenty of plaudits around the world.

Goldman remains skeptical, and contends that “Persepolis” should have been submitted for Best Animated Film. “It has its own natural category,” he says. “It’s an animation.” Despite the setback, Goldman and Picturehouse, the U.S. distributor of “La Vie en rose,” will be pushing the film for the main categories, with star Marion Cotillard as a strong contender for Best Actress.

Halfway across the world in Israel, there have been reports that “The Band’s Visit” has too much English too qualify as a foreign-language film. But Sony Classics’ Michael Barker is not bothered by the rumors. “Over the many years, there is always sour grapes,” he says, especially among countries that have several strong contenders.

Barker doesn’t dispute there is English in “The Band’s Visit.” “But the story dictates that,” he says. “It is keeping in a long tradition of foreign language films that have some English in them. Look at ‘No Man’s Land’; look at ‘Four Days in September.'”

A scene from Sergei Bodrov’s “Mongol.” Image courtesy of Picturehouse.

There have been other contentious decisions, disputes and politicking:

Brazil chose the crowd-pleasing comic drama “The Year My Parents Went on Vacation” over the blockbuster crime-film “Elite Squad,” fearing its violent content would put off Oscar voters.

Chinese film authorities have been left in the lurch after Peter Chan‘s battle epic “The Warlords,” staring Jet Li and Takeshi Kaneshiro, was withdrawn from consideration because investors decided to hold off on release until next year, according to Chinese news service Xinhua.

Scottish producer Christopher Young resigned from BAFTA in protest of the London-based organization’s decision not to submit the Gaelic-language “Searchd: The Inaccessible Pinnacle” as the UK’s pick, alleging a conspiracy against not-British productions.

And in India, producer Bhavna Talwar (“Dharm“) is challenging the selection of a rival film “Eklavya: The Royal Guard” in the Mumbai High Court, alleging that jury members were personally tied to the chosen film’s producer-director Vidhu Vinod Chopra.

And come Friday, additional titles may still be in dispute: Will “Lust, Caution” get past AMPAS regulators as Taiwan’s official entry, given that the film’s only link to Taiwan is that the nation is director Ang Lee’s birthplace? Will Kazahkstan’s entry “Mongol” satisfy skeptics that its creators are primarily Kazakh and not Russian? (Director Sergei Bodrov, apparently, has dual citizenship, according to Picturehouse, the film’s U.S. distributor.)

The fierce infighting confirms that the category has become increasingly valuable to foreign industries looking for inroads into the U.S. market. “The stakes are higher every year,” says Barker.

Indeed, Film Movement President Adley Gartenstein admits there are several films the company will be pursuing on the list of official submissions. “It’s definitely something we use,” he says, “and we’ll probably request screeners of films on the list that we have not heard of before.”

While Gartenstein admits a submission doesn’t increase the monetary value of a film, it does change sales agents’ expectations. After agreeing on a price for one of the films, for example, Gartenstein says the sales agent backed off after the country announced the picture as its Oscar submission, hoping for a better deal with Sony Pictures Classics.

Arianna Bocco, IFC Entertainment‘s VP of Acquisitions and Productions, admits, “To buy a movie just because it might be the country’s nomination is not the right reason to buy a movie. But obviously, people take it into consideration.”

“There’s always a film that pops,” she says, speaking of the Academy screenings for foreign films, which soon take place in Los Angeles. “A film suddenly gets in front of an audience and it can change your mind. It’s the end of the year, people are taking a look at their slates and if a film comes along that plays well,” she continues, “anything can happen.”

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