On Monday, after the International Feature Film Oscar committee disqualified the Austrian entry, Sudabeh Mortezai’s “Joy,” the film’s producer and director went over the film and did their own calculations again. “It was a nasty surprise and quite a shock of course,” said Martin Schweighofer, Executive Director of Austrian Films, who sent a protest letter to the Academy on Thursday signed by Mortezai and producer Oliver Neumann.
According to their math, characters speaking subtitled Bini, German, and Pidgin (which uses different grammar and is not intelligible to English speakers) add up to more than 53 percent.
Clearly the languages flow in and out of each other in a way that is tough to count for everyone involved, but the Academy’s six “testers” –including a Pidgin expert–independently calculated the percentages of the languages in the film and came to the conclusion that the English, even without Pidgin, was more than two-thirds of the movie. The Academy stands by its initial calculations. The case remains closed.
Since 2006, the Oscar rules dictate that eligible movies must have a “predominantly non-English dialogue track,” a move made in an attempt to open up more opportunities for films from diverse cultures. This current rule is why Ireland, the U.K., and Australia often submit films to the Academy that are not in English. This year’s Irish entry, “Gaza,” was filmed in Arabic.
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Mortezai’s film debuted at Venice in 2018 and is currently streaming on Netflix. The film follows Nigerian sex workers in Vienna. Austria presumably knows the rules, having submitted 42 films over the years, including Michael Haneke’s 2005 French-language film “Cache.” That film was also disqualified, according to the rules at the time, for not being predominantly in the official language of the submitting country. Under revised rules, Austria submitted French-language film “Amour,” which won the Oscar.
This Academy decision follows last week’s controversial disqualification of the first-ever Nigerian entry, Genevieve Njaji’s Netflix pickup “Lionheart,” because it is mostly in the English language. In that case, the official language of Nigeria, which was colonized by the British, is English. The film’s 95-minute running time contains only 11 minutes of non-English dialogue in Igbo, a language of the ethnic group of the Igbo people, making it ineligible for the Best International Feature Film nod. If Nigeria submitted a film which included dialogue that included more than 50 percent in the Igbo language, it would still be eligible.
Other films that have also not been eligible in this category include American films in a foreign language, like Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” (filmed in Aramaic, Latin, and Hebrew), “Menashe,” whose characters spoke Yiddish, and Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell,” which was shot mostly in Mandarin.
These disqualifications are not unusual. Israel had to come up with another Oscar entry back in 2008 when “The Band’s Visit” didn’t meet the 50/50 English versus non-English language standard. Both “Joy” and “Lionheart” cannot be submitted for consideration in Best Picture and other categories because they played on Netflix before showing in theaters.
The newly named Best International feature Film category — what used to be known as the Best Foreign Language Oscar — seems to be adding to the general confusion.