As the Academy International Feature Film committee continues to vet its 92 entries to check their eligibility, it has determined that yet another contender has violated its rules about the use of the English language. Per the Academy, over two-thirds of Austria’s entry, Sudabeh Mortezai’s “Joy,” is in English. The committee notified Austria on Monday that the film was disqualified.
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.
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.
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.
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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” can still be submitted for consideration in Best Picture and other categories.
The new name of what used to be known as the Best Foreign Language Oscar is adding to the general confusion. Here’s the Academy’s statement on “Lionheart,” which provides further clarity:
“In April 2019, we announced that the name of the Foreign Language Film category changed to International Feature Film. We also confirmed that the rules for the category would not change. The intent of the award remains the same — to recognize accomplishment in films created outside of the United States in languages other than English. As this year’s submitted films were evaluated, we discovered that ‘Lionheart’ includes only 11 minutes of non-English dialogue, which makes it ineligible for this award category.”
Now the record 93 International Oscar entries are down to 91, one less than last year. And the record number of women directors in the category is now 27 instead of 29.
One upside: this Oscar fuss could make yet another Netflix pickup more visible to potential streamers curious to see an awards contender taken out of the fray too early.