Foreign-language Oscar a magnet for controversy

Tue Dec 23, 2008 4:11am EST
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By Steven Zeitchik

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Pity the foreign-language committee of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. No group works as hard watching so many difficult films. And yet no group takes as much grief for its choices.

That's what happens when the normal discontentment about Oscar choices goes global. The complaining can get loud.

This year, the rules for the foreign-language category again have been tweaked to limit oversights, and committee leaders generally are trying to learn from past flare-ups. No language controversies, the Academy hopes, a la the one over Israel's "The Band's Visit" last year. No debates over whether a submission actually comes from a bona fide country, like the flap over Palestinian entry "Divine Intervention" in 2002. No snubs of difficult material, like Romania's abortion-focused "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" last year. This year, it's going to be different.

But given the history of this difficult category -- voters, after all, have to compare dozens of divergent films and film cultures -- should we really be surprised if the announcement of the shortlist of nine next month brings more hand-wringing?

First, a quick history. After years of getting tarred with the tag of predictability, the foreign-language committee two years ago overhauled its system. Instead of having several hundred members choose five nominees, that group could now name nine. A separate body of 30 members would then be convened to narrow the list to five nominees. The premise was that by allowing nearly twice as many films on the shortlist, there'd be fewer possibilities for an oversight.

That seemed like a good idea -- until last year, when such edgier films as "4 Months" and France's "Persepolis" were excluded from the nine by the seemingly conservative voting committee. It turns out that giving a group more nominee slots doesn't change their sensibility; it just gives them more chances to make head-scratching choices.

So this year, the executive committee of the foreign-language committee -- yes, the bureaucratic names can be more impenetrable than a Fassbinder film -- is taking back some of the power it delegated. It's allowing the larger group to choose only six of the nine. Then the executive committee is coming in and choosing three films of its own.

"Historically, the general committee has a particular kind of member that may overlook something formally or thematically new or different or challenging. And though I don't love the word, I think we might be able to correct that a little," says Mark Johnson, chairman of the Academy's foreign-language film committee.   Continued...

<p>French director Laurent Cantet poses during a photocall after he received the Palme d'Or award for the film "Entre les Murs (The Class)" during the award ceremony at the 61st Cannes Film Festival May 25, 2008. REUTERS/Jean-Paul Pelissier</p>