December 23, 2008 / 9:15 AM / 10 years ago

Foreign-language Oscar a magnet for controversy

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.

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

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.

The foreign-language group is like a constant gardener: It’s always pruning, hoping the field looks better today than it did yesterday. And in many ways, it does. The lists of five nominees now, as a rule, contain fewer gaffes or serious omissions, even as the Academy must cope with a mindblowingly large pool of films thanks to burgeoning film regions including Eastern Europe and Latin America.

But this year’s rule changes, while solving one problem, open the door to another.

If the executive committee’s three slots are meant as a corrective, might it be tempted to use that power for reasons of politics instead of substance? Let’s say the initial group doesn’t choose “The Class.” French filmmaker Laurent Cantet’s picture is, undeniably, a great film and should be nominated. But will the executive committee feel pressure to choose it simply because it would be too embarrassing to omit a Palme d’Or winner? What happens, then, in a year when a more questionable Palme choice is made?

There’s another long-standing problem that the new rules don’t address: Unlike the Globes, the Oscars use a “one country, one submission” procedure. The system is designed to manage the overall number of films (a record 67 were submitted this year) while giving every country an ostensibly equal shot at the prize.

That’s all well and good. The problem, though, is that it means worthy candidates are overlooked even before the Academy gets a chance to weigh in. Last year, France had to decide between “Persepolis” and “La Vie en Rose”; this year, Gauls had to pick among “The Class” and the equally worthy “A Christmas Tale” and “I’ve Loved You So Long.” Filmmakers like Pedro Almodovar have been snubbed by their country. One film per country means some of the best movies are eliminated right off the bat.

The Academy leadership acknowledges the problem but says there isn’t much it can do; it doesn’t want to wade into the politics of each country by choosing for it, and it can’t throw open the doors to multiple submissions because it can’t reasonably be expected to consider hundreds of films.

But why not do something else? Why not allow a country to claim a wild card, say, once every five years? If France feels it has a particularly strong year — or, for that matter, if the Academy does — it could use the card to get two French films in that year. This way, the number of films stays manageable but a great film isn’t excluded simply because it shares a homeland with another strong title.

This year, there’s the usual deep stable of buzz candidates. “Waltz With Bashir,” “Everlasting Moments,” “The Class” and “Gomorrah” — from Israel, Sweden, France and Italy, respectively — all hold pole positions at the moment. And Norway’s “O’Horten,” Jordan’s “Captain Abu Raed,” Russia’s “Mermaid,” Turkey’s “Three Monkeys,” South Africa’s “Jerusalema” and Colombia’s “Dog Eat Dog” all have received attention for good reason. Lately, Kazakhstan’s “Tulpan” has come on the scene as a dark horse after winning some fest awards. And don’t rule out Germany’s Golden Globe nominee “The Baader Meinhof Complex,” which has drawn headlines because of its controversial subject.

A still from Sony Pictures Classics' "Waltz with Bashir". REUTERS/Handout

That list alone comes to 12 films. That means at least one-quarter of these contenders will be left off the shortlist, which in turns means we can get ready for more second-guessing.

It wouldn’t be the foreign-language Oscar race without it.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter

0 : 0
  • narrow-browser-and-phone
  • medium-browser-and-portrait-tablet
  • landscape-tablet
  • medium-wide-browser
  • wide-browser-and-larger
  • medium-browser-and-landscape-tablet
  • medium-wide-browser-and-larger
  • above-phone
  • portrait-tablet-and-above
  • above-portrait-tablet
  • landscape-tablet-and-above
  • landscape-tablet-and-medium-wide-browser
  • portrait-tablet-and-below
  • landscape-tablet-and-below