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THE BIG PICTURE: Oscars' foreign policy problem

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I have a piece of advice for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Take your 44-page rule book, toss it out the window and start all over.

Anyone who thinks that the rest of the world is peeved with the United States simply because of the go-it-alone policies of the Bush administration should spend some time at an international film festival. Whenever the subject of the Oscars pops up, filmmakers begin to mutter all sorts of colorful anti-American imprecations -- badmuts, I have learned, is Dutch slang for "idiot" -- especially when talk turns to the bizarre, impenetrable prohibitions involving foreign films.

In 2005, the academy refused to accept "Cache," one of the year's best-reviewed films, because it was submitted by Austria but its dialogue was in French. In 2004, "Maria Full of Grace," another film decorated with rave reviews, was rejected as Colombia's submission because the film didn't have enough Spanish in it.

This year the victim is "The Band's Visit," an Israeli film that swept Israel's Ophir Awards and was honored at festivals around the world. Written and directed by first-timer Eran Kolirin, it has earned critical plaudits for its story about an Egyptian police band that finds itself stranded in a dusty Israeli desert town. The film's tone is wry and heartwarming but without an ounce of sentiment, carried by a great performance from Sasson Gabai, the band's conductor, who has the soulful stoicism of Buster Keaton.

The movie, which opens in L.A. on Dec. 7, is so popular that its U.S. distributor, Sony Pictures Classics, felt it would be a hit with Oscar voters who love films with an optimistic view on world events. Surely it wouldn't be lost on academy members that a movie from a country racked by political division and despair had more uplift than any of the dreary Iraq-war inspired Hollywood films flooding the multiplexes this fall.

But "The Band's Visit" is out of Oscar luck, at least when it comes to the foreign-language film category. As Foreign-Language Film Selection Committee Chairman Mark Johnson told me last week, the film was rejected because more than 50% of its dialogue was in English. Academy rules hold that for films to qualify, their dialogue must be "predominantly in a non-English language."

"You have to remember, it's called best foreign-language film, not best foreign film," says Johnson, a respected Hollywood producer. "I'm heartbroken, because I loved the movie. But there wasn't a single person on our committee that disagreed with the decision. If we accepted this film just because we liked it so much, the rules wouldn't mean anything at all."

The academy may find its rule book a sacred text, but every year it gets them in more trouble. Johnson has worked wonders in recent years recruiting more active industry figures for the foreign film selection process, but if you're consistently keeping great films out of competition, then you must be doing something wrong. Why, might you ask, does this Israeli film have so much English in it? For the simple reason that when Egyptians and Israelis find themselves thrown together, guess what language they use to make themselves understood? English, the new mother tongue.

In fact, the English spoken in "The Band's Visit" is so fractured that all the dialogue in the film, whether Arabic, Hebrew or English, is subtitled. Having seen the film, I'd argue that it's grotesquely unfair to punish the movie for simply showing how difficult it is for clashing cultures to communicate.

The film's producer, Ehud Bleiberg, broke down in tears when we spoke about the academy decision. "This is a tragedy, especially for the filmmaker, who made this film for everybody,"' he said. "We were just banned from the film festival in Abu Dhabi simply because we were an Israeli film. Now we've been banned from this Oscar category because they say our movie has too much English. It's almost Kafkaesque, to have a movie judged not on its art, but by a stopwatch."

He stopped to compose himself. "How does the academy think that Israelis and Egyptians can talk to each other? Should they only talk with weapons?"

Bleiberg said that while the Israeli academy has submitted a backup entry, many of its members are infuriated by the U.S. academy's decision. "They feel as if they've been slapped in the face. It won eight of our 12 film award prizes -- best film, director, screenplay, lead actor and actress. To have the rest of the world only hear about our country when it comes to war and strife, and then have this beautiful, optimistic film rejected, is a terrible blow for everyone."

It's also a huge blow for the film's commercial reach. Eighty percent of the box-office returns for the German film "The Lives of Others" came after it won the Oscar for best foreign-language film this past February.

But what especially troubles me about the academy's decision is that "The Band's Visit" didn't get a fair hearing. It's hard to believe that a selection committee made up of such gifted filmmakers as Curtis Hanson and Caleb Deschanel wouldn't have instinctively understood the thematic importance of the film's use of English.

But much to my shock, Johnson told me he was the only person on the committee who actually watched the movie. It was simply judged by a stopwatch. Filmmakers often complain that conservative ideologues attack Hollywood movies for being unpatriotic without bothering to see the films -- as has just happened with "Rendition" -- yet an august body of academy filmmakers rejected Israel's most decorated film without bothering to see it.

I give academy executive director Bruce Davis credit for his willingness to get on the phone and defend the decision. But he was dismissive of my concerns. "Seeing the film really isn't essential," he said. "Out of 60 or more foreign-language entries, there are probably a dozen that had eligibility questions. No one has the time to watch every movie where there's an issue. It doesn't matter whether this was a wonderful film. This film didn't come close to meeting the criteria, so it's out."

Rules are rules, but something's wrong when an organization devoted to celebrating the greatness of cinema is making its decisions, as Sony Classics co-chief Michael Barker put it, "based on mathematics instead of art." Davis, who also makes the point that the film is still eligible in other Oscar categories including best picture, believes I'm the one being arbitrary by putting a film's value ahead of the academy's rules. But it's the academy that has put itself in an indefensible position by devising rules that are needlessly arbitrary. It was only last year that it found itself in the midst of a huge furor over its nutty decree that films only have three eligible producers, a rule that came under attack when it turned out that best-picture nominee "Little Miss Sunshine" had five producers all perfectly deserving of credit.

The restriction was such a debacle that the academy promptly changed it, allowing for more wiggle room this year. It should do the same for foreign-language films. There will always be countries who will try to exploit the rule book. Taiwan's submission of Ang Lee's "Lust, Caution" was rejected when the academy discovered Lee was one of the few creative forces on the film from Taiwan. But that's why the academy has selection committees. When there's a judgment call, give them the flexibility to make a decision that allows good films in instead of shutting them out.

A rule decreeing that foreign films have to be "predominantly in a non-English language" is a rule showing its age. Already the common business language, English is quickly becoming a common language of cinema as well, especially as local productions try to reach a global audience. Even worse, by overruling a selection made by a respected group of filmmakers in the film's country of origin, the academy allows itself to be viewed as another arrogant American institution that insists on having the rest of the world play by its rules.

Maybe it's asking too much for the academy to embrace the future. But just for once I wish they weren't the last people on the planet to notice how quickly the times are a-changin'.

The Big Picture runs every Tuesday. Questions or criticism can be e-mailed to patrick.goldstein@latimes.com.

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