When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences held its first Foreign Language Symposium the Saturday before the Oscars, it rented a small conference room at the Beverly Hilton for what amounted to a press conference. Fifteen years later, as evidence of how much more interest all things Oscar have generated in recent years, the directors of the five contenders for best foreign film fielded questions from a full house Saturday in the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in the academy's headquarters in Beverly Hills.
The symposium, as the academy's Foreign Language Committee chair Fay Kanin observed in her introductory remarks, is intended to give the foreign directors the opportunity to connect with Hollywood and the public, and not get lost in the rest of the Oscar hoopla. "Getting acquainted and talking together is what this is all about," she said.
Guided by this year's host, director Norman Jewison, the five directors showed clips from their films and spoke about what motivated them in making their acclaimed movies. Four of the five films focus on children and family relationships. Caroline Link's "Beyond Silence" (Germany) tells of a girl raised by deaf parents in a small town in Southern Germany. Mike Van Diem's "Character" (the Netherlands) focuses on an exceedingly bitter relationship between a Rotterdam financier and court bailiff of the '20s who seemingly does all he can to destroy his illegitimate son, only making the young man stronger in the process.
Montxo Armendariz's "Secrets of the Heart" (Spain) views life in a small Spanish town in the '60s from the point of view of a 9-year-old boy. Pavel Chukhrai's "The Thief" (Russia) has as its hero a Russian boy born in the aftermath of World War II.
Director Bruno Barretto pointed out that even his "Four Days in September" (Brazil), which dramatizes the 1969 kidnapping of the American ambassador to Brazil, has to do with family in regard to the close ties between the young terrorists, to whom the kidnapping seemed their only means of calling attention to their protest of a new repressive government regime.
By now the symposium follows a familiar course: surprise on the part of the audience at how modest budgets are--a mere $1.5 million for "The Thief," for example, and wariness on the part of the filmmakers, concerned with creative freedom, of Hollywood offers, combined with gratitude that their films were nominated. Asked by Jewison if the nomination had any impact, Van Diem, a first-time feature director, quickly replied, "Are you kidding? We took a top prize at Cannes [the audience award] and nobody wanted to pick up our picture for the U.S. for nine months. But Sony picked it up at the pre-nomination screening. You people saved my life. Thank you."
Jewison asked the directors how it happened that all five films were edited by women. "Women are better at structure, men at texture," Van Diem said. "Women have a broader view of things, but the main point is that I wanted the very, very best editor." For Chukhrai, cracking a joke through a translator, the choice boiled down to something else: "It stimulates you a lot to work with a woman."
The frankest remarks, as is often the case, came over the directors' luncheon, which was held afterward at Le Dome. Van Diem reminded director Irvin Kershner that when, as a film journalist, he approached Kershner during a particularly difficult day during the shooting of a scene in Amsterdam for "The Empire Strikes Back," Kershner blurted out, "You don't know anything about making a movie!" And Kershner got to thank director Barbet Schroeder for his splendid documentary on Uganda dictator Idi Amin as preparation for his film "Raid on Entebbe."