The difficult path to a foreign-language film Oscar


Something like a glammed-up re-imagining of the United Nations, year-in, year-out the foreign-language film category at the Oscars is a home to diplomacy, drama, intrigue and heartbreak. And that’s just the process to secure a nomination and then the award, to say nothing of the actual storytelling portrayed on-screen.

The recently announced shortlist of nine films vying for the nomination in the category did nevertheless contain the two presumed front-runners, the Austrian awards-magnet “Amour” and France’s international box office sensation “The Intouchables.”

Carping about the specifics of the foreign-language film selection process is something of an Oscar-watching pastime unto itself, with critic Scott Foundas of the Village Voice only half-jokingly inserting the word “scandal” into a headline year after year. Cameron Bailey, artistic director of the Toronto International Film Festival, took to Twitter to note “Odd that 7 of 9 on Oscars foreign shortlist are European. Not one good film from Asia or Africa this year?”



Besides “Amour” and “Intouchables,” the remaining films make for a heady mix that leans heavily on stories drawn from real life, including Chile’s political drama “No” and Denmark’s period romance “A Royal Affair” alongside the dueling tales of seafaring adventure and survival in Norway’s “Kon-Tiki” and Iceland’s “The Deep.” Rounding out the shortlist are Romania’s “Beyond the Hills,” Canada’s “War Witch,” set in war-torn Africa, and Switzerland’s “Sister,” a drama of class and family bonds.

This marks the first year the foreign-language film committee is being overseen by producer Ron Yerxa and former Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences executive director Bruce Davis, because the academy’s selection process was retooled under former foreign-language film chair Mark Johnson. The complicated process to receive a nomination begins when individual countries put forth a single film as their official selection, with a record 71 submissions this year.

After a screening process, a volunteer committee of academy members then put forth six films for the shortlist with the executive committee adding three more. Specially selected screening committees in Los Angeles and New York next watch all nine short-listed films over a weekend to decide the five nominees. To vote on the final award, academy members must prove they have attended theatrical screenings of all five nominees.

Where many saw the academy’s initial move to broaden the field beyond five nominees for best picture as a way to include more popular fare such as “The Dark Knight,” changes in the foreign-language film selection procedures were to be sure that internationally acclaimed films such as 2007’s harrowing Romanian entry “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” were not overlooked in the nominating process. It is perhaps no accident that “4 Months” director Cristian Mungiu’s intense religious drama “Beyond the Hills” is on the shortlist this year.

However, some see the process as perennially flawed until the academy reconsiders the one-film-per-country rule. At the Golden Globes, for example, where no such rule exists, the official French Oscar submission of “The Intouchables” and another well-regarded French film, “Rust and Bone,” were both nominated. (Four of the Oscar shortlisted films are in French, however.)


Though the academy rule is intended to level the playing field among countries that produce a lot of films in a year versus those that do not (as well as limit the sheer volume of films the academy has to consider), it also makes each country the first step in the process of the award. From Russia, for example, there was controversy last year that influential filmmaker Nikita Mikhalkov’s flop “Burnt by the Sun 2: Citadel” was the country’s selection rather than other films that played more strongly on the festival circuit.

“I think ultimately it’s a bit unfair,” said Jeff Lipsky of Adopt Films, distributor of the Swiss film “Sister,” which did make the shortlist, as well as the German submission “Barbara” and the Italian submission “Caesar Must Die,” both of which did not. “The category is called best foreign language film, not best foreign language film as selected by an overly politicized committee in every nation of the world.”

The worldwide recognition of the Academy Awards brings a new spotlight to any nominated film. Even Michael Haneke, director of the intense drama of love and death “Amour” and thought of as one of the world’s most intimidating filmmakers, exclaimed “Wunderbar!” when asked how he felt about awards recognition for his film. As Pablo Larrain, director of “No,” said of the possibility of Oscar assisting in reaching a broader audience, “I’m not a filmmaker who wants to keep his films in the closet.”

Larrain’s movie is one of the numerous films on the shortlist to draw its story from real life, examining the creation of the opposition’s advertising campaign before the election in 1988 that ousted Augusto Pinochet as leader of Chile. Starring Gael García Bernal as an adman drawn into the world of politics, “No” was shot using refurbished video cameras from that era to integrate more seamlessly with archival campaign footage.

“That was the biggest challenge, to create a fiction with the tools of documentary so people wouldn’t know what they were looking at, if it was archival footage or something we shot,” said Larrain. “After a few minutes you are in the story and you stop asking questions about how it was made and what is from where. You just jump into the story.”

For the filmmakers of “Kon-Tiki” there was somewhat of the opposite problem, as their film is the story of Thor Heyerdahl’s 1947 adventure sailing a raft across the Pacific Ocean, which has been the subject of numerous documentaries. Heyerdahl’s own film of the journey, also called “Kon-Tiki,” won the Academy Award for documentary, making him the only Norwegian to as of yet win an Oscar.


“We wanted to fill in the gaps,” said Espen Sandberg, co-director of the new “Kon-Tiki” with Joachim Rønning. “Heyerdahl was more interested in science, but his film isn’t so popular because people are so interested in migration patterns, it’s because this is a great adventure. It’s thrilling to ask yourself if you would dare to do that. And we want to tell that part of the story.”

Though it remains to be seen how the final nominations shake out, it is perhaps hard for filmmakers and distributors not to feel that in this year’s competition there is the much-lauded “Amour,” perhaps to a lesser degree the popular hit “The Intouchables” and then there is everything else.

“Amour” is distributed by Sony Pictures Classics, which has won the foreign-language film category three years running and five of the last six. With the expectation of possible nominations in other categories for “Amour,” maybe even best picture, the common perception is almost that the foreign-language film prize is a given.

“The real story is what the Weinsteins or Adopt Films or IFC or the other distributors do in the face of this inexplicable manifest avalanche of ‘Amour’ is going to win no matter what,’” noted Lipsky. “If we’re fortunate enough to be nominated, to be one of the five, what do we do?”


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