Oscar's Foreign-Language Semi-Finalists: A Primer

6:45 AM 1/6/2017

by THR Staff

The list of global films in contention has narrowed to nine as THR highlights a Swiss stop-motion surprise, an aboriginal 'Romeo and Juliet,' an existential Swedish dramedy and a cautionary tale about man's capacity for evil from a Russian master.

'Tanna,' 'A Man Called Ove'
'Tanna,' 'A Man Called Ove'
Philippe Penel; Courtesy of Music Box Films
  • Tanna

    Australia

    Philippe Penel

    DIRECTORS Martin Butler and Bentley Dean

    THE LOWDOWN Filmmakers used their documentary skills to help villagers on Tanna make their own feature.

    Australian filmmakers Butler and Dean embarked on their debut feature, Tanna, after several years of making documentaries centered on Aboriginal Australia. In what Butler calls an "ambitious and crazy" idea, the pair decided to make a fictional feature that hews to their documentary roots. While they didn't know what story they wanted to tell, they knew they wanted to focus on the people of Tanna, a tiny South Pacific island where Dean had spent time making a doc in 2004. For seven months, the pair and their families lived in the village of Yakel, where they worked with locals to develop a Romeo and Juliet-style tale of young lovers defying an arranged marriage. Butler and Dean found that working with a crew of just two — Dean on camera and Butler as sound recordist — helped them quickly earn the villagers' trust. "We treat them as important participants in the film, not passive subjects," says Butler. Adds Dean: "We came with our own Western sensibility and grammar of film, which they totally got. But we didn't see any point in imposing on them what the story should be, as storytelling is such a central part of their culture." Butler and Dean were nervous about screening the film (shot in the local Navhaul language) to the villagers; they were relieved when the island's chiefs earnestly informed them that "we consider this our film." — Pip Bulbeck

  • My Life as a Zucchini

    Switzerland

    Courtesy of gkids

    DIRECTOR Claude Barras

    THE LOWDOWN Director Ken Loach's style was a key inspiration for Barras' unique stop-motion drama.

    While My Life as a Zucchini may look like a children's book come to life, its story is tinged with adult realism. The stop-motion feature, nominated for a best animated film Golden Globe, follows a 10-year-old after he is placed in an orphanage following the death of his alcoholic mother. Francophone Swiss director Barras says he adapted Gilles Paris' novel Autobiography of a Zucchini because he was attracted to its unique tone: "something akin to realism, a day-to-day reality that children should be able to recognize," he says. "Most animated films can be classified as fantasy in one way or another. I was more inspired by realistic work … such as Ken Loach, whose work has a documentary-like edge."

    To foster that sense of realism, the characters were voiced by untrained children. "The adults were actors, but the children were not," explains Barras. "I knew that if we got the voices right, they would continue to inspire and later reinforce the work of the animators." Zucchini's English-language version, distributed by GKids, will premiere at Sundance and has a voice cast that includes Will Forte, Ellen Page and Amy Sedaris. — Boyd Van Hoeij 

  • A Man Called Ove

    Sweden

    Courtesy of Music Box Films

    DIRECTOR Hannes Holm

    THE LOWDOWN Holm strived for a balance of humor and melancholy in his grumpy-old-man tale, a box-office hit in Europe.

    The first thing Swedish director Holm did when he started the screenplay for A Man Called Ove was to make sure it wasn't a comedy. "I was determined to make it as unfunny as possible," says Holm of adapting Fredrik Backman's best-selling novel about a cantankerous old man who rails against the world until a determined new neighbor cracks his irascible shell.

    "Reading the book, the things I loved weren't the funny parts," says Holm. "So when I sat down to write, and I saw a joke coming, it was like an alcoholic trying to avoid a drink. If you have too many jokes, you have to stop believing in the characters. And character is what makes people care."

    Ove arguably is the most mainstream film to make this year's foreign-language Oscar shortlist. But the crowd-pleasing tale has some dark touches, including Ove's failed suicide attempts, often interrupted by his nosy neighbor. "When I was shooting the scene with Ove with the noose around his neck, I was like, 'This could be too funny or it could be too much,' " says Holm. "I was so happy we choose Rolf Lassgard to play Ove — he understood how to make the suicides serious while still showing how stupid you look while you're doing it." — Scott Roxborough

  • Paradise

    Russia

    Courtesy of Venice Film Festival

    DIRECTOR Andrei Konchalovsky

    THE LOWDOWN The veteran helmer set out to reveal parallels between now and then in his Holocaust drama.

    World War II has been the focus of countless Russian dramas over the years, but the subject of the Holocaust rarely has been tackled head-on. Konchalovsky set out to change that with Paradise. Presented in stark black and white, the film revolves around three individuals from different backgrounds whose paths cross during the war: Olga, a Russian aristocrat who is imprisoned by Nazis in occupied France for sheltering a pair of Jewish children; Jules, a French Nazi collaborator who falls in love with Olga while investigating her case; and Helmut, a high-ranking Nazi officer who once was romantically involved with Olga.

    Konchalovsky says he employed the framework of a love triangle to examine how seemingly ordinary people maintain their humanity in the face of unthinkable atrocity. "Each character makes a significant life-altering decision based on their own belief of what is right," he says. "Can a person preserve their humanity, having experienced hell on Earth?"

    While the film takes place more than seven decades ago, Konchalovsky says it was his intention to show audiences clear contemporary parallels. "These atrocities exposed the depths of mankind's capabilities for evil," he says. "Although these events happened in the past, the same kind of radical and hateful thinking is apparent today and threatening the lives and safety of many around the world." — Vladimir Kozlov

  • 5 More Contenders

    'Toni Erdmann'
    'Toni Erdmann'
    Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

    Canada — It's Only the End of the World

    Denmark — Land of Mine

    Germany — Toni Erdmann

    Iran — The Salesman

    Norway — The King's Choice

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