Oscars: The Real Stories Behind 6 Foreign-Language Contenders

Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
'Two Days, One Night'

Six international directors open up about their films, ranging from the one about the aftermath of an avalanche to the first-ever submission from Malta (population: 423,000)

This story first appeared in the Dec. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. 

JEAN-PIERRE and LUC DARDENNE / Two Days, One Night (BELGIUM)

Notoriously Oscar-snubbed in 2012 when Belgium submitted Bullhead instead of their Cannes Grand Prix winner The Kid With a Bike, the writer-director brothers got a break this year when their Palme d'Or-nominated, National Board of Review-winning Two Days, One Night became the 2015 Belgian submission. Luc, who said in 2012 that foreign Oscar candidates should be chosen by an American committee from a list of films with U.S. distributors (instead of by the foreign countries themselves), thinks the process is improving. "It seems there's a way of choosing the films that's fairer than the way it was done before," he says. "Now the 10 people in Belgium who choose the films take into consideration the advice of certain American critics in the milieu, and I think that allows for greater objectivity in choosing the films." It didn't hurt that Two Days, One Night — a drama about a woman who has one tense weekend to talk her 16 co-workers into taking a pay cut to save her job — features the Dardennes' first bona fide movie star, Oscar winner Marion Cotillard. "We met her by accident when we co-produced Rust and Bone," says Jean-Pierre. Adds Luc, "It was cinematographic love at first sight." But the Dardennes, famous for depicting ordinary folk played by unknown actors, tried to make her stardom vanish. "Our challenge was to integrate Marion Cotillard into our film family," says Jean-Pierre. "We wanted people watching to forget that it was Marion Cotillard, for her to meld into the character to the point where Marion Cotillard disappeared."

XAVIER DOLAN /  Mommy (CANADA)

Writer-director Dolan won fame at 19 playing a semiautobiographical role in his 2009 film I Killed My Mother, starring Anne Dorval as the mom who sent him away to boarding school. In his Canadian Oscar submission Mommy, Dorval again plays a mom, only now she's the good one, and her teenage son (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) is a violent, if loving, pyromaniac. "He's mentally ill, uncontrollable," says Dolan. "She's an eternal teenager herself, a cougar mom, but deep down she's a brute force. She can handle him because she loves him so desperately." The film becomes a study of a love triangle when their tumultuous home gets invaded by a shy neighbor (Suzanne Clement) grieving the death of her own son. Dolan shot the film with natural lighting inspired by photographer Nan Goldin's artfully lurid book The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. Both neighbor and Mommy fixate on the crazy boy in a tense, unstable way. "It's a triumvirate," says Dolan, "but without the boy, the whole thing collapses."

See more Foreign Oscar Winners: Lupita Nyong'o and 12 Others Who Won Gold

ABDERRAHMANE SISSAKO / Timbuktu (MAURITANIA)

Mauritania’s first Oscar submission was inspired by the 2012 public stoning of a young couple by jihadist invaders in Northern Mali. “My film is about unreal events happening to real people,” says Sissako, a graduate of Russia’s renowned VGIK film school, said to be the world’s oldest. “I have three influences: Tarkovsky, who also attended VGIK, early Fellini, especially La Strada, and John Cassavetes.” The film aims for Cassavetes’ risky, spontaneous emotionalism; Fellini’s fond, sometimes humorous small-town realism; and the vast, tragic vistas of Tarkovsky — lensed by Cesar Award nominee Sofiane El Fani (Blue Is the Warmest Color). “Usually his camera is handheld, but for Timbuktu, the camera needed to be fixed in place,” says Sissako. The place is like no other, says the director. “Timbuktu is thousands of years old, a city of meetings where different communities always coexist — at the market, you hear five languages. The jihadists come from outside, and the Timbuktu imam tells them, ‘Where is compassion? Where is God in all of this?’ They have no answer.”

RUBEN OSTLUND / Force Majeure (SWEDEN)

Writer-director Ostlund started out as a skier and ski filmmaker, but his Swedish Oscar submission Force Majeure, which chronicles the emotional aftermath of an avalanche, was inspired by a YouTube video. “I YouTube’d hundreds of avalanches, watching how people behaved,” says Ostlund. “In one video, tourists at an outdoor restaurant in the French Alps panic but then realize that what hit them was just harmless ‘snow smoke,’ and they act ashamed for overreacting.” A friend asked Ostlund, “What if the father runs away and leaves his wife and kids?” Says the director: “I thought, ‘OK, that should be a feature film,’ the emotional roller coaster that follows.” Ostlund had a friend whose 4-year-old fell into a pool at a party, and the father hesitated to dive in to rescue him. “He had a cellphone in his pocket,” he explains. “His wife was so angry!” Ostlund had great fun shooting similar scenes for his film. “Yes, it’s a disaster film,” says Ostlund, chuckling, “but what’s interesting is the emotional disaster.”

Read more Marion Cotillard Admits She Was "Very Surprised" to Star in 'Two Days, One Night'

REBECCA CREMONA / Simshar (MALTA)

Malta, population 423,000, never had an Oscar submission until Simshar, but director Cremona boasts a crew with major credits. “I’m tapping into the expertise they gained when Munich, Gladiator, World War Z and Game of Thrones shot in Malta,” says the winner of a DGA student filmmaker award. The film is inspired by a 2008 fishing-boat disaster and the chronic plight of African immigrants. “I talked to trawler captains who said insurance companies brief them on how to avoid refugees floating in the water, to avoid millions in damages, and I thought, ‘I have a story.’ ” But she chose not to watch Terraferma, Italy’s 2012 Oscar submission, which tells a similar tale. In addition to launching Maltese cinema, at 31, she’s the youngest female director among this year’s foreign competitors.

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