It's Time for Oscar to Rethink Its Approach to Foreign-Language Films (Analysis)
This story first appeared in the Feb. 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
The Academy Award for best foreign-language film is the most stubbornly nationalist of the Oscar categories. While other Oscars honor individuals, the foreign-language nod goes to the country that submitted the winning film. On Oscar night, the triumphant director -- Amour's Michael Haneke, War Witch's Kim Nguyen, A Royal Affair's Nikolaj Arcel, No's Pablo Larrain or the Kon-Tiki duo of Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg -- will hoist the statuette, but the name on its base will be that of Austria, Canada, Denmark, Chile or Norway, respectively.
Under Academy rules, it's the country, not the filmmakers. And the rules are fairly elastic. The movie no longer has to be in the language of the submitting country -- that's why Austria's entry is in French -- as long as the country can claim "that creative control of the motion picture was largely in the hands of citizens or residents of that country."
It's ironic, though, that while the Oscars cling to the nation-state, the film industry -- particularly the foreign-film world -- has long gone global.
None of the five nominees for foreign-language film this year is a national purebred. All are healthy mutts representing cross-border combinations of talent, money and ideas.
Amour is a France/Germany/Austria co-production shot in French, in Paris, with an all-French cast. No was bankrolled out of France and the U.S. and stars Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal as a Chilean ad man working during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. A Royal Affair features a Danish-Swedish cast and largely was shot in the Czech Republic. Nguyen, a Canadian with a Quebecois mother and Vietnamese father, set War Witch in the Congo and cast Kinshasa street kids. Kon-Tiki actually began as a British production (set to star Michael Douglas) before English producer Jeremy Thomas joined with two Norwegian directors and a German distributor to float the film.
Thomas, a best picture Oscar winner for 1987's The Last Emperor, says he would have liked to have made Kon-Tiki "with a British stamp on it," but its $16 million budget meant he was forced to look outside the country for backing. "I tried and tried to get this film made, but I just couldn't get the level of support for movies in the U.K," he says.
In fact, nearly all foreign films above a certain budget these days are co-productions between two or more countries.
"There is no production company in Europe -- no single country -- that can finance a film of $15 million to $20 million on its own," says director Bille August, whose Pelle the Conqueror won the foreign-language Oscar for Denmark in 1989. "Above a certain budget, you have to get financing from several countries. And that makes it harder to say where exactly the movie 'comes from.' I could make a film in Germany in German, but because I happen to be Danish, Denmark would have to send that film to Hollywood. It's just weird."
National designation for the foreign-language category always has been a bit of a fudge. The first film so honored, in 1957, was Federico Fellini's La Strada, a 100 percent Italian movie -- if one overlooks Mexico-born lead Anthony Quinn and American co-star Richard Basehart. Italy won again in 1958 with Fellini's Nights of Cabiria, which happened to be a France/Italy co-production.
Now that cross-border filmmaking has become the rule, not the exception, the Academy's tradition of treating foreign-language candidates as representative of a single country seems parochial at best.
"Look at the truly European filmmakers like Haneke or Lars von Trier or Aki Kaurismaki -- who is Finnish, lives in Portugal and shot his last film in French," says Martin Schweighofer, managing director of the Austrian Film Commission and a member of the committee that selected the French-language Amour for this year's Oscars. "In the end, their films are the vision of the director and screenwriter, wherever the money comes from, whatever language it's in and wherever they are shot. If Austria wins the Oscar, the statue won't go in some national museum; it will sit on the mantelpiece at Haneke's home in Vienna."
Stuart Kemp contributed to this report.