Foreign Films in Focus

Oscars: Why Tales of Outsiders Are Dominating the Foreign-Language Film Race

7:38 AM 12/6/2018

by THR Staff

Among the 87 globe-spanning  submissions are stories about marginalized and underestimated people (and children) — from aspiring rock stars (India) to accused witches (U.K.) and disabled basketball players (Spain) — rising above their circumstances.

'Campeones', 'Sew the Winter to My Skin', 'I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians'
'Campeones', 'Sew the Winter to My Skin', 'I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians'

Entries written by Tara Bitran, Shannon L. Bowen, Jennifer Green, Vladimir Kozlov, and Alex Ritman.

  • India

    'Village Rockstars'

    Courtesy of Mumbai Film Festival

    Rima Das was in her hometown, Chaygaon, a rural village in the Indian state of Assam, when the idea for her second film came to her. She was editing her first feature, Man With the Binoculars, when she spotted a group of boys performing a song at a gathering, pretending to play elaborate fake instruments they had crafted by hand. "I was so surprised by the way they were performing," says Das, 36. "They were performing no less than real rock stars on the stage."

    So she told them she wanted to make a movie with them. "Honestly, I just told them casually," she says. But soon every day when the boys got home from school, they followed Das around the village.

    "When are you making a movie? When are you making a movie?" they wanted to know.

    Das had recently bought a Canon 5D, but had never studied cinematography. "I started shooting casually," she says. As months passed and Das filmed the boys and developed the screenplay that would become Village Rockstars, a girl appeared. It was Das' cousin, Bhanita Das, whom she added to the film. "I was not thinking she will be the main heroine, but slowly, slowly, she took over." Village Rockstars soon morphed into a story about a little girl pursuing her dreams despite not being a little boy.

    In parallel with the movie, Das herself evolved. Not only did she write, produce and edit the film, but she shot it by herself over three years — through monsoon rains and floods, with only natural light. Her only help came in the form of another cousin, Mallika Das, and the kids themselves, who changed lenses and recorded some sound.

    Das' tremendous undertaking has only strengthened her belief that female directors should have a larger place in India's male-dominated filmmaking establishment.

    "For a better world, I think that cooperation is very important. You cannot go without men. We have to make them understand that we are human beings and we are capable of doing [whatever it might be], and we have to keep doing it. Then there will be a time they have to admit, they cannot avoid us."

  • South Africa

    'Sew the Winter to My Skin'

    Courtesy of TIFF

    Director Jahmil X.T. Qubeka first heard the tale of John Kepe, who in the 1950s became a local legend in South Africa by stealing livestock from white farmers and sharing his riches with the disenfranchised black population, when he was a child, as the legend stems from his mother's hometown of Somerset East.

    "I was always enamored by this legend that was specifically around the black population of the place," says Qubeka, 39. "This film is really reflective of apartheid told around the universal theme of a Robin Hood figure."

    Production on Sew the Winter to My Skin took place in Somerset East, with the cast and crew literally walking in the footsteps of Kepe. "The specific farm where we shot the film is the farm that he terrorized," he says. "The farm owner is the son of one of the men who led the party that captured Kepe."

    But convincing the family to allow them to shoot at the farm took some cajoling. "This white farming community is very closed off," Qubeka says. "What was interesting, though, was that on both sides, whether it was somebody regaling the story from an indigenous, black perspective or it was a white settler farmer, all of them had a passion to retell the tale."

    Producer and editor Layla Swart believes the film is an important step forward for a South African film sector that has marginalized black filmmakers. "The cinema landscape has been dominated largely by white males," she observes. "Our film captures a black point of view of that time to help us understand where we are today."

    Striking specific, contemporary parallels with South Africa's troubled history was part of Qubeka's vision, but Swart says the themes of tribalism, or fear of an unspecified "other," are universal. "It's relevant globally in terms of our enemy being actually just somebody that we don't understand."

  • United Kingdom

    'I Am Not a Witch'

    Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

    To research I Am Not a Witch, her darkly satirical tale about the inhabitants of real-life witch camps of West Africa, director Rungano Nyoni lived for a month in a hut in a remote, rural camp in Northern Ghana, becoming the first foreigner to do so.

    With the help of a translator — plus some bonding tools such as board games — Nyoni would hear the stories of the 75 mostly elderly women exiled there, all of whom had been accused of committing sorcery. Some of these women's stories ended up in I Am Not a Witch, which first bowed in Cannes in 2017 and later won the BAFTA for outstanding debut by a British writer, director or producer.

    One example, says Nyoni, was "the bucket story": "There was a woman who said her neighbor had gone to fetch water and had gone quite far, but when she was near the village she tripped and fell. And she basically blamed her for that."

    Like most of the inhabitants, the accused found this claim utterly absurd — almost comical — but had been powerless to do anything, and found herself shipped off to the camp so her supposed witchery could be contained. Nyoni explains that the phenomenon, which mainly occurs in Ghana and Zambia, is largely grounded in misogyny. Almost all the camp dwellers are women — mostly older, very often widows or those considered a burden. "It's usually the families that actually accuse them," she notes (she had one experience in Ghana where her neighbor accused her own grandmother of "turning into a snake").

    In I Am Not a Witch, the central character is a Zambian girl, 9-year-old Shula (Maggie Mulubwa), accused of witchcraft and sent to a camp, where she is tethered to a long white ribbon so as not to "fly away" (should she cut the ribbon, she's told, she'll be turned into a goat). Thanks to the shiny-suited local official Mr. Banda (Henry B.J. Phiri), Shula soon becomes a minor celebrity and tourist attraction, not to mention a profitable resource for her new minder.

    Nyoni's nonprofessional lead star, a rural girl who the director says hadn't seen a camera before, was found by accident during a location scout (Nyoni's husband took a photo of Mulubwa, who had stood out in a crowd). But off the back of her mesmerizing performance and thanks to a crowdfunding campaign and financial assistance from the film's producers, Mulubwa is now in school for the first time. And Nyoni is hugely protective of the youngster — who began in a class of 5-year-olds but has already skipped up a year and is closing in on her own age group — rejecting the advances of awards campaigners who want to bring her to L.A.

    "They really want Maggie to come," says Nyoni, "but I'm like, 'But then she misses school! And she's got exams!' "

  • Romania

    'I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians'

    Courtesy of HI Film

    For his seventh narrative feature, Romanian director Radu Jude chose to tackle a particularly sensitive subject in his home country. I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians borrows its title from a notorious political speech that sanctioned the brutal mass killing of 25,000 to 34,000 Jews in the Ukrainian city of Odessa in 1941 by Romanian troops. It's an event that some historians view as a precursor to the Holocaust.

    The unconventional drama focuses on Mariana (Ioana Iacob), a theater director preparing to stage an outdoor reenactment of the Odessa massacre. Authorities are less than pleased with her efforts because of the sensitivity of the issue, while complications in Mariana's private life add to her stress.

    The 41-year old Jude, whose wry, self-deprecating sense of humor is often on display in his work, says he was compelled to revisit Romania's troubled past thanks in part to parallels he sees with the modern world — particularly in the era of Donald Trump.

    "It is obvious some toxic ideologies from the past seem to find new ways of expressing [themselves] again," he says. "One of the leaders of the Charlottesville riots took his ideas from the leader of the Romanian fascist Iron Guard movement of the 1930s." (Organizer Matthew Heimbach was photographed at the event wearing a shirt promoting Iron Guard leader Corneliu Codreanu.)

    Jude adds that there was a practical motivation for placing Barbarians in a contemporary setting.

    "How can one make a historical film, whatever that means, and stage a massacre?" he asks. "I don't just think it is impossible — it is also grotesque. So I chose an oblique story, which has also another advantage: It can create a connection between that past and our present. This connection is the heart of the film."

    That connection has resonated with local audiences and critics, drawing decent art house box office — roughly $26,650 since its release in September — as well as controversy, with some local groups lobbing accusations that Jude is intentionally distorting history. Some even demanded that the film be barred from consideration as Romania's official Oscar submission.

    "After the film was released, of course it was attacked by many extreme right-wing members of the press and politicians," he says. "These are things we expected to happen." Jude is taking both the controversy and acclaim in stride. "I feel I am overrated anyway," he declares. "The international [festival and critical] reaction to the film was very good, much more than I ever expected."

  • Spain

    'Campeones'

    Courtesy of Latido Films

    A cultural phenomenon in Spain, Campeones (Champions) has broken taboos as well as box office records. The comedy about a team of disabled basketball players surpassed Avatar's record for longest run in the top 25 at the Spanish box office after its April 6 release, earning close to $22 million and nudging toward a spot in the local top 10 of all time.

    It has also, in the words of the advocacy group Full Inclusion Madrid, which consulted on the film, "marked a before and after" in Spain in terms of visibility and a newfound interest in the rights of the disabled.

    The story centers on Marco, who, recently fired from his coaching job, goes on a drinking binge that lands him in jail. There, a judge sentences him to temporary community service coaching a team of basketball players with various disabilities.

    Despite the film's lighthearted tone, director and co-writer Javier Fesser, 54, says he was intent on capturing a sense of authenticity by hiring nonprofessional actors with actual disabilities. "From the beginning, the objective was to show reality," he says. "And if the reality is that they are capable of much more than society imagines, how could we not enlist them to show exactly who they are?" More than 600 people turned out for auditions, a process Fesser mined to rewrite the original script by David Marques with new material "based on totally real experiences and behaviors."

    While the film invites the audience to laugh both with and at its characters' struggles, Fesser balks at the idea that such a portrayal could be viewed as being politically incorrect. "They make you cry from laughter and laugh from emotion," he says. "It's impossible to come off as incorrect when you create a portrait of people you love, respect and admire."

    Fesser argues that the film's humor is universal precisely because it is generated by characters who refuse to be limited by their circumstances. "People with intellectual disabilities emanate a joy and a desire to celebrate everything, which elicits envy in those of us who dedicate our brains to complicating our lives," he says.

    This story first appeared in the Dec. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.