Last Wednesday, I traveled to the Palm Springs International Film Festival — for the second year in a row — to moderate a wide-ranging conversation with the directors of all nine films that made the Academy’s shortlist for the best foreign language film Oscar, from which the category’s five Oscar nominees, which will be announced tomorrow, were chosen in recent days. (This was the only gathering of this sort that has happened or will happen.)
Over the course of 80 minutes, the filmmakers spoke, among many other things, about what inspired each of them to make their films; why they made some of their most interesting creative choices on their films; how they wound up with the casts they did (led, in several cases, by child actors); what they hope people will leave their films thinking or doing differently; and what being Oscar-shortlisted means to them and their countries.
The panelists were …
Jaco Van Dormael for Belgium’s The Brand New Testament (still seeking U.S. distribution), a film that imagines what the world would be like if God had not only a son but also a rebellious daughter who decides to let everyone know via SMS the date on which they will die;
Ciro Guerra for Colombia’s Embrace of the Serpent (Oscilloscope), a film about the last surviving member of an Amazonian tribe and the people who come to see him in 1909 and 1940;
Klaus Haro for Finland’s The Fencer (still seeking U.S. distribution), a film about a fencer who flees the secret police in Leningrad and becomes a school teacher in Estonia;
Giulio Ricciarelli for Germany’s Labyrinth of Lies (Sony Classics), a film about the young lawyer who forced Germans to confront the sins of their fathers through the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials in the 1960s;
Deniz Gamze Erguven for France’s Mustang (Cohen Media Group), a film about five orphaned sisters who come of age in their grandmother’s deeply conservative Muslim household in Turkey;
Laszlo Nemes for Hungary’s Son of Saul (Sony Classics), a film about a Jew in a Nazi concentration camp who comes across the body that may be his son and risks his own life to give the boy a proper burial;
Naji Abu Nowar for Jordan’s Theeb (Film Movement), a film about a Bedouin child forced to grow up very quickly when the people he accompanied on a trip through the desert are ambushed and killed;
Paddy Breathnach for Ireland’s Viva (Magnolia), a film about a young Cuban man whose ambitions of becoming a drag performer are threatened by the return of his long-absent father; and
Tobias Lindholm for Denmark’s A War (Magnolia), a film about a Danish military commander who makes a fateful decision when his company of troops in Afghanistan is ambushed.
On Thursday morning, the Oscar nominations announcement will reveal the Academy’s finalists in all 24 categories — none of which were determined with greater attention and care than this category’s. Between October and December, the Academy’s Foreign Language Phase I committee, which is comprised of several hundred L.A.-based Academy members from across the organization’s branches, screened submissions from 81 countries and then chose the six best; the Foreign Language Film Award Executive Committee then “saved” three other titles and released a shortlist of nine. That shortlist was then culled down to five by committees of specially invited Academy members — 20 in Los Angeles, 10 in New York and 10 in London — which watched three a day from Jan. 8-10.