Awards Watch: Foreign language


The script for Michael Haneke's German feature "The White Ribbon" spent a decade in a drawer before the director built up enough cachet to get it financed -- and that was the least of the challenges faced by some of the filmmakers behind this year's foreign-language Oscar contenders.

Whether these challenges involved creating a reputation (Haneke); Havana Marking evading Taliban bombs and Kabul kidnappers to make her debut "Afghan Star" or Arash T. Riahi dodging the Iranian secret service to complete "For a Moment, Freedom" -- each of these helmers has faced obstacles most Hollywood directors never know.

Haneke's "The White Ribbon" is set in a very real location -- a small Protestant village in Northern Germany -- and in the very real period of 1913-14, the eve of World War I. Instead of opting for biopic-style naturalism, the Palme d'Or-winning director chose to shoot his film in black-and-white in a style reminiscent of the pictures of turn-of-the-century photographer August Sander. The reason, Haneke says, was to avoid the "lie" of a "one-to-one representation of history."

But Haneke's insistence on a black-and-white feature didn't sit well with some of his financiers. The TV channels in Germany, Austria and France only signed off on the project on the guarantee they would receive a color print of the film for broadcast. (The film's success -- including its four European Film Award nominations -- has won over skeptics and the networks will air "The White Ribbon" in all its monochrome glory.)

Negotiating with the moneymen was just one of Haneke's worries. The scale of the production, budgeted at nearly $20 million, was beyond anything he had done before.

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Most of Haneke's films are claustrophobic studies featuring a handful of players. "The White Ribbon" is a much broader palate, capturing an entire society with more than a dozen main characters and hundreds of extras. Re-creating the time period also proved particularity difficult.

"If you want to shoot a period film situated in the 18th century, you can just go to a castle and shoot most of it there, that's not too difficult," Haneke says. "But this time period right before WWI has been almost entirely wiped out in East Germany where we shot 'The White Ribbon.' We had to rebuild much of it. About a third of the houses in the film we built ourselves."

While there are a lot of big European productions in the Oscar race this time around -- "Max Manus" is the most expensive Norwegian production of all time and the $5 million price tag on "For a Moment, Freedom," represents the most expensive first film ever out of Austria -- Giuseppe Tornatore's epic "Baaria" dwarfs them all. Budgeted at close to $40 million, it is, by European standards, simply enormous.

"It was the most difficult film I have ever made," Tornatore says. "We had hundreds of actors, thousands of extras. Many, many children and animals, many, many special effects, many buildings, many costumes, many different periods of time. The most challenging was the procession scene. I had more than 2,000 extras on a hill at night when suddenly a storm blows in."

Tornatore revisits his childhood in his new film, which traces three remarkable generations of Sicilians from the 1930s through the 1980s. It's set in Tornatore's old hometown of Bagheria -- or "Baaria" as the locals call it.

"Some scenes in the film are directly autobiographical, like the one where the boy visits the cinema for the first time with his father," he says. "That's really a moment from my life. But even the invented scenes are so close to my experience that I feel they were my own life. They feel even more autobiographical than 'real' autobiography."

Autobiography colors "For a Moment, Freedom," which tells three parallel stories of Persian refugees attempting to escape to Europe. That's because when he was 9, director Riahi and his parents made a similar trip from Iran to Austria.

"Not only myself but virtually all the actors were refugees or the kids of refugees," Riahi explains. "For us it was more than a film -- it was a statement; a call to make the world take notice of this story. There have been a lot of refugee films, but the story of Iranian refugees hadn't been told, and there are

1 million of us. A lot of people wanted to be involved in this film, they said they'd waited 30 years for this story to be told."

When the filmmaker did try to tell it, danger came from the Iranian secret police, the SAVAK. (As shown in the film, SAVAK agents often infiltrate Turkey to kidnap escaped dissidents.)

"When we applied for permission to shoot, the Turkish authorities informed the Iranian consulate," Riahi recalls. "It was very dangerous because one of our actors was a political refugee from Iran but he doesn't have the citizenship of the country he fled to, so he wasn't protected."

Riahi had planned to shoot several key scenes in Van, the Turkish city near the Iranian border, which often used by Persian refugees as a gateway to the West. But to protect his actors, he shot them about 150 miles to the north, safely away from Iranian spies.

Safety was even more of an issue in the documentary "Afghan Star," whose lead character faced death threats after she violated religious taboos by dancing during her on-air performance. Marking herself had to be wary of the constant risk posed by insurgents' bomb attacks and by the professional kidnappers in Kabul who target western journalists.

Her goal, she says, was to give particularly western audiences a picture of the real Afghani people, the ones missing from news footage featuring "warring, murdering, misogynist warlords attacking our heroic soldiers."

The Afghanis in Marking's film are not primitive, superstitious tribesmen or religious fanatics. Instead they are very real candidates for "Afghan Star," an "American Idol"-style talent show whose finale drew 11 million viewers, about a third of Afghanistan's population. The media craze surrounding the show, the contestant's pop-star pretensions and even the host's slick, Ryan Seacrest-esque style is immediately recognizable to audiences in American and Europe.

"Everyone is so ready to write Afghanistan off," Marking says, speaking from Kabul where she is shooting a follow-up documentary for HBO. "What people in the West don't realize is that the majority of the Afghan people are desperate for peace, they are desperate for development, desperate for a better life for their sons and daughters."

Joachim Ronning, co-director of "Max Manus," was desperate for something else: Accuracy.

"We knew we had to make everything 100% photorealistic," Ronning says of his story, which re-creates the life of an iconic local WWII resistance fighter known for his daring bombing raids on Nazi targets. "A lot of people who knew Max Manus -- members of his Oslo gang and his widow Tikken (Lindebraekke) are still alive -- so it was so important that the production design, wardrobe, everything in this movie was right and true."

With a budget of about $9 million, accuracy was a constant challenge.

"Keep in mind this is a period film with only four days shot on a soundstage, the rest was on location because we wanted it to be bigger and we wanted it to be real," co-director Espen Sandberg says. "So we shot in the streets of Oslo in the winter time. The first day of shooting was in February and we were doing the snow scenes, but there was no snow, so we had to bring in snow every day. Then, in March, for the snow-free scenes, there was snow everywhere. We spent every morning sweeping it away."

At the end, Ronning says, "The most nerve-wracking moment for us was when we screened the film for Tikken. But she loved it. She had tears in her eyes when she told us it took her back to the war years for the first time in 65 years."

The makers of Denmark contender, the black detective thriller "Terribly Happy" had tears in their eyes, too. But the reason was more banal.

"Our only problem on set was the cow," director Henrik Ruben Genz says. "We wanted to start the film with a close up on a cow as it sinks into the bog. We pan backwards and reveal a cop car. We spent our first day shooting that scene but the cow didn't cooperate. So -- we dropped the cow."