Foreign film directors discuss their work


The trials of compromising.

That's the connection Mark Johnson, Oscar-winning producer and chair of the Academy's foreign language executive committee, found among those nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign language film.

"Each [character] needs to survive by any means, yet are pulled in separate directions by this sense of right and wrong," he said during a Saturday morning symposium at the Academy with the directors of the five foreign language films nominated for an Oscar.

The directors -- Stefan Ruzowitzky, Joseph Cedar, Sergei Bodrov, Andrzej Wajda and Nikita Mikhalkov -- shared their vision for their films and the difficulties and joys of making them to a packed audience inside the Academy's Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills.

The more than 30-year-old tradition serves a showcase for the lesser-known filmmakers and their nominated work, which this year includes: Israel's entry, "Beaufort," about Israeli soldiers stationed at the nation's last fort in Lebanon; "The Counterfeiters" from Austria, about concentration camp detainees recruited to make counterfeit materials for the Third Reich; Kazakhstan's "Mongol," the epic story of the boy who would grow up to be Ghengis Khan; "Katyn" from Poland about the massacre of more than 20,000 Polish soldiers; and Russia's "12," about 12 Russian jurors asked to decide the fate of a Chechen man accused of killing his adopted Russian father.

Before bringing up the directors, Johnson addressed the criticism the academy has taken in leaving some foreign films off the list of nominees -- most notably France's animated film "Persepolis" and the Romanian drama "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days."

"I've been very outspoken in the need to further improve our rules and regulations," he said. "I'd like to make it clear that while I think this category constantly needs to be reevaluated and improved upon, it is still the strongest and makes the most sense of all the foreign language committees around the world."

The directors then shared jokes and related to the audience many tidbits about the making of their films, including the nexus of the projects.

"Beaufort" director Cedar told the audience how he had first read a news article and later novel penned by Ron Leshem about a young officer positioned at the Southern Lebanon fort prior to Israeli withdrawal in 2000.

"He was unaware of how dramatic and tragic his story was," Cedar said of the soldier.

"Reading this, I realized what he was talking about was very familiar to me. He was telling my story that I only understood now as an older person."

Cedar, who shot the film at the "triangle border" where Israel meets the Lebanon and Syria borders, said he dealt with scandal making his film, when it was discovered by the Israeli press that a third of the actors did not serve in the army, which is mandated by the government, either because of medical leave or because they were "deserters." Many Israelis, including soldiers and the families of soldiers killed at Beaufort, didn't understand how an actor who had not been a soldier could portray one.

But Cedar said there was an advantage to having actors that were never soldiers.

"When you're a soldier, you take things for granted," he said. "Soldiers get used to things that are terrible."

His actors were taken out of Tel Aviv, they lived together during filming and away from the rest of society and learned camaraderie.

"Our film is a war film," he said. "And [the solider] is heroic because of his ability to acknowledge fear and overcome his fear."

Ruzowitzky, who wrote and directed "The Counterfeiters," relied on the stories of Holocaust survivor Adolf Berger, who was among those recruited to the Nazi counterfeiting scheme.

"I was intrigued by this professional crook/jail bird in a concentration camp. It's a story we haven't heard about," he said. "It was important to tell a story in a way people will listen."

"Mongol" director Bodrov spent two years filming his story of Ghengis Khan' early years, a story he knew he had to tell without the cliches usually linked to the ruler.

Bodrov said he knew it would also be a challenge as a Russian to make a film about someone so unpopular in Russian history. But, he said, "in Asia he's a hero and in Mongolia, he's a god."

"Katyn" director Wajda said he wanted to tell the story of the Katyn massacre for a long time, but "didn't dare dream or think of making a movie in communist Poland about the most forbidden story of all."

The tragedy of the mass execution of Polish citizens and soldiers in Katyn and two other prison camps by the Russians was close to Wajda. His father was among those killed and he watched his mother suffer for years, believing his father would return some day.

"My hope is that the film can help heal the wounds," he said. "The film was made not to create new antagonisms between the Polish and Russians, but to help people live with this part of history."

Director Mikhalkov of "12," said he was inspired by Sidney Lumet's "12 Angry Men," but said his story was unique and really about Russians.

Johnson told the director he was struck by the sound design in Mikhalkov's film, unable to figure out whether a sound was a radiator dripping or the film's score.

Mikhalkov said "anything that makes sounds is music." It's a technique he's used in past films, where stripping away the music, the sounds make the scene.

"The sound has more impact than the action," he said. "If people talk and then it's quiet, there's a pause and then there's the 'tap, tap, tap."