Foreign-language Oscar contenders born of relentless pursuits


He is idolized in the East, reviled in the West, a modernizer in the eyes of one, the very definition of a tyrant in the eyes of the other.

This polarization of opinion haunted Russian filmmaker Sergei Bodrov and pushed him to learn more about Genghis Khan, the late-12th-century warrior who created one of the largest empires in history.

"It was such an awful image he had in the West, and at the same time, in Asia he is considered a national hero, almost a god," Bodrov says. "I suspected something was wrong here."

That suspicion was the beginning of a 12-year voyage of exploration, as Bodrov investigated his subject, made multiple trips to Mongolia, dealt with ferocious verbal assaults from Mongolian critics, and eventually raised the $20 million it took to finance Picturehouse's "Mongol," Kazakhstan's entry for best foreign-language picture at this year's Oscars.

Speak to the directors behind the current crop of top foreign-language films, and at the heart of each one is an idea that has fascinated people for years.

For Indian helmer Vidhu Vinod Chopra ("Eklavya: The Royal Guard"), it was the notion of what separates right from wrong.

He reworked a story found in the classic Indian tome "The Mahabharata," about the unending loyalty of a king's bodyguard, and mounted a lavish $10 million-plus production, financed entirely by himself.

"It was incredibly difficult," he recalls. "Just think, (for one scene alone) you have 500 camels, you are in the middle of the desert, where the temperature is 50 degrees centigrade (122 F), and you are trying to make the camels run at the same time as a train enters the shot at 50 mph -- and the train has to start from two kilometers away to gather speed." That required precision timing -- and caused a near crisis when one of the camels took a swipe at the leading actor and almost gave him a concussion.

Nor was that all. The shoot took place in a part of India where it never rains, so of course rain bucketed down, washing away an entire road the crew had constructed.

"One morning, I woke up, and there was no road!" Chopra recalls. "They had three days to make a new road that had taken three months to build. We sent people all over Rajasthan, recruiting villagers to work. It was like mobilizing a whole army."

An army of sorts was needed again when a special royal helicopter that had been imported from New Delhi was almost swept off by the rains. "They had to tie the chopper down with ropes, otherwise it would have gone with the floods," he says. "There was a whole village, 200 people, holding the chopper in place. It would have been terrible if it had gone."

Nic Balthazar also brought in his Belgian entry "Ben X" on schedule. That far more straightforward production began with an article he read in a local newspaper about the suicide of a teenage boy who suffered from a form of autism.

"There was this story of a young boy, 17 years old, who had committed suicide and thrown himself off a medieval castle," recalls Balthazar, a former film critic. "In his last letter, he said he had been bullied to death, but it seemed that he was suffering from Asperger's syndrome."

The affliction intrigued Balthazar enough that he wrote a book about it, which became a stage play and then a film. He even sought out the parents of the original boy.

"I just went up to their house to see them," he remembers. "It wasn't easy. When you are a young parent yourself, you can really relate to the pain and the tragedy of losing a child in such tragic circumstances."

It was the circumstances surrounding immigrant Turks' lives in Germany that drew Fatih Akin to make "The Edge of Heaven" (Strand Releasing), about a young man who travels to Turkey to find the lost daughter of his father's girlfriend.

Akin had little trouble making the film or raising the e3.5 million ($5.2 million) it cost, but as so often when an idea is translated into a film, a crisis occurred just before the shoot wrapped.

"Six days before we wrapped in Turkey, my assistant called me," he reflects. She said, '(Producer Andreas Thiel) is in the hospital.'" Thiel had suffered a brain hemorrhage. "We interrupted shooting, and I went to the hospital and saw him for the last time. His heart was beating, but he was brain-dead. For the next five days, his heart kept beating. Then the moment the shooting wrapped, his heart stopped."

Cao Hamburger's own emotional experience became the basis for his Brazilian entry, "The Year My Parents Went on Vacation" (City Lights), about a young boy whose parents take off hastily in 1970, fleeing Brazil's bloody dictatorship and leaving him in an Orthodox Jewish community, just as the World Cup soccer tournament is taking place.

"I come from a family very similar to the main characters'," he notes. "My father is from a German-Jewish family, and my mother is from a Catholic-Italian family. But the Jewish part of my family is very liberal."

That liberalism put them at odds with the dictatorship. "They went 'on vacation' for a while -- and I was left with my Jewish grandmother. My parents were not very activist; they were not Communists, and they came back after a few weeks. But they helped a lot of people, and I remember waking up one day, and there was a long-bearded guy sleeping on the couch" -- an incident that is reflected in the film.

It was Carlitos Ruiz Ruiz's fascination with the manifold forms of love -- especially when he met his partner and co-director, Mariem Perez Riera -- that led to "Maldeamores" (Lovesickness), from Puerto Rico.

"When we met in 2000, we wanted to write a screenplay about the absurd idea of perfect love," he explains, "with different stories (interwoven) that dealt with the same theme."

Like so many other filmmakers, Ruiz discovered it was one thing to inhabit the realm of ideas and quite another to bring them to the screen.
Ruiz and Perez got lucky early on: Their film was chosen by Puerto Rico for a grant that would give them 30% of their budget -- in this case, $300,000. (In the end, the movie cost $1.2 million.)

"We got the call telling us we had won the grant -- but they told us, 'We will only give it to you when you find the other $700,000,'" Ruiz recalls.
That began a years-long process in which Ruiz scrambled to find money. "There are no investors in Puerto Rico and no private investment," he says. "It was very frustrating."

It was even more frustrating when a friend, Benicio Del Toro, came aboard as executive producer and Ruiz discovered that hordes of so-called investors just wanted to meet him.

After years of struggling and almost losing sight of his initial idea, "Maldeamores" got a greenlight when a new film commissioner took over and enlisted the aid of a foreign sales company that put up 80% of the money. After that, "we shot in 19 days, and it was perfect."

Less perfect was Giuseppe Tornatore's experience with the subject that obsessed him, the siege of Leningrad. For five years he struggled to make the movie, even attaching Nicole Kidman, working on nothing else -- and then the project fell through.

When it did, a producer asked if he had anything else to film, and Tornatore (1988's "Cinema Paradiso") turned to a project that had been sitting in a drawer for 19 years, "The Unknown Woman" (Outsider Pictures), about a young woman who infiltrates an Italian family that has adopted her daughter.

Like "Ben X," Tornatore's movie stemmed from an article he had read that had continued to intrigue him over the years about the illegal sale of babies. It was an idea he had researched extensively, even spending time with police who specialized in the matter.

"The worst thing I learned was about the price of the baby," he says, still unable to let it go. "A little boy costs more than a little girl. The price of a boy was around e20,000 ($30,000), and for a girl it was e5,000-e6,000 less." He gasps. "I can understand everything. I can understand that criminality invents many worlds for business; but I can't understand that after so many centuries, this difference exists. That is the story of our time."

Czech director Jiri Menzel wanted to make a story for all time and did so by centering it on a waiter who works in a grand old Prague hotel, whom the story follows through some of the tumultuous events of the last century.

But he had to two wait decades to bring his fascination with that hotel to life -- the time it took to obtain the rights to "I Served the King of England," the Bohumil Hrabal novel on which his Czech entry is based.

"I did four feature films based on his novels before," Menzel notes, mentioning his Oscar-winning "Closely Watched Trains" (1966) among them. "But when the book was published, it was very popular and many producers wanted the rights."

Menzel first read the novel back in the 1970s, when it was banned by Czechoslovakia's communist overlords but circulated widely as a "samizdat," a clandestinely copied manuscript. Later, after its publication, Hrabal sold the rights to not one but two separate producers, each of whom thought he owned it exclusively. That paralyzed any attempt to bring it to the screen.

"Finally, after many, many years, the (second) owner died in 2005, and (the remaining producer) asked me to do it as a film."

After spending almost 16 months trying to condense the book into screenplay form, Menzel managed to make his movie with a budget of e2 million ($3 million) and a relatively smooth shoot.

That was not the case with Bodrov (best known for his 1997 Oscar-nominated "Prisoner of the Mountains") when he came to shoot Picturehouse's "Mongol."

It had been 12 years since he started taking notes for a screenplay, without realizing he was stepping into decidedly dicey territory. In doing so, he discovered there were limited historical sources on the warrior's life.

"Plus, my take was that all the sources are questionable," he says. "Every historian in ancient times was not independent; somebody was always watching his work. And when a historian wrote his book, there were 100 people who would rewrite it."

During his many visits to Mongolia to prepare his film, he says he was criticized relentlessly and sometimes even insulted. When the shoot eventually took place in Inner Mongolia, part of China, Bodrov thought he could make it work with $15 million. But he soon realized that was not enough. Shooting closed down and did not resume again until the following year.

It was a vast project that necessitated working with hundreds of Russians and Chinese, as well as 50 Kazakh stuntmen and 40 translators. The Russians rebelled against the Chinese food and having to eat with chopsticks. There were endless rains and multiple car accidents.

Finally, when the movie was finished, it was screened in Mongolia. That kernel of an idea that had been planted in Bodrov more than a decade earlier was now a major motion picture for all to see and judge. And judge it they did.

"It is getting a mixed reaction in Mongolia," Bodrov acknowledges. "There are still people who say I showed the wrong side of Genghis Khan."