Nigeria's 'Lionheart' Controversy Begs Question: What Is an International Feature at the Oscars?

The Hollywood Reporter's awards columnist Scott Feinberg and senior film editor Piya Sinha-Roy debate whether or not the Academy was right to disqualify Nigeria's Oscar entry.
Courtesy of TIFF

On Monday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences disqualified Nigeria's entry for the best international feature film Oscar, Genevieve Nnaji's Lionheart, because it is predominantly in English.

The rules for the 92nd Academy Awards state: "An international film is defined as a feature-length motion picture (defined as over 40 minutes) produced outside the United States of America with a predominantly non-English dialogue track." Lionheart has a 95-minute running time, but only 11 minutes and 35 seconds of non-English dialogue.

The complication? As a result of centuries of colonization and growing globalization, the official language of Nigeria is... English.

The Hollywood Reporter's awards columnist Scott Feinberg and senior film editor Piya Sinha-Roy find themselves on opposite sides of the debate about whether or not this was a proper course of action. Read their back-and-forth about it below.

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FEINBERG I feel sorry for Nigeria, which had never before entered a film for consideration in this category — but I also am unclear why anyone would find the Academy's decision surprising. This category is and always has been reserved for films not in the English language, just like BAFTA's equivalent award, which is more explicitly called "Best Film Not in the English Language."

SINHA-ROY Yes, but there is a valid discussion to be had about that, because the language requirement feels restrictive in many ways, and this is a good example of where it's negatively restrictive. Many countries use English commonly because they also speak so many other languages. India is a great example because while the national language is Hindi, English is widely taught and spoken as well. 

FEINBERG I hear you, but until this year, the category was called "best foreign language film," meaning non-English. And while the Academy's governors voted in April to change its name — a nod to Alfonso Cuaron's Oscar acceptance speech when Roma won that award, in which the Mexican filmmaker pointed out that "foreign language" is all in the eye of the beholder — they did not vote to change its mission.

SINHA-ROY They didn't change the mission but the category has been renamed "international feature film," taking out the "language" element from the award. You cannot call it an international film award and then not consider films from all countries outside of the U.S. For the most part, films made in other countries will adhere to their native languages. But it is very important to consider that more and more people across the world speak English, and not just as a second or third language, but as part of daily speech.

FEINBERG But are you really ready to open up that can of worms? If English-language films had been eligible for this award in the past, films such as 1962's Lawrence of Arabia, 2008's Slumdog Millionaire and 2010's The King's Speech — all British productions — could have been entered, almost certainly would have been nominated and probably would have won, depriving non-English-language films of a spotlight in the only category in which they are currently assured of one.

SINHA-ROY I think we have to ignore what's happened in the past and focus on how the Academy can be better in its inclusion of cinema from around the world. I think films that are primarily made and funded by production companies, investors and film commissions outside of America should qualify as international films, regardless of language. And yes, that would include Lawrence of Arabia, Slumdog Millionaire and The King's Speech. And I'd say it should also include films from other English-speaking countries such as Canada, New Zealand and Australia. For example, Taika Waititi's 2010 film Boy, which was financed by the New Zealand Film Commission, should have been eligible — after all, it won the Sundance grand jury prize for dramatic film in the festival's world cinema category, and also AFI Fest's international feature film award.

FEINBERG One could argue that the Academy should just do away with the international feature film category altogether and continue to allow any/all films that meet the existing minimum eligibility requirements — a week of screening in New York and Los Angeles — compete in the other categories. Plenty of films from outside of America have cracked into those — indeed, in just the past decade, best picture nominees have included France's The Artist (which won), Austria's Amour and the aforementioned Roma, whereas other categories' nominees included Mexico's Biutiful, Belgium's Two Days, One Night, France's Elle, Hong Kong's The Grandmaster, Italy's I Am Love, Germany's Never Look Away, Iran's A Separation, Sweden's The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared and A Man Called Ove and Poland's Ida and Cold War. But I still feel strongly that the foreign language/international feature film category is important to preserve as-is because it guarantees that there will be at least one place where five non-English-language films will have a shot at the spotlight.

SINHA-ROY I agree that the international feature film category is important for the globalization of the film industry, but for a different reason. We need to have that spotlight for filmmakers and films that are showing us the stories of people from other cultures. Just because people in other countries speak English doesn't mean that they are living the same lives as Americans are. Language does not solely define a country's culture. Nnaji filmed Lionheart in her country, made it with support from the Nigerian Film Corporation and tells a story of Nigerian characters and culture. It's the very definition of an international film feature.

FEINBERG Well, whatever the Academy decides to do with its rules, it's nice to know that 2019 has yielded so many great films made outside of America that Academy members seem to be responding to, from the entirely Korean-language Parasite to the largely Mandarin-language The Farewell to the entirely English-language Downton Abbey. Long live international cinema.