The Oscars’ Foreign Language Film Problem

The Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film is one of the Oscars’ most controversial categories. Its contentious eligibility rules and partiality towards European filmmakers have left professionals and the public alike questioning the credibility of the award. While supporters of the category insist that it gives exposure to international films at an otherwise American-dominated ceremony, critics denounce the manner in which the Academy lumps together all non-English-language films into one group as if ‘foreign’ was a single genre. Despite these conflicting views, one thing is clear: too much reliance on the American Academy to determine the ‘best’ foreign-language film of the year results in a biased and limited outlook on the contemporary international film industry.

Films submitted for the Best Foreign Language Film award must have been produced outside of the USA and contain dialogue that is predominantly non-English. The Academy has more than once been the subject of critical ridicule for its creative interpretations of this language rule. In 1983 La Bal (Ettore Scola), a film with no dialogue at all, made the shortlist as Algeria’s entry. Subsequently, in 1991 Canada submitted A Bullet in the Head (Attila Bertalan), the dialogue of which is comprised entirely of an invented language. Among the contenders at the upcoming 2019 ceremony, the Spanish-language drama Roma (Alfonso Cuarón) is the critics’ favourite to win in both the Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Film categories. Spanish, however, is a language spoken natively by over forty million people in the United States which constitutes 13% of the total population. It is also the most widely taught second language in the country. These figures suggest that Spanish is not foreign to the USA at all and so the decision to have Roma compete as a foreign-language film perpetuates the ignorant assumption that English is the only valid and respectable language for cinema in the USA despite it being a multilingual society.

The most famous and longest-running controversy surrounding the category is that of the ‘one country one film’ rule. Each country is permitted to submit one film per year to the Academy for consideration for the award, selected by their own approved committees of industry professionals. As many countries have an array of national and regional languages this rule inevitably forces countries to prioritise one film when there may be multiple successful films in different languages produced by that country in one year. Additionally, political or personal biases can enter into the selection process before films even make it to the Academy for judgement. The Film Federation of India’s choice to send Eklavya: The Royal Guard (Vidhu Vinod Chopra) as their national entry in 2007 incited controversy when Bhavna Talwar, the director of Dharm, claimed that the crew of the former had personal connections that influenced the decision to favour Chopra’s film over her own.

Restricting each country to submitting one film per year means that the category does not reflect the critical success of foreign-language films in the USA. The acclaimed French horror Raw (Julia Ducournau) was notably absent from the 2018 nominations because BPM (Beats per Minute) by Robin Campillo was chosen as the French entry instead (though it did not make the shortlist). In response to such circumstances, there have been calls to remodel the category and fuse its submission process with that of Best Picture. The top voted non-English-language films in the Best Picture longlist, whatever their nationality, would then compete for the Foreign Language Film award. By selecting the nominees according to Academy voting, this would prevent prospective candidates being disregarded by biases within their national selection committees.

Those in support of the current submission process maintain that the ‘one country one film’ rule allows films that are more experimental, compared to those conventionally favoured by American audiences, to gain international recognition. As such, any change to the eligibility rules could result in success being limited to films that were able to secure a commercial run and obtain public favour in the USA. This criticism forgets that the Oscars are presented by the American Academy and thus the winners unsurprisingly reflect the attitudes of the American film industry. If there is controversy surrounding the category then it is because the international community places too much importance on the views of seven thousand or so mainly-male, mainly-white, and mainly-American industry professionals.

In an age when international and independent filmmakers are thriving alongside lucrative Hollywood studios we must move beyond valuing the opinion of the American Academy as the standard of international cinema excellence. Praise of the work of Paweł Pawlikowski and Andrey Zvyagintsev in recent years is testament to the critical and commercial successes of non-English-language films in international markets. While the Oscars remain an influential gauge of what constitutes ‘good’ cinema, we should look simultaneously to the recipients of prizes at international awards ceremonies and festivals to form a balanced judgement of the ‘best’ non-English-language films of the year. Reviewing who won what at Mexico’s Ariel Awards, the Venice Film Festival, and the Africa Movie Academy Awards, among others, will provide an insight to critical opinions of the industry beyond the USA.

[Rhiannon Mechan]


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