Event took place Saturday in Beverly Hills
“This category has been taking a beating from the press,” said Mark Johnson in his opening remarks at the Academy’s pre-Oscar symposium featuring foreign-language-film award nominees on Saturday. “But it still remains the strongest and makes the most sense of any foreign-language committee in the world.”
Johnson, the executive chair of the committee, was referring to controversy over screening processes and some perceived snubs in the category’s nominations. He kept the door open for reevaluation, though, saying, “As long as I’m chairman of this committee, we will continue to reassess our format and our judgments, and I also will continue to defend our choices.”
After the brief aside, Johnson went on to introduce the five directors of the nominated films: Joseph Cedar for “Beaufort” (Israel), Stefan Ruzowitzky for “The Counterfeiters” (Austria), Andrzej Wajda for “Katyn” (Poland), Sergei Bodrov for “Mongol” (Kazakhstan) and Nikita Mikhalkov for “12” (Russia).
The ragtag team of helmers had two translators in tow for Wajda and Mikhalkov, and Cedar was unable to use the microphone for religious reasons. But the panel discussion went smoothly, beginning with the directors explaining the origins of their films.
Cedar’s film idea was sparked when he read an article about a soldier in an Israeli newspaper, while Ruzowitzky was captivated by the story of a “crook in a concentration camp.” “Mongol” helmer Bodrov revealed that he wanted to fight cliches about Genghis Khan, a figure reviled in Russia but worshipped in Mongolia.
“At one point I would never dream of making a film on this subject because it was most forbidden,” said “Katyn” helmer Wajda through a translator, referring to the massacre of Polish officers in WWII.
Mikhalkov acknowledged that his film was inspired by Sidney Lumet’s “12 Angry Men” and thanked the Academy for watching his film all the way through. “It’s not easy sitting in a dark room reading subtitles for two hours and 37 minutes,” he deadpanned.
The audience was later treated to a little friendly back and forth between Mikhalkov and Bodrov about the respective difficulties of directing their films. “Definitely filming 500 Mongolians is more difficult than 12 Russians,” quipped Bodrov.
Early in the discussion, Johnson commented that he usually can find a unifying theme or pattern in the five nominated films. This year, he confessed that he was having trouble.
“I finally decided that at their center, all of these movies describe characters that are compromised, that need to survive by any means,” said Johnson. “The triumph of these films is the triumph of characters. They are real and unforgettable,” he said.
The symposium took place in the Samuel Goldwyn Theater at the Acad’s headquarters in Beverly Hills.