Eye on the Oscars: Foreign Language

Just over 60 pics are vying for foreign language film recognition and their struggle for Academy attention is brutal. Critical and box office acclaim at home and even in international festivals is no guarantee that their films will be selected for the shortlist, much less picked to win by the foreign-lingo committee.

It’s no easy task for committee members as well. The entries are split in four color-coded groups and members are free to join one or all of these groups. For their votes to count, they must view at least 80% of the pics assigned to their group or groups and see them on the bigscreen.

For many of these international filmmakers, clinching a nomination is a big enough deal. It’s a case of national pride, akin to bringing home the soccer World Cup or an Olympic gold medal. But the odds are stacked up against non-European pics. Through the years, the Academy Award for foreign language film has gone almost exclusively to European pics. Out of the 55 foreign-lingo pic awards handed out by the Academy since 1947, 47 went to European pics, three to African, two to Asian, three from the Americas.

“When I was told back home that I didn’t stand a chance, I told myself that I was not going to stop trying,” says Cuba’s Ian Padron whose debut pic, kid buddy drama “Habanastation,” has been embraced by auds at home as well as the likes of Michael Moore and James Cromwell. Although his micro-budgeted pic enjoyed state backing, he’s had to rely on supporters to raise funds for his Oscar campaign in the U.S.

At a screening in L.A. presented by Cromwell, the filmmaker unabashedly continued his appeal for more donations to his campaign. In July, “Habanastation” shared the Founders Prize, Best of Fest with French comedy “Romantics Anonymous” at Moore’s Traverse City, Mich., fest and Moore presented a screening of “Habanastation” in L.A.

Josabeth Alonso, the producer of Philippine entry “The Woman in the Septic Tank” by Marlon Rivera, had to appeal to the Philippine Gaming and Amusement Corp. (Pagcor) to supplement the meager promotional stipend she wrestled from her government.

“Our film development council provided us with a plane ticket for (lead thesp) Eugene Domingo and paid for the screeners that we had to replicate,” says Alonso, who paid her own fare to Los Angeles and hosted a small dinner for some 20 guests in the city.

In contrast, Italy, which has taken home a clutch of foreign-language Oscars over the years, filled the Egyptian for its entry “Terrafirma” by Emanuele Crialese. The screening was followed by a lavish Dolce & Gabbana-hosted buffet dinner and swag for a hundred-plus guests at a tony hotel.

Switzerland, which has taken home two noms and two wins in the past, is planning a more modest campaign with screenings. Its entry, Rolando Colla’s family drama “Summer Games,” competed at Venice.

“It was the first time in seven years that a Swiss film had been invited by Venice,” says Colla. “Summer Games,” his fourth pic, has been his biggest box office success at home.

Colombian helmer-scribe Carlos Arbelaez is not sure if he’ll have to pay his own plane fare to L.A. in early January when he comes to promote his acclaimed debut pic, “The Colors of the Mountain.” His advantage is that “Colors” had a modest U.S. release via Film Movement and has an international sales agent so there’s been some early buzz.

As the quality of films have improved worldwide, the chances to level the playing field have certainly increased. However, they have to exceed expectations to garner any attention, much less snag a nom.

The Philippines has been submitting its films for 55 years but has yet to make the shortlist, Alonso says. “We don’t dream of winning the Oscar. We just want to make it to the Kodak Theater.”

EYE ON THE OSCARS: FOREIGN LANGUAGE
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