Foreign-Language Oscar Directors Pique Hollywood’s Interest

SON OF SAUL BTS Oscar Foreign
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

The foreign-language film Oscar has introduced many significant international filmmakers to American audiences, but rarely has it alighted upon a wholly fresh talent: Only six first-time feature helmers have won the award, with Germany’s Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (“The Lives of Others”) the most recent in 2007.

At the same time, just being in the game yields Hollywood interest for directors such as Baltasar Kormakur, who is in the awards conversation this year with Universal release “Everest,” and “Kon-Tiki” helmers Espen Sandberg and Joachim Ronning who are in post on Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales.”

This year, 27 of the 81 foreign-language submissions are from debut directors, including some of the most heavily buzzed festival sensations in the field.

Hungary’s Laszlo Nemes stunned Cannes auds with his visceral first-person Auschwitz odyssey “Son of Saul,” (pictured) walking away with the fest’s Grand Jury Prize. Nemes, who studied political science in France — but quit film school in New York after a year — was undaunted by the hefty subject: “Even if it was ambitious, I felt the scope of it was something I could control. I wanted to immerse the viewer in an experience rather than construct an intellectual discourse or use the Holocaust for its dramatic value.”

Nemes is already working on his second Hungarian feature — a “thriller/coming-of-age mixture” centered on a young woman in 1910 Budapest — but describes English-language filmmaking as his “endgame.”

Also riding high on Cannes acclaim is French-Turkish filmmaker Deniz Gamze Erguven — one of 14 women on the longlist — whose dreamily atmospheric feminist fable “Mustang” beat out Palme d’Or winner “Dheepan” to be France’s submission. Erguven describes the tale of five young Turkish sisters persecuted for exploring their sexuality, as the product of her multinational upbringing: “I feel very French and very Turkish, so I can compare the experience of being a woman in different parts of the world.” Erguven moved to Paris as a child, and says she owes much to the city’s film culture. She co-wrote “Mustang” with fellow French director Alice Winocour; they met while developing their respective debuts on the Cannes Cinefondation program.

“She was like my boxing coach,” Erguven laughs. “She had me writing 20 hours a day.” They are working on Erguven’s soph feature.

British-Jordanian filmmaker Naji Abu Nowar also delved into his cultural roots for his debut feature, “Theeb,” a muscular tale of one boy’s survival amid the crossfire of the 1916 Arab revolt.

Born in Oxford into a military family, Nowar was inspired by the Bedouins’ rich tradition of oral storytelling and the John Ford and David Lean films on which his father raised him; “Theeb” was developed at the Sundance screenwriters’ lab.

“It’s like falling in love,” Nowar says of settling on a narrative to film. “You can’t question your instinctual impulse to do it.”

He’s now writing his second film, another Jordan-set war epic that he describes as “my answer to ‘Zulu’ and ‘Seven Samurai,’” as well as an English-language project he’s keeping closer to the vest.

Indian filmmaker Chaitanya Tamhane also used the fest circuit as a pre-production springboard: A theater-trained film novice, he got a boost from Rotterdam’s Hubert Bals Fund in developing “Court,” a riveting courtroom drama that also works as an incisive dissection of India’s troubled justice system. Tamhane further challenged himself by choosing a largely non-pro cast: “We didn’t want any known faces … we ended up approaching people from different walks of life.”

Now working on a “very different” second feature, he has no immediate plans to leave his homeland: “It’s still an untapped country, a vast pool of resources and ideas.”

“Theeb” and “Court” were both Venice prize-winners. Guatemala’s “Ixcanul (Volcano),” meanwhile, made a splash in Berlin; Jayro Bustamante’s near-hypnotic study of ritual and longing in the Mayan farming community won him the Alfred Bauer Award.

Bustamante recalls telling his native cast about the film’s selection for the fest: “They all jumped up and down and cried, and then asked what the Berlinale is.”

He’s still dazed by the success of the film, which he began developing in 2006. “A feature film made by a Guatemalan, with no known industry, no known director and no known actor was total madness.”

His against-the-odds success bodes well for his next project, urban-set companion piece “Temblores (Earthquakes).”
Italian-born German Giulio Ricciarelli began his career as a classically trained stage actor; that background, he says, came in most handy while developing the script for “Labyrinth of Lies,” a fact-based account of a young German prosecutor bringing Holocaust atrocities to light post-WWII.

“The stage is a very pure place, so I got interested in the influence of the camera and the editing process on a performance,” he says. But while many first-time filmmakers are eager to show off their formal skills, Ricciarelli — who is currently reading English-language scripts — exercised restraint: “This is such a huge subject, and we wanted to let the story speak for itself. I didn’t want my technique in the foreground.”

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  1. Jim says:

    After the cautionary tale of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who went from “The Lives of Others” to “The Tourist”, every European filmmaker has second thoughts about going to Hollywood too early…Herr Donnersmarck made a fool out of himself and destroyed his reputation and career. And now he’s doing nothin’ since 5 years. What a great career!

  2. David Graham says:

    What about Quebec directors Jean-Marc Vallee, Philippe Falardeau and Denis Villeneuve? They have all made significant films in Hollywood.

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