The United States is the only country not permitted to submit in the foreign-language film Oscar race, which is fair enough, given that this is one category expressly designed to give other filmmaking cultures a platform.
That’s not to say the English-speaking world is entirely absent from the contest, however. Nor, for that matter, is English itself: Sweden’s bilingual entry “The Square,” with an ensemble including Anglophone stars Elisabeth Moss and Dominic West, is among the favorites for a nomination. Every year, a number of predominantly English-speaking nations enter films showcasing an alternative side of their national identity: this year, six countries across four continents fall into that column.
Two of them, South Africa and Canada, are former Oscar winners. Since South Africa — a country that prides itself on its 11 official languages — took gold for Gavin Hood’s township fable “Tsotsi” at the 2005 ceremony, a shortlist spot for 2010’s “Life Above All” is the closest it has come to glory. But the Rainbow Nation has its best shot in some time with “The Wound,” a chiefly Xhosa-language film by Anglophone director John Trengove. Steeped in fascinating indigenous tradition, this culture-clash tale about two closeted black men who butt heads over a tribal male initiation ritual premiered to excellent reviews at Sundance, where Variety’s critic called it “hard-edged but beautifully wrought.”
Controversial at home (where ukwaluka, the ritual in question, is an ongoing hot-button topic), “The Wound” has also generated chatter across the festival circuit, most recently winning for debut feature at the London Film Festival. It’s also among the strongest of multiple LGBT-themed foreign-language submissions this year: its intersectional view of racial and sexual identity, combined with its masculinity-in-crisis drama, make it one to watch for a nomination.
Canada has taken perhaps a safer step with its submission, “Hochelaga, Land of Souls,” but the more traditional scope of Quebecois filmmaker Francois Girard’s lavish, centuries-spanning historical drama could put it in good stead with older-school voters. Using a present-day archaeological dig as the narrative spine for a flashback-riddled exploration of Quebec’s complex colonial past, this recent Toronto premiere — in a mixture of French, Mohawk and English — was described as a “rich cinematic banquet” by Variety’s Dennis Harvey. Canada has scored four nominations and a further three shortlist spots in the past 11 years; it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Canadians show up again. It’d be Girard’s second film to register with the Academy, though the first in this category: 1999’s “The Red Violin” won for its music score.
After a varied run of unsuccessful previous submissions that ranged from Aboriginal stories to a German WWII reflection, Australia finally landed its first nomination last year with the gorgeous, Vanuatu-set romance “Tanna.” This year, the country swings back from indigenous to European in focus with its entry. The first Australian-Italian co-production, made through a 1996 treaty between the countries, Ruth Borgobello’s “The Space Between” explores her own dual heritage through its love story between an Italian chef and an Australian designer in picturesque northern Italy.
Released domestically in July, the Australian film remains little-travelled on the festival circuit. New Zealand’s entry “One Thousand Ropes,” on the other hand, was warmly received at the Berlinale for its emotive mixture of social realist and supernatural story threads. Samoan director Tusi Tamasese’s film emphasizes his native language and culture, telling the story of a formerly abusive fighter turned male midwife reconnecting with his pregnant daughter: it is said to have moistened many an eye on its festival journey.
The United Kingdom, like Australia, has submitted a culturally diverse selection of films over the years. Welsh cinema was once its go-to option — and landed the U.K. its only two noms in this category in the 1990s — but more recent entries have veered in setting and focus from Iran to Turkey to the Philippines. This year, it’s British-Pakistani filmmaker Sarmad Masud’s Urdu-language “My Pure Land,” based on the true story of Nazo Dharejo, a mother of four in rural Pakistan who held off more than 200 mercenaries to defend her land and family. It’s rousing material, but the film came and went in Britain with little fanfare.
Instead, it’s an unconventional biopic from neighboring Ireland, which only began entering the foreign-language race a decade ago, that might be the dark horse to watch here. Beginning at South by Southwest, Pat Collins’ elegiac “Song of Granite” has drawn much acclaim at international festivals for its unconventional, poetic approach to portraying the life and troubled times of folk singer Joe Heaney, covering his formative years in Eire and his later migration to New York City.
Shot in stark, lovely black-and-white, this Gaelic/English-language entry stands out from the crowd — though to some Academy voters, it may seem one of the most comfortingly close-to-home of this year’s 92 contenders.