Political grandstanding by Oscar winners has long been a feature of awards night. But politics plays a role in the Oscar drama long before the acceptance speeches have been penned.
Take the selection process for the foreign-language film category, for example. This can be a political minefield that makes the United Nations look veritably zen-like, with each country’s entry functioning as a diplomatic envoy to the all-powerful King Oscar.
“The foreign-language Oscar is a great chance for a non-English-language film to be noticed by a worldwide audience and for a country to show off its filmmaking culture,” says Tivi Magnusson, producer of Danish entry “Adam’s Apples.”
Denmark is one of the countries where the choice was relatively straightforward. Boffo performance and reviews marked the pic as a clear winner, while its success in Toronto showed it fared well with North American audiences.
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In other countries, however, tempers can run high.
“The decision-making process in each country is political. ‘Fateless’ got selected by Hungary, but they didn’t nominate us for the European Film Awards, because they felt that in Europe they didn’t want to be represented by a Holocaust drama but a film that deals with the Hungarian revolution of 1956,” says pic’s producer, Andras Hamori.
“But by having ‘Fateless’ in the Oscars,” he adds, “they’re making an international gesture that Hungary is willing to face up to its role in the Holocaust.”
France, meanwhile, decided it didn’t want to be represented by a bunch of penguins. Instead of nominating the phenomenally successful docu “March of the Penguins,” selectors went with the WWI drama “Joyeux Noel,” which picked up a Golden Globe nom last week alongside “The Promise,” “Kung Fu Hustle,” “Paradise Now” and “Tsotsi.”
The choice was controversial, as the pic had not been released on the main cinema circuit in France by the time of the application deadline, but had played for only a week at a small arthouse theater in St. Pol-sur-Ternoise.
Emmanuel Priou, one of the producers on “March of the Penguins,” says the team behind “Joyeux Noel” had been doing a great deal of lobbying to receive official backing for the movie. Indeed, the pic screened in Cannes in front of European cultural ministers.
Not without vitriol, Priou says, “To the established French film industry our film is like a UFO, because we’re all first-timers. If we had been representing France at the Oscars, it would have been a pain in the neck for a lot of people here.”
Whatever lobbying, politicking and backstabbing goes on in each country, the Academy itself does not get involved, “otherwise we’d never get out of the morass,” says the Academy’s director of communication John Pavlik.
Some have attacked the Academy, saying the qualifying rules in the foreign-language category no longer make sense in the increasingly international production climate and should be changed.
In Italy, the Acad’s rejection of the country’s initial entry, “Private,” on the grounds that it was in Arabic, Hebrew and English rather than Italian, sparked criticism across the industry.
“Cache” (Hidden), helmed by Austrian Michael Haneke, was rejected by his homeland because it is in French rather than the country’s language, German.
“As filmmakers from a small country like Austria, we’re forced to take on the language of another country to get our films financed,” explains “Cache” producer Veit Heiduschka.
Heiduschka also complains the Academy’s regulations are confusing, because three years earlier Haneke’s “The Piano Teacher,” also in French, was accepted.
Austria previously had sent the Academy a version of the pic dubbed into German; while this was acceptable in 2002, the regs have since changed.
“Now it’s the language of the original soundtrack that counts, not the language of the submitted version,” Pavlik says.
He adds, “The rules change every year. After each awards ceremony they (the Academy) look at the regulations and see if they can be improved.”
According to Pavlik, AMPAS tries “as hard as they can, but they will never make rules that make everybody happy, because rules don’t do that.”
However, even producers whose films do meet the foreign-language requirements want the Academy to start thinking outside the national box. “The cultural borders within Europe are coming down. This is reflected in the diversification of Europe’s languages and the increase in European co-productions,” says Fred Breinersdorfer, writer-producer of German entry “Sophie Scholl.”
“I’d welcome it if the most prestigious film award in the world would support this exciting process and reflect this development rather than insist on national demarcations,” he adds.
This year’s Palestinian entry, “Paradise Now,” seems to indicate the Academy has already started to move beyond the politics of nationality.
Shot in Arabic by Dutch-Israeli helmer Hany Abu-Assad, the drama about two Palestinian suicide bombers is a Dutch-German-French-Israeli co-production and scooped European picture kudos at the Berlin Film Festival this year. Yet it’s still accepted as Palestinian by the Academy.
“It’s technically European, but emotionally it’s a Palestinian film,” says the pic’s producer, Bero Beyer, whose intention was not to make a political pamphlet but first and foremost a good film.
“If anything, we wanted to open up the dialogue and take abstract politics to a human level — which is where the solution to this political problem will be found,” says Beyer.