The British Academy of Film & TV Arts has stumbled into a political row over its decision not to enter a movie for this year’s foreign-language Oscar.
At a time of rising nationalist feeling in Scotland and Wales, BAFTA’s rejection of Oscar hopefuls from both countries — Ashley Way‘s Welsh-speaking drama “Calon Gaeth,” and Simon Miller‘s hotly tipped Scots Gaelic pic “Seachd: The Inaccessible Pinnacle” — has put the heat on the London-based org.
“Seachd” producer Chris Young, whose last film “Festival” won two BAFTA nods, has resigned his membership, in protest at what he sees as “dangerously close to censorship.”
Angry questions have been asked in the Scottish parliament, where the Scottish National Party was elected to power for the first time this year. BAFTA toppers have been deluged with emails, not just from Scotland but also from the U.S., accusing them of an English conspiracy to stifle voices from other parts of the U.K.
If the Welsh response has been more muted, it’s probably because Richard Staniforth, producer of “Calon Gaeth,” somehow didn’t get the message from BAFTA that his film had been nixed. Staniforth was, until recently, chairman of BAFTA Wales.
BAFTA toppers have been taken aback by the strength of Scottish protests. Privately, they admit that a London-based jury might not be the best way in future to make the U.K.’s Oscar choice, given that candidates typically come from the distant Celtic fringes, where languages other than English are still spoken.
They are planning to raise this issue with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, to see whether the job should pass to other bodies, such as the U.K. Film Council or the Welsh and Scottish governments. It’s unclear whether AMPAS would be willing to recognize Wales and Scotland as separate nations for the purposes of Oscar submission.
For obvious reasons, the U.K. does not throw up many candidates for the foreign Oscar — although the Welsh have managed to win two nominations in the past 14 years. “Seachd” (pronounced “Shachk”) is the first Scots Gaelic movie in 25 years, and would have been Scotland’s first Oscar contender.
AMPAS rules state that only an “outstanding” film should be submitted. BAFTA has given no official reason why its jury, comprising six members of the film committee, rejected both candidates this year. But insiders say none of the jurors considered either film strong enough.
Problem is that this verdict, based on DVD screeners, is at odds with the response “Seachd,” at least, is getting out in the real world, on the big screen. Pic was warmly reviewed at the Edinburgh fest, and is in competition at Rome this month.
A first feature by Miller, an English convert to the Gaelic cause, it’s a complex and ambitious work whose passion is hard to dismiss lightly. Many worse movies will doubtless be entered for the Oscars by other countries.
It’s the story of a boy living with his Gaelic grandparents after his parents are killed in a climbing accident. The grandfather, powerfully played by poet Aonghas Padraig Caimbeul, spins magical realist yarns of family history to assuage their mutual grief, and persuade his grandson to cherish his Gaelic heritage.
BAFTA’s rejection thus chimes unfortunately with the film’s own themes about the struggle of a minority culture to make itself heard.
“Politically, it seems like a horrible misjudgement of the times we live in, when films like ‘Ten Canoes’ and ‘Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner,’ from very specific small language cultures, are finding an audience,” says Young. “Support from the likes of BAFTA can make a colossal difference.”
“There’s been a huge problem in getting visibility for Welsh film over the years,” echoes Staniforth. “We constantly draw a blank with sales agents or distributors in London, and the Oscars are one of the few routes that we can get recognition. How does somebody in London think they can pre-judge that?”
The only upside for “Seachd” will be if the row convinces English-speaking Scots that it’s their patriotic duty to see the movie when it goes on release in Scottish multiplexes this weekend.