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Oscar race a big deal for small countries

Academy Award recognition is a high-stakes games

A celebration of all things Hollywood it may be, but when it comes to the race for the foreign-language film Academy Award, the kudocast begins to resemble another globally televised, multinational event: the Opening Ceremony of the Olympics. The U.S. may dominate the parade with its sheer weight of numbers — but spare a thought for plucky Guam and tiny Luxembourg, dutifully bringing up the rear.

This year the prenomination race offers a crowded field, with 65 nations submitting pics — two fewer than last year’s all-time-high of 67. And while Guam doesn’t feature among the 2010 submissions, the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg (pop. 493,500) certainly does, with WWII drama “Refractaire” from debut helmer Nicolas Steil.

Yet if the foreign-language film category often feels like a catchall — a few minutes’ lip service to a global film culture Hollywood frequently seems intent on elbowing aside — it nevertheless means a lot to the nations involved. An Oscar victory can help win over wavering international buyers, as Yojiro Takita’s “Departures” proved. The winner of the category earlier this year, it eventually sold to 36 international territories, aided in no small measure by the allure of that gold statuette.

“It can make the difference, definitely,” admits one Euro sales agent. “At least to distributors. But whether it means all that much to audiences, I honestly don’t know.”

Most of the bigger names come already viewed, reviewed and sold — either out of Venice (Giuseppe Tonatore’s “Baaria”) or Cannes (Jacques Audiard’s “A Prophet” repping France, Bong Joon-ho’s “Mother” waving the flag for South Korea, and Michael Haneke’s Palme d’Or winner “The White Ribbon” appearing for Germany, not the helmer’s native Austria). Still, many entries remain unknown to even the most adventurous buyers, critics and programmers — and, given their lack of promotional resources, are likely to remain so.

There’s a smattering from the ex-Soviet states: Georgia, Kazakhstan, Albania and the Baltics (sans Latvia) all figure in the submissions — but there’s nothing from Ukraine, Belarus or the other “-stans.” The former Yugoslavia fares better, with Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia & Herzegovina all accounted for. But Africa remains badly underrepresented, in the nominations as on the fest circuit, with only Morocco and South Africa fielding entries. Likewise the Middle East, with only Israel and Iran listed. (Last year saw the first Jordanian entry.)

By contrast, eight of South America’s 13 nations are represented. Peru’s candidate, Claudia Llosa’s “The Milk of Sorrow,” already has a Berlin Golden Bear to its credit; and if nothing else, Efterpi Charalambidis’ “Libertador Morales, el justiciero” sounds entirely congruent with the social-reformist tone of Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela. Selections from Uruguay (“Bad Day to Go Fishing”), Chile (“Dawson Island 10”) and Bolivia (“Zona sur”) fill out a strong selection. Meanwhile, in the Caribbean, Cuba offers Ernesto Daranas’ “Fallen Gods”; it submitted “The Silly Age” in 2007.

More intriguing are the nations with English as a dominant language. Though most U.S. viewers (and even some Brits) would argue that the accents in any Ken Loach pic would render it eligible, the U.K.’s got an official entry this year with “Afghan Star,” with the dialogue in the Pashtu and Dari tongues (plus, it’s a feature doc rather than a fiction film, further pushing the envelope as to what submitting countries feel are its best films).

Similarly, Australia fields the Cannes Camera d’Or winner “Samson and Delilah,” with dialogue almost entirely in the Aboriginal Warlpiri dialect, spoken by only about 3,000 indigenous inhabitants.

While the Academy take pains to stress that “there are no rank outsiders” among the pack, it’s clear that some territories are more equal than others. The European and Asian heavyweights — France, Italy, Spain, Japan — have thriving local industries, internationally known auteurs and a level of brand familiarity that’s hard to beat … not to mention well-funded cultural agencies to beat their respective drums. Consequently, Italy has 10 trophies, France nine.

Compared with this, what chance does that tiny, great film from Colombia (“The Wind Journeys,” since you ask, and recently acquired by Film Movement) have of even reaching Academy voters — who aren’t sent screeners of the 65 titles but are instead invited to attend theatrical screenings? No full-page For Your Consideration ads for these films; not even a dedicated publicity campaign. Just simple word of mouth.

Ultimately, it may just be about the honor of being selected — or more correctly, being selected to be selected. Though, as Ciro Guerra, writer-director of “The Wind Journeys,” notes, there are issues beyond mere vanity: “An Oscar nomination would be important, not only for our fledgling industry but for our whole society. We’re struggling to leave behind the damage caused by the war on drugs and to project ourselves into the future, and cinema is an important tool for us to dream.”

PICS WITH A SHOT

Some less-than-high-profile and unusual titles that may break out of the pack:

‘Eyes’ on Argentina

Argentina’s repped by “The Secret in Their Eyes,” helmed by Juan Jose Campanella, who has successfully maintained parallel careers: as a helmer in his homeland — his 2001 dramedy “Son of the Bride” earned him an international fest profile — and as a TV director in the U.S., where he’s worked on skeins like “House,” “30 Rock” and “Law and Order: Criminal Intent.” As such, he’s a slightly more known quantity to Acad voters, and this, along with strong reviews and local box office for “Eyes,” coupled with the fact that Sony Pictures Classics picked up North American rights for the film last month, could place the pic among the final five.

Historical ‘Heat’

Estonia’s entry, “December Heat,” reps another perennial for the category: the nationalist historical drama. Usually a tale of independence or adversity (in this instance, Estonia’s 1924 struggle to remain independent from Russia), these efforts are comparatively well resourced — being essentially government-sponsored cinema — and play solidly in their home territories but tend to elicit yawns offshore. This one’s framed as an action-thriller, but will that be enough to overcome Estonia’s low international profile?

‘Mother’ master

Since premiering at Cannes — where it swept the board at Directors’ Fortnight — “I Killed My Mother,” the debut feature from prodigious multihyphenate Xavier Dolan, has racked up a string of awards, including best Canadian feature at Vancouver, the Golden Puffin at Reykjavik and the Golden Pram at Zagreb. Whether it can add an Oscar to Dolan’s mantel remains to be seen: Canada has managed only one win in the category to date, for Denys Arcand’s “The Barbarian Invasions” in 2003.

‘Watch’ this space

Can Japan pull off two victories in a row? Ryoichi Kimizuka’s drama “Nobody to Watch Over Me” arrives boasting strong critical support, a growing fest profile (including a screenplay award at Montreal) and solid local B.O. ($6.1 million since its January release). Its combination of thriller conventions and arthouse inclinations might make the Acdemy sit up and take notice.

Maybe this ‘Time’

Undeterred by the failure of other gritty, ultraviolent Brazilian films to land foreign-language Oscar noms (“City of God,” “Last Stop 174,” “Elite Squad”), South America’s largest nation advances yet another tough-as-nails urban crime drama, Sergio Rezende’s “Time of Fear,” for consideration. With 12 features to his credit — many of them biopics of notable Brazilian figures — the veteran writer-director is a safe pair of hands; still, you have to wonder if a sun-drenched, Rio-set romantic comedy with a little emotional depth might find more favor with Oscar.

Higher profile

Iceland has managed to score only one Oscar nomination so far, for Fridrik Thor Fridriksson’s 1991 dr
ama “Children of Nature,” but Oskar Jonasson’s “Reykjavik-Rotterdam” has a chance to reverse its fortunes — ironically, thanks to a remake for Working Title, set to star Mark Wahlberg. Following the travails of a retired smuggler, convinced by his best friend to revert to his old ways, it plays like an efficient B-movie — and again ironically, may therefore lack the patina of “quality filmmaking” the Academy prefers.

Shane Danielsen

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