Fests get kicks from kudos

Eye on the Oscars: Foreign Language

This year’s list of foreign-language film Oscar contenders includes a goodly number of pics that world preemed at major Europe-based international film festivals.

While the Academy’s choices sometimes confuse or irritate fest programmers, getting the Oscar seal of approval remains a validation they made the right decisions.

For Dieter Kosslick, Berlin Film Festival topper, seeing three pics that opened at his fest — “Pina,” “The Turin Horse” and “A Separation” — contending for an Oscar nom is a positive signal in itself.

“An Oscar is not only the highest film award in the U.S., it’s one of the biggest prizes the international film community has; and it has a real commercial impact on a film,” he says. “This year’s Berlin selection had drawn some criticism and I’m happy to see that nine months later we’re getting some confirmation that we actually had a great lineup.”

But considering the difference in taste between Europeans and the American (foreign-language Oscar) voters, it’s a tough task for national committees to second-guess the film that has the best chance to win, says Olivier Pere, Locarno Film Festival director.

The Cannes Film Festival has often screened films that went on to become Oscar entries and this year is no exception: Lebanon and South Africa are repped by Un Certain Regard players “Where Do We Go Now” and “Beauty,” respectively. Turkey’s “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia,” Israel’s “Footnote” and Finland’s “Le Havre” all bowed in competition at Cannes.

But Cannes’ penchant for pure auteur films doesn’t always mesh well with foreign-language Oscar voters’ tastes. Last year, for instance, Gaul’s selection committee, which includes the fest’s topper Thierry Fremaux, had chosen the fest’s Grand Prize winner, Xavier Beauvois’ “Of Gods and Men,” to represent France at the Oscars, but pic failed to make it into the short list, in spite of being a critics’ darling. However, a French majority co-production, Algerian entry “Outside the Law,” which opened at Cannes in competition and had a more mainstream streak than “Men,” made the cut.

This year, Gaul’s committee picked “Declaration of War,” an uplifting drama from thesp-turned-helmer Valerie Donzelli that didn’t open at the festival but instead bowed at Cannes Critics’ Week, which runs concurrently with the fest.

Jean-Christophe Berjon, former topper of Critics’ Week, who had picked “Declaration of War,” says the film might be too unconventional and audacious to seduce Academy voters.

“The designated committee that votes for foreign-language films is mostly made up of aging or retired Hollywood folks who favor features that aren’t necessarily the most daring and tends to go for films that have a big emotional or narrative component and a significant crossover appeal,” says Berjon, who is now the audiovisual attache at the French Embassy in Mexico.

Yet, as Giorgio Gosetti, artistic director of Venice Days, the independently run section of the Venice Film Festival, points out, “in recent years, the foreign film Oscar has been a real lottery, totally unpredictable, based on so many variables.”

“When Japanese film ‘Departures’ won in 2009, the feeling I had was that they were trying to surprise us, to show us that they, too could be intellectual snobs, or at least exotic, in the face of all our European prejudices that the foreign Oscar committee just went for the world’s more mainstream quality movies,” says Gosetti, who had selected Canadian helmer Denis Villeneuve’s “Incendies.” It scored a foreign Oscar nom last year, for Venice Days.

While most fest programmers claim the Oscar is the last thing on their minds when they choose films, Pere says he thinks differently.

“Maybe in Europe we have a different perception and are less concerned or obsessed about the Oscars. But at Locarno we are very careful about selecting a certain number of films that can get international attention, and especially that are able to be appreciated by critics, audiences, and other festivals around the world.”

Pere notes that the Piazza Grande programming is geared toward quality mainstream arthouse films that can have a career overseas and, especially, in America.

According to Tribeca Film Festival artistic director Frederic Boyer, who tapped Karl Markovics’ debut feature “Breathing” (Austria’s Oscar race entry this year) for the Directors’ Fortnight when he headed that org, whether it’s the festival, Critics’ Week or Directors’ Fortnight, each is a crucial launchpad for auteur films.

Kosslick, however, says premiering a film in an international festival such as Berlin (or Cannes, Venice, Locarno, San Sebastian and Sundance) certainly underscores its potential. “But I can’t say I’m responsible for positioning films for Oscar attention — the directors, producers and distributors deserve all the credit for that.”

Per Jean-Charles Tesson, a film journo who has replaced Berjon as topper of Critics’ Week, the Oscar voters undoubtedly pay attention to what Cannes and other top European film festivals do because over the years, these festivals have introduced and celebrated international filmmakers and thesps, including American newcomers, who went on to gain recognition in their homeland.

“The Academy wants to make sure it honors films and auteurs who go on to mark history, alongside the more mainstream pics,” says Tesson.

In recent years, Kosslick, for instance, has selected “Monster’s Ball” and “Monster,” both of which earned their respective leading actresses, Halle Berry and Charlize Theron, Oscar nods.

And it works both ways, says Tesson. “The Academy can sometimes make choices that can been perceived as too academic or consensual but its judgment matters enormously because it reflects the way Hollywood sees foreign cinema.”

As Gosetti points out, “With perhaps more films segueing from festivals to Oscar prospects I think we all need to realize that festivals need to make the most of this opportunity.”

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