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Oscar Foreign-Language Race: When English Is the Mother Tongue

Heavily English-speaking regions can be wild cards in the foreign-language Oscar race, entering films one might not immediately identify as being from the region at all. The United Kingdom is among the least predictable entrants: Following last year’s thoroughly indigenous Welsh-language submission of “Under Milk Wood,” the British selectors looked further afield, entering Brit-Iranian helmer Babak Anvari’s Persian-language, Tehran-set horror film “Under the Shadow,” which caused a critical stir at Sundance this year. Mixing traditional white-knuckler tropes with sharp political subtext, this auspicious debut feature is a fresh, adventurous choice — though it’ll have to overcome the branch’s usual aversion to its genre.

Also venturing far from home with a Middle-Eastern outlook, New Zealand selectors took a chance by opting for Pietra Brettkelly’s documentary “A Flickering Truth,” which examines film archivist Ibrahim Arify’s restorative work in Afghanistan following the culturally destructive influence of the Taliban. Though it was warmly received in Venice, it’s nonetheless a niche item that faces an additional hurdle: voters have only once nominated a doc in the category before.

New Zealand’s neighbor Australia went beyond borders by picking festival hit “Tanna,” the first film shot entirely in the language of small South Pacific nation Vanuatu. A gorgeously lensed “Romeo and Juliet”-style tale of two young lovers eloping against their tribal elders’ wishes, it could impress voters with its mix of universal and culturally unfamiliar elements.

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Even Canada’s submission, “It’s Only the End of the World,” though in the second national language of French, avoids a domestic milieu. A third bite at the Oscar cherry for divisive 27-year-old enfant terrible Xavier Dolan, this high-pitched dysfunctional family drama sets its ensemble of major Gallic stars — including Marion Cotillard and Vincent Cassel — in a geographically indeterminate area of France. Critics at Cannes were largely unimpressed, but Dolan had the last laugh when he scooped the Grand Jury Prize.

Staying close to home is “Call Me Thief,” by first-time helmer Daryne Joshua, South Africa’s submission for the foreign-language Oscar race.
Based on the life of the film’s scriptwriter, John W. Fredericks, “Thief” tells the story of a young man in 1960s Cape Town, forced to navigate a world of poverty and violence before being imprisoned for petty crime.Behind bars, he discovers his skills as a storyteller, finding a way to survive among the jail’s hardened prisoners, while also helping them to rise above the brutal realities of prison life.

It was a story that struck a chord with Joshua.

“This film pays homage to the power of storytelling,” says the helmer, “a craft I personally owe my life to. To see something so personal resonate with audiences around the country … I’m overwhelmed. And now this, in my opinion, is the highest film honor our country could bestow on us.”

Christopher Vourlias contributed to this report.

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