The first foreign-language Oscar was presented in 1957, not so much to its director Federico Fellini as to the whole of Italy for his acclaimed “La Strada,” which beat out competition from Japan, Germany, France and Denmark. That year, only eight countries submitted films, but the number has increased sharply in the decades since, reaching new heights this year when 92 countries submitted titles for consideration — a record for the category.
Entries from Haiti, Honduras, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Mozambique, Senegal and Syria — countries torn by war, riven by natural disaster or simply lacking in any kind of industry infrastructure whatsoever — joined the race this year.
The nomination certainly came as a surprise for Mattie Do, whose second feature “Dearest Sister” was chosen to represent Laos.
“One day I woke up and there was an email from the Luang Prabang Film Festival announcing that they had facilitated the means for Laos to create a selection committee qualified to submit a film to the Academy, and that they would like to invite my film to participate.” Do says. “It was pretty nuts. I think I read the letter twice and looked for small print to see if it was a joke or not.”
Coming from a performance-based but non-film background, and claiming — tongue firmly in cheek — to have learned her craft from “a large semi-outdated text book called ‘Directing,’” Do points out that “the industry in Laos is tiny.
“We have almost no professional infrastructure or local crew to use for films, so we end up having to DIY everything. Literally, last year was a huge and record-breaking year for film production in Laos, and I think we ended up only making three films, perhaps four,” she says. “I’m still stunned, and I think Laos itself doesn’t quite understand the gravity of how serious it is to have a film in the foreign-language category. It’s a huge step forward for Laos, and that it will motivate our country to make more films of higher quality, films that can be noticed and shared.”
From Mozambique comes Licínio Azevedo’s “The Train of Salt and Sugar.” The movie centers on a train that crossed the northern part of Mozambique during civil war in the ’80s. Azevedo refers to his film as an “African Western,” but notes that the country is firmly rooted in non-fiction.
“It’s big for Haiti, even just to have come thus far. It means that for us inside of Haiti making films that, ‘OK, we can actually put an industry together that is solid.’”
“Mozambique has a long documentary tradition,” he says. “The National Institute of Cinema was the first cultural institution to be created after the country’s independence in 1975. Our first president knew that a country without images would turn into a country without memory. Mozambique had an illiteracy rate of more than 90% — a heavy legacy from the colonial period. Cinema turned out to be an efficient tool for educating the people and, most importantly, for the ideological work that needed to be done with the population in order to strengthen the national identity and the creation of a Mozambican nation, where there are 30 different spoken languages.”
Identity was definitely important to Guetty Felin, whose film “Ayiti Mon Amour” is representing Haiti. “I was born in Haiti,” she says, “and my parents moved to the United States when I was 9 months old. My father decided that we should go back, and so between the ages of 2½ and 9 I lived in Haiti. Those were the formative years for me I think. I think I can say that those were the years that made me want to make films.”
Felin’s selection, chosen for its export value after a high-profile bow at TIFF led to multiple international festival bookings, has made major waves at home. “It’s big for Haiti, even just to have come thus far,” says Felin. “It means that for us inside of Haiti making films that, ‘OK, we can actually put an industry together that is solid.’ It will validate the fact that cinema is a form of expression that can brand us differently. Because Haiti has an image issue and we do fall under the tropes of, like, being the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. It’s a place of ‘voodoo’ — without necessarily understanding what voodoo is. Or dire poverty — disasters of biblical proportion and so on. So it allows us to shift the conversation a little bit.
“In fact,” she laughs, “I have a friend from the Caribbean who said, ‘This is not just big for Haiti, it’s big for the Caribbean.’ I thought, ‘OK, more pressure!’”
Perhaps the most brave and bizarre new nomination, however, comes from Syria, with Sam Kadi’s “Little Gandhi” — a doc about peace activist Ghiyath Matar, directed remotely by an expat in Turkey via Skype and selected by a panel of exiled artists.
“The challenge was how to get the footage out of Syria,” says Kadi. “I thought maybe if [the Syrians] could connect with me online, they could upload the footage. They said, ‘Yes, we can do that, but it might take three years to get the footage up, because we can’t upload more than one gigabyte a week even if our computer works 24/7. That’s the maximum — it’s pretty slow.” Instead, they found someone willing to take a massive risk and have a series of USB drives taped to his body. “He managed to get almost 70% of the footage,” says Kadi, who tracked that footage from Damascus to Lebanon then back to Turkey.
Now a U.S. citizen, Kadi has no idea how the Syrian regime reacted to the news of his film’s selection. “We’re in a very tricky situation,” he says. “We are very fortunate and unfortunate the same time. Because we’re fortunate to be [in the] running — a story told by Syrians, made by Syrians. Because it shows who they are. But at the same time it’s unfortunate because we don’t really have the support of our country. We’re just individuals trying to get this thing going.
“I’m sure they were shocked,” he continues. “But this is something they can’t take away from us. It’s over. We are the very first selection.”