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Oscars: Why the Gap Is Closing Between Foreign-Language and Documentary Categories

For most of the 60-plus years in which foreign-language film and documentary feature have been competitive Oscar categories, they have had very little to do with each other: separate fields to honor the kinds of film that most Academy voters won’t consider for best picture, with no intersection between them. To this day, no film has ever been nominated for both awards.

In recent years, however, a few have come close, beginning with a 2008 landmark: Israel’s “Waltz With Bashir.” Ari Folman’s path-breaking animated Lebanon War memoir made history by becoming the first documentary ever nominated for foreign-language film; the documentary branch, however, ruled it ineligible due to its lack of a bi-coastal qualifying run. (The animation branch didn’t spring for it either.) One doc has cracked the foreign-language category since: Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh’s Khmer Rouge reflection “The Missing Picture,” in 2013. Unlike Folman’s film, it qualified for the documentary race, but never made it past the longlist.

Perhaps the film that has come closest to scoring both noms is Wim Wenders’ mesmerising 3D dance tribute “Pina”: it landed a documentary nomination, and as Germany’s foreign-language Oscar entry, even nabbed a place on that category’s nine-film shortlist, only to be cut on nomination morning. Two years ago, Italy’s foreign-language submission, the acclaimed refugee-crisis doc “Fire at Sea,” failed to make the shortlist; the documentary branch, however, nominated it.

So the gap is closing: as the documentary race becomes increasingly accommodating of foreign-language work, more countries than ever are submitting documentaries as their official entries for the foreign-language award. That has perhaps been encouraged by a recent Academy rule change designed to eliminate inconsistencies between the two categories: now, all documentaries submitted for foreign-language film are automatically eligible for doc feature, even if they don’t meet the Academy’s standard release requirements for the latter category.

Any country that chooses to submit a documentary, then, is effectively giving its film two shots on goal. Eight countries have gone that route this year, and while most of them likely remain long shots in both categories, at least a couple have the potential to surprise.

Foremost among those is, once again, Cambodia, which, in the hope that lightning might strike twice, has understandably submitted Panh’s follow-up to “The Missing Picture.” Premiered at the Venice Film Festival, “Graves Without a Name” continues his inquiry into the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge, this time with a more personal angle: Panh goes in search of the resting places of his own family members slain in the genocide, with deeply affecting results. If the film isn’t as stylistically novel as “The Missing Picture,” which used clay figurines to dramatize much of the conflict, its stirring testimony ought to move many of the same voters who supported the 2013 film.

One of Switzerland’s most celebrated filmmakers, Markus Imhoof has had a film nominated in the foreign-language race before, though it was a narrative effort: 1981’s “The Boat Is Full,” about WWII refugees seeking asylum in Switzerland as the authorities limit the number they’ll take. Thirty-seven years later, he’s revisiting notably similar themes in his documentary “Eldorado,” which examines the current European refugee crisis — and Switzerland’s unwelcoming role in it — in parallel with the filmmaker’s own childhood experience with refugees in World War II. A Berlin competition selection this year, it’s a fresh angle on a subject that has occupied a lot of documentary screen time in recent years, ruefully reflecting on how little we’ve learned from the injustices of the past.

Austria’s “The Waldheim Waltz” is the only film of the bunch to have already been released Stateside. Menemsha Films, which represented a run of foreign-language Oscar nominees in the early 2000s, is handling this well-received political documentary by veteran filmmaker Ruth Beckermann. Praised by Variety’s Jay Weissberg for being “clear, impassioned but never polemical,” it’s an incisive investigation of the collective blind eye Austria has turned to its Nazi-era past, centered on the controversial figure of Kurt Waldheim — whose Nazi affiliations didn’t prevent him being elected UN Secretary General in 1971 and Austrian president in 1986. Composed entirely from archive footage, it’s a topical work in the present age of surging far-right ideologies, and could well resonate with the Academy’s more politically engaged members.

Beckermann’s film won the top documentary prize at this year’s Berlinale; the previous year, the same award went to Raed Andoni’s film “Ghost Hunting,” which happens to Palestine’s foreign-language submission this year. This reconstructive doc features former Palestinian inmates of the Moskobiya interrogation center in Jerusalem; under Andoni’s guidance, they reenact the torture they endured at the hands of Israeli occupiers. “Ghost Hunting” comes with strong endorsements from filmmakers Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, though critics are mixed on its merits, with Weissberg deeming it “ethically problematic.”

The remaining four documentaries have been less widely exposed on the festival circuit. For the second time, New Zealand has entered a work by docmaker Pietra Brettkelly: premiered at Tribeca, “Yellow Is Forbidden” follows Chinese fashion designer Guo Pei’s journey to Met Gala acclaim. Panama’s entry, Abner Benaim’s “Ruben Blades Is Not My Name,” is a straightforward biographical celebration of the eponymous native son and international salsa music icon that played at South by Southwest in the spring.

Latvia’s entry, Ivars Seleckis’ “To Be Continued,” is a sociological portrait of seven children from contrasting social backgrounds. Finally, Lithuania’s “Wonderful Losers: A Different World,” an underdog study of water carriers in professional cycling, is director Arunas Matelis’ first feature since 2005’s leukemia-patient portrait “Before Flying Back to Earth,” a global festival hit that even won Matelis a surprise DGA Award.

Even if no documentary makes it to the foreign-language shortlist stage this year, the medium’s growing presence in the category is notable. Over in the best picture field, no documentary has ever been nominated, even as the category has expanded to supposedly accommodate more diverse selections. Foreign-language film, however, is proving the more porous and forward-looking category, gradually accepting documentary and narrative filmmaking on level terms.

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