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Oscar Foreign Language Films Tap Into the Zeitgeist

Once upon a time, the quintessential foreign-language film submission was a sweeping epic or something to do with WWII. No longer. More challenging and topical pictures have been entered and ultimately rewarded. Think of last year’s Chilean winner, “A Fantastic Woman,” centered on a transgender character.
Among this year’s submissions from 87 countries are at least a baker’s dozen that address the current zeitgeist. There are films about refugees and immigrants, sexuality and gender, single fatherhood, the plight of the urban poor, protecting the environment, anti-Semitism, female sex workers, sexual harassment and civilians caught in current wars.

As the rights of transgender individuals become a politically fraught issue in the U.S., Belgium’s “Girl,” directed by Lukas Dhont, offers a sympathetic,
naturalistically drawn portrait of a still-transitioning 15-year-old who is working toward her dream of becoming a professional ballerina.

“ ‘Girl’ began [with] the need to say something about how we perceive gender, about femininity and masculinity,” Dhont says. “But most importantly about an internal struggle of a young heroine who’s putting her body at risk to become the person she wants to be.”

Another film about sexuality, tolerance and acceptance comes from the notoriously homophobic Kosovo, where it is dangerous for gay people to live openly. Director Blerta Zeqiri’s “The Marriage” is an affecting look at how a couple’s wedding is complicated by the return of the groom’s secret former male lover. While shooting, the production team kept their storyline under wraps and were prepared for threats once the film entered theaters. But to their surprise, the film sold out for several weeks and audiences loved it.

The plight of refugees has been a continuing and very personal issue for Swiss director Markus Imhoof (whose fiction feature “The Boat Is Full,” about Switzerland’s shameful rejection of Jewish immigrants during WWII, was a foreign-language nominee in 1982). His documentary “Eldorado” tracks today’s African and Middle Eastern refugees on their dangerous journey to Europe and parallels it with his memories of a malnourished Italian child his family took in just after WWII. She died after the Swiss government forced her back home.

Real-life refugees play roles in “Never Leave Me” from Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Aida Begić, whose early features dealt with post-war trauma in her country. Shooting in the ancient Turkish city of Sanliurfa, her drama follows the fate of displaced Syrian children. Begić spent months working with aid groups and orphanages to research the story and find her cast.

Few people in the West know that there are some 2.5 million Afghan refugees, both legal and illegal, living in Iran. Often exploited, they work for less than Iranians and lack full civil rights. Afghanistan’s submission, “Rona, Azim’s Mother,” from Afghan-born, Iran-based director Jamshid Mahmoudi, movingly explores these issues.

Raising a child as a working-class single parent is tough. Estonia’s “Take It or Leave It,” the feature debut of Liina Trishkina-Vanhatalo, puts a new twist on this storyline by following a taciturn construction worker struggling on his own to raise the child born to his former girlfriend.

Producer Ivo Felt says, “In a society where every fifth child lives in a family with only one parent, single mothers clearly outnumber single fathers. But single fathers exist. Every day, more and more. In fact, we should be asking why there are so many single parents around us. ‘Take It or Leave It’ tries to ask exactly that.”

The young protagonist in Lebanon’s “Capernaum” has a mother and father, but his family lives in such extreme poverty that his parents are willing to essentially sell his barely pubescent sister as a wife to the much older local grocer. In shining a light on the hidden face of Beirut, director Nadine Labaki hopes to show the everyday life of those for whom destitution seems an inescapable fate.

“I’m convinced that films can, if not change things, at least help to open up a debate or make people think, by helping people to become aware of the situation,” she says.

Most countries at least pay lip service to protecting the environment, and it is considered a top priority among international scientists. In the brilliant and funny “Woman at War,” from Icelandic director Benedikt Erlingsson, a middle-age Reykjavik choir conductor is also a secret eco-warrior, fighting to save the countryside from industrial pollution. Erlingsson worked to limit the production’s carbon footprint, and even now, while promoting the film, plants three Icelandic birch trees for every trip he takes to the U.S. as a carbon offset.

While newspapers report on foreign conflict, they still seem far from the average American’s consciousness. Therefore, kudos to two films that bring them front and center. Yemen’s “10 Days Before the Wedding,” helmed by Amr Gamal, follows a couple struggling to marry amid the chaos caused by the ongoing fighting. Meanwhile, in the Cannes prize-winner “Donbass,” Ukraine’s prolific Sergei Loznitsa uses a series of darkly comic vignettes to evoke the social breakdown in the Donbass, a region of Eastern Ukraine occupied by various criminal gangs.

“The fighting is going on between the Ukrainian regular army, supported by volunteers, and separatist gangs, supported by Russian troops,” Loznitsa says. “It is a hybrid war, happening alongside an open armed conflict, accompanied by killings and robberies on a mass scale, and a gradual degradation of the civilian population. There is fear, deception, hatred and violence everywhere.”

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