However you slice the foreign-language film Oscar, it remains bound by rules and regulations that ensure it can never be fully representative of world cinema: in 2018, as global film production grows ever more complex and multinational, the one-film-per-country submission system looks a little quaint, excluding numerous outstanding titles that fall both within and beyond the borders of their ostensible places of origin.
To the Academy’s credit, it hasn’t turned a blind eye to the imperfections of its eligibility requirements — and one relatively recent tweak to the rules, in particular, has dramatically broadened countries’ submission options, dragging the category at least partially into the age of globalization.
Up until 2005, antiquated Academy rules stipulated that a film had to be in the official language of the country submitting it — a snag that kept many strong films from traveling filmmakers out of the running, and reached a head when Michael Haneke’s critically beloved French-language thriller “Caché” was disqualified as Austria’s entry for not sounding sufficiently Teutonic.
The ensuing outcry persuaded the branch that enough was enough, and the rule was scrapped: the very next year, Canada’s nomination for Indo-Canadian helmer Deepa Mehta’s Hindi-language “Water” heralded a new, more diverse era for the category.
Since then, the rule change has enabled nods for such titles as Canada’s Lingala-language “War Witch” and France’s Turkish-set “Mustang”; Haneke, meanwhile, got his own back by winning an Oscar for “Amour,” another French drama entered under the Austrian flag.
This year, a number of filmmakers are bringing their multinational interests and identities to the table, and the field is richer for it.
As a predominantly English-speaking country, for example, the United Kingdom was once limited to Welsh-language cinema if it wanted to compete (after Asif Kapadia’s Hindi-language “Warrior” was rejected by the Acad in in 2002): since the rule change, its entries have traversed the globe from the Philippines to Pakistan to Patagonia in milieu. The Brit entry this year is one of the most exciting wild cards in contention: Zambian-Welsh director Rungano Nyoni’s heady, formally daring satirical fable “I Am Not a Witch,” which mixes Bemba and English dialogue in its story of a young girl banished by her community to a witches’ camp.
“It’s a sore point among many Zambians,” laughs Nyoni, who was born in the African nation before immigrating to Wales at age 9. “They don’t get why it’s a British Oscar entry, they don’t understand how it’s determined by the financing. Different countries have different rules for determining these things; it’s complicated. But I’m complicated! I’ve always been a hybrid, between these two worlds, so the film is a reflection of me that way.”
Nyoni secured funding for her very African story from Film4 and the British Film Institute, but that came as a surprise to her. “I first went over to continental Europe to get funding, after I met with a few British producers whose eyes I could see glazing over: ‘Do you have anything set … not in Zambia?’ they asked. So funnily enough it was my French producer who pushed me to find British money. And we did.”
Antipodean countries are in a similar boat to the U.K.: Australia, which scored a nomination two years ago for “Tanna,” set on the eponymous South Pacific island, has this year plumped for the Pashto-language Afghanistan war drama “Jirga.”
Meanwhile, for the second time in three years, New Zealand has tapped globe-trotting docmaker Pietra Brettkelly as its representative. Two years after picking her Afghan film archive doc “A Flickering Truth,” the Kiwis submitted “Yellow Is Forbidden,” her compellingly intimate study of Chinese fashion designer Guo Pei, an industry outsider who made waves as the creator of Rihanna’s showstopping 2015 Met Gala gown.
“I seem to be drawn to making these films in languages I don’t understand,” says Brettkelly, who filmed Guo at close quarters for two years without the benefit of an on-hand translator, often uncovering the drama of scenes only after the fact.
“All my films are about isolation, and that’s a reflection of me living in New Zealand and being in isolation from my industry. But I see that as a positive. I love the experience of dropping into a culture, a religion, a gender situation that is completely different from my own, and having to go beyond language to understand my subject.”
One filmmaker with an immediate subject is Norwegian-Pakistani filmmaker Iram Haq, representing Norway for the second time with the Urdu-Norwegian-language “What Will People Say” — a powerful immigrant drama based on her own traumatic adolescent experience of being kidnapped from Norway to Pakistan by her father after supposedly dishonoring her parents.
“I was born and grew up in Norway so I feel like I’m Norwegian, but I will forever be torn between two countries,” Haq says. “It’s great that my film got funding and support from Norway because it is the story of many girls there: that’s the multi-cultural world we live in today.”
Loath to return to Pakistan following her traumatic experience, Haq instead shot the film predominantly in India, adding another stamp to the film’s global identity. “The film industry there is very well-developed and the language is more or less the same, so it just made sense — they were great partners to work with,” she says. “Ultimately, I’ll go anywhere where they’ll help me make the story I want to tell.”
With more international filmmakers taking that approach and embracing global co-production, the Academy may eventually be forced to redefine the parameters of its submission process once more.
As Nyoni says: “Everything’s funded by multiple sources now — it’s what you have to do as an independent filmmaker. It’s not realistic otherwise.” She “half-gets” the national submission system, she admits. “I guess it’s the easiest way to narrow things down, otherwise they’d get thousands of submissions. But maybe there’s a different way to do it.”