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Oscars: Directors Find Global Audiences With Personal Tales

The last time two directors whose films weren’t in English got nominated for an Academy Award in the same year, Jimmy Carter was president.

It was 1977, and the directing nominations went to both Ingmar Bergman (“Face to Face”) and Lina Wertmuller (“Seven Beauties”), along with Alan Pakula (“All the President’s Men”) and Sidney Lumet (“Network”). And the Oscar went to … John G. Avildsen for “Rocky.”

More than 40 years later, it’s happened again, with nominations to Alfonso Cuaron (“Roma”) and Pawel Pawlikowski (“Cold War”), along with Spike Lee (“BlacKkKlansman”), Adam McKay (“Vice”) and Yorgos Lanthimos (“The Favourite”).

But this year feels different.

“The indications are that things are opening up a bit,” says Pawlikowski.

The films in the category all broadcast directorial passion, one that springs as often from a political belief as from a personal connection to the material. Still, as Cuaron notes: “To do a political film, you don’t have to be explicitly political.”

Pawlikowski, whose 2014 “Ida” won the foreign-language Oscar, believes the specificity of the stories in films such as his and “Roma” allow their appeal to translate on a global level.

“What is specific is what makes it universal,” Pawlikowski says. “The emotional truths are what translate.”

McKay agrees: “That could be an American family or a Parisian family or a Japanese family in ‘Roma.’ The major themes resonate.”

The English-language directorial nominees are more obviously political: from the struggle to be chief suck-up to (and power behind) an early 18th-century British queen, to the ongoing battle against racism and white supremacists in America, to the construction of a Republican political machine that lied the country into a war and continues to this day.

“It’s an extraordinary year,” Cuaron says of his category. “It ups the game for everyone. You see how diverse the nominees are, thematically, ethnically. We’re seeing characters who have been invisible for decades.”

“Roma” and “Cold War” show that subtitled movies can reach a broader American audience with stories that focus on the humanity of the characters. How do more aggressively political films on obviously American themes — such as “Vice” and “BlacKkKlansman” — play to foreign audiences?

Lee notes that his film has made as much money in foreign markets as it has in the United States.

“The rise of the right is something that’s not just happening in the U.S.,” Lee says. “It’s a worldwide phenomenon — in Brazil and Hungary and Turkey and a lot of other places. The fact that this film’s take is split evenly between America and foreign markets is a good indicator of its appeal.”

With the more aggressively satirical “Vice,” McKay says: “Here, either people were saying, ‘It’s a liberal hit job’ or ‘It doesn’t go far enough.’ In Europe, no one was interested in talking about the politics; they wanted to talk about formalistic things, about the style of the filmmaking.”
While Oscar regularly doles out nominations to directors of foreign-language films, Cuaron (already an Oscar-winning helmer for 2013’s “Gravity”) is favored to become the first such nominee to take home the prize. Potentially, “Roma” could score the unprecedented sweep of best picture and foreign-language film, as well as director, screenplay and cinematography.

But let’s focus on the directing category. A win there would be also unprecedented, given Oscar’s 90-year history so far.

The tides obviously are shifting. While no director of a foreign-language film has ever won the prize, only one American-born helmer has won the honor since 2010 (Damien Chazelle, “La La Land”), and only seven Americans have won since 2000. Compare that to the 1970s, when they accounted for nine of 10 winners.

While the giants of 20th-century international cinema — Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, Francois Truffaut, Akira Kurosawa — all received Oscar nominations for director at some point in their careers, some multiple times, the only competitive Oscars they and other international greats (including Luis Bunuel, Jacques Tati and Costa-Gavras) ever collected were for foreign-language film.

“Maybe it’s because I have a different experience, not growing up in America, but we were seeing films from around the world,” Cuaron says. “So when I was a teenager, there’s wasn’t ‘world cinema’ — it was just cinema. I’d see them all; some were boring, some were cool, but I’d go. There was a hunger to partake of different experiences.”

As McKay notes, “global cinema” means something else when it’s bandied about by Hollywood studio marketing executives, who use the term to describe comic-book superhero films and other large-scale action films geared to an ever-expanding mass audience.

“Hollywood has gone all-in on the big ‘global’ movies — they want something that will play to a big audience in China or Brazil,” McKay says. “So this is an odd moment.”

The elephant in the room is Netflix, which produced “Roma” and gave it enough of a theatrical release to qualify for the Oscars and other awards. It and other streaming services such as Amazon (which released “Cold War”) are creating their own definition of “global cinema.”

Once upon a time, world cinema referred to foreign films, most from Europe, lucky enough to find their way to America. For years, it was a trickle — sometimes steady, rarely robust — one that was limited by the dwindling number of theaters willing to screen a subtitled film.

In the past couple of years, however, the trickle has become a firehose blast, thanks to streaming platforms. And the films flow both ways.

Suddenly we’re dealing with an entertainment ecosystem in which a new film — American or otherwise — can reach any viewer anywhere in the world who is in possession of a TV, a tablet or a smart phone and a Wi-Fi signal. That fact, ironically, might threaten theatrical distribution of foreign-language films in the America.

“Unfortunately, the conventional theater-going experience is becoming very gentrified,” Cuaron says. “Exhibitors are trying to hold the fort for a more diverse kind of cinema in theaters.”

The strong viewpoint of the nominated directors’ films raises the question: How does the charged partisan atmosphere of today’s prevailing political and media discourse affect the way these directors created their films?

Even given the polarized nature of the political scene, the directors agreed, there is no point in trying to anticipate how an audience will receive a film, or how it will resonate with current events that may coincide with its eventual release. Making a film is difficult enough, without trying forecast the future.

“It’s a mistake and a trap, if you’re too aware of that and try to give it importance, to try to be relevant,” Cuaron says. “Plus you never know: How relevant will this be a year from now when the movie comes out?”

Lanthimos takes it a step farther: “We started working on this eight years ago,” he says of “The Favourite.” “You don’t know the circumstances under which the film will be seen by the world. And it makes no sense to think about the audience. You can’t anticipate every different person’s reaction.”

All you can account for is your own effort and vision, they say. For each director, his film represents a personal stake, some more obvious than others.

Cuaron’s film, about a family and its servant in early 1970s Mexico, is based on his memories of a beloved nanny when he was a child in Mexico City. Pawlikowski, whose romantic drama follows a couple divided by the East-West conflict in 1950s’ Poland, drew inspiration from the story of his parents’ history. Lee, whose films have called out American racial hypocrisy for his entire career, used a true story from the 1970s of an African-American cop who infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan to draw a line to issues that still roil America today. For Lanthimos and McKay, the personal connections to their films is less apparent.

“The fact that it’s a period film about Queen Anne doesn’t say much to me,” admits Lanthimos, whose “Dogtooth” was a 2010 foreign-language film nominee. “I tried to see below the surface, in order to make contact with the story I was doing. I was making a film about three women, which I hadn’t seen before, so I was interested in exploring that — of focusing on these three and, through that, speaking of all the other things the film deals with.”

McKay, an Oscar winner for his 2015 “The Big Short” screenplay, drew on his own frustration watching the George W. Bush administration, guided by Vice President Dick Cheney (played by Christian Bale in “Vice”), blithely take the country into an unnecessary war.

“It’s something we all lived through; a really hard eight years that were dispiriting, upsetting and absurd,” McKay says. “It was strange to see the quietness around that in the years afterward. And now, with [President] Trump, to hear people say they miss the Bush-Cheney years, well — I mean, it’s a bigger story than one individual, but he changed American history.”

Still, this may be the year when one director’s personal connection to the material may wind up being the deciding factor.

“More than anything I was working with material that was extraordinarily close to my heart,” Cuaron says. “It was like I was transcribing things straight from my memory on to the screen — and it takes an emotional toll.”

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