Organizations that give awards think every category is important. The American public, on the other hand, seems to only care about best picture, actor and actress (and supporting, if Brad Pitt or Scarlett Johansson is a nominee).
However, to millions of people around the world, the most important category is the one devoted to movies that are not in the English language — what the Oscars call international feature film and what the Globes call foreign language.
For them, it’s not just about validation for one movie. Brillante Ma Mendoza, director of this year’s Philippines Oscar submission “Mindanao,” says, “An Oscar is more than a trophy,” adding that a nomination or win would be proof that “the whole Philippine film industry can stand with the best.”
Poland has been nominated three times in the past five years, including one win. Director Małgorzata Szumowska hopes the momentum carries to her film this year, “Never Gonna Snow Again.” After the award to Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Ida,” she says, “We all felt a real national sense of pride. An Oscar nomination is very prestigious. We love the Oscars — it’s a magic word in my country.”
In the U.S., films with subtitles are more esoteric than magic: It’s such a vast country that most people don’t need to learn different languages or cultures.
At the first Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences awards, for 1927-28, contenders included artists from other countries, such as the first lead-actor winner, the Swiss-born Emil Jannings. But the awards were clearly centered on Hollywood.
WWII heightened Americans’ world view and Oscars reflected that change. AMPAS began giving out a few honorary awards to non-English-lingo films, from 1947 (Italy’s “The Shoe-Shine”) through 1955 (Japan’s “Samurai, the Legend of Musashi”). Then, on Oct. 1, 1956, Variety reported the Academy “has taken on more of a global look,” with the creation of a new category devoted, “for the first time, to foreign language films.” The first winner was Federico Fellini’s “La Strada.”
Otherwise, the awards remained Hollywood-centric. France’s “Grand Illusion” (1938) was the only subtitled film to compete for best picture in the Academy’s first 40 years.
Awards recognition is not only about talent, but also about national image — and sometimes politics. After Bong Joon Ho’s 2019 “Parasite” won four Oscars, South Korean president Moon Jae In wrote on Twitter that the film had given “South Korean people pride and courage …”
Director Sarmad Sultan Khoosat’s film “Zindagi Tamasha” (Circus of Life) is Pakistan’s submission this year, though it’s banned in the country. He says, “An Oscar nod would dramatically change the way the audience at home and the country own the film, therefore representing a huge victory for us in terms of audience receptivity to the themes explored and what we’re trying to say with the film.”
Oscar attention also affects business. Gavin Hood, director of South Africa’s 2005 winner “Tsotsi,” told Variety, “These awards mean more than a nice congratulations. They give a film a chance of being seen outside of your country.”
It also helps within the country. Variety reported that all of the 2001 foreign-lingo contenders were “box-office behemoths” in their native lands. The $215,000 earned by “No Man’s Land” from Bosnia-Herzegovina was an extraordinary achievement because the war-torn area “has hardly any cinemas left.”
Oscars aren’t the only awards devoted to international films; in fact, the Golden Globes created a category seven years before the Academy did.
The Globes are given out by the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. The org was founded in 1943 to help L.A.-based journalists exchange info as they reported for overseas news outlets; the studios often ignored non-U.S. readers.
The HFPA inaugurated its foreign-language category in 1949, when the winner was Italy’s “The Bicycle Thief.” Actually, the org followed the New York Film Critics, which began saluting the films in 1946. By the mid-1950s, other groups, such as the National Board of Review, also added the category.
Like the Academy, the HFPA has continued to refine terms over the years, hoping to make things more equitable.
In 1965, the Globes split the category in two, to “best foreign-language foreign film” and “best English-language foreign film.” They were won by Italy’s “Juliet of the Spirits” and U.K.’s “Darling,” respectively. That lasted through 1972; in 1973 they combined, and the title was streamlined to “best foreign film.”
But after wins to “Chariots of Fire” (1981), “Gandhi” (1982) and “A Passage to India” (1984), the nominees were no longer in English and the category was changed to “foreign-language.”
The Brits were slow to the party. Though the BAFTA Film Awards started in 1947, the org didn’t introduce a foreign-language award until 1983, when it was titled “best foreign-language film.” In 1990, the group clarified it to “best film not in the English language.” It’s clunky, but it’s the most accurate description.
The word “foreign” often has negative connotations; in addition, several billion people consider English to be a foreign language. So what do you call these films?
AMPAS honchos recently changed the category to “best international feature film.” They get an A for effort, but isn’t every film international, including Hollywood fare?
Pundits are often confused because various awards organizations have different criteria. For example, Oscars allow a film to compete as both international film AND best picture. With the Globes, it’s one or the other. The Academy won’t allow a U.S.-made film in their international category, but the Globes do.
There were passionate online protests when it was reported that “Minari” would compete in the Globes’ foreign-language category. Many felt the film, made by an American company with a U.S. writer-director (Lee Isaac Chung), was being given second-class treatment.
The hurt was understandable: Hollywood has abused and insulted Asians for more than 100 years. But there are two key factors here. First, the HFPA race is called “foreign-language,” so the Korean-dialogue film is technically in the right category. (Presumably the HFPA will revisit the category’s wording in the coming year.)
Second, the majority of HFPA members were not born in the U.S. so they understand the esteem of “foreign” films more than most. Putting a film in that bracket may seem like an insult to some, but to them, it’s an important category.
Films shape the world’s perception of a country, so Kazakhstan people wanted to support “The Crying Steppe,” which became this year’s Oscar submission. Marina Kuranova, the country’s first female director, says her film was made with producer Yernar Malikov’s own money as well as crowdfunding: People in the country sent pensions and scholarship money to support the film. Therefore, “A nomination would mean a lot for our country.”
It means a lot to most countries around the world. Mendoza says that no Philippines film has ever been nominated, “but Filipinos always hope.”
Producer Maba Ba and director Mamadou Dia of Senegal’s “Nafi’s Father,” agreed: “If our film got nominated, it would inspire more adults and especially kids, to tell their stories and share them with the world. Most people just want to be heard and acknowledged; that’s a human need. This would mean we’ve been heard.”