When the Academy announced that this year’s pre-nomination shortlist in the international feature category would be expanded from 10 places to 15, many Oscar pundits voiced hope that this change would allow for more diversity in the selection — in terms of the stories being told, the cultures represented, and the individual artists behind them. The eventual shortlist largely lives up to these expectations: the final 15 are healthily spread across five continents, seven of them are by directors of color, while the subjects being tackled range from LGBTQ discrimination to indigenous trauma.
When it comes to gender representation, the shortlist is record-breaking. In the 15 years the Academy’s international committee has practiced the shortlisting process, no more than three films from female directors have previously made the cut. This year, five did, making up one-third of the field. That ratio reflects the number of women among the initial submissions in the race: 33 of the record 93 entries were female-directed.
When it comes to the final five nominees, the possibility of an all-female field might be remote; the fact that it’s a possibility at all, however, is progress. The Oscar nominations will be announced on March 15 and the ceremony will take place April 25 at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood.
Gender aside, the five women on the shortlist — Jasmila Žbanić (director of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s entry “Quo Vadis, Aida?”), Maite Alberdi (Chile’s “The Mole Agent”), Agnieszka Holland (Czech Republic’s “Charlatan”), Maria Sødahl (Norway’s “Hope”) and Kaouther Ben Hania (Tunisia’s “The Man Who Sold His Skin”) — have little obviously in common, ranging as they do from long-lauded veterans to a rising talent enjoying her first major international breakout. Their films run the gamut from hybrid documentary to semi-autobiographical fiction to wild, high-concept satire — bound by intense, often socially conscious empathy for the complicated subjects at hand, with little in the way of sentimentality.
Sødahl’s film, her second feature and her first in a decade, is the most intimate and domestically focused of the five, though that approach still permits plenty of surprises. On the face of it, “Hope” sounds familiar, as it paints a pained, emotive portrait of a family splintering under the weight of a mother’s terminal cancer diagnosis. But this is no tear-jerker in the “Terms of Endearment” mold.
Sødahl’s story sidesteps expected movie tropes in large part because it’s inspired by her own: Her screenplay takes substantial inspiration from her recent experience of surviving cancer, while many of the blended family dynamics depicted in the film mirror her own. That gives the film an emotional conviction and clarity rare within its genre. The film’s point of view is not just personal but acutely feminine: its understanding of how the protagonist’s illness affects her differently as a wife, mother and career woman is precisely delineated.
Norwegian helmer Sødahl points out that since there were 10 on the shortlist previously, proportionally there is no difference.
As for her film’s selection, she says: “It all has to do with which other films are up for the same year. We have shown it at TIFF and in Berlin where it has proved itself as a universal story, not because of cancer, but because of the way it treats family relations. It’s a story about life and the choices we make. I was not part of the jury, but maybe some of the other movies this year lacked universal qualities?”
During Q&As, she says, people ask a lot about the blended family issues, the modern family structure, and the taboos because “it’s historically a relatively new phenomena in society.”
It’s indicative of “Hope’s” universal resonance that Nicole Kidman is developing a U.S. TV series based on the film, though it’ll be a tall order to match Sødahl ‘s first-hand perspective behind the camera.
Žbanić ‘s “Quo Vadis, Aida?” brings anguished personal investment and a clear-eyed feminist perspective to a story on a large canvas: the Srebrenica massacre, which saw more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims executed in summer 1995. Žbanić is close to her subject: at the time of the massacre, she was living under siege in Sarajevo, and she describes herself as having been haunted by Srebrenica ever since the full scale of the atrocity emerged.
“The mirror is not guilty for showing an image,” she says. “I think these kind of films tell not only what happened in countries that are maybe far away from us, but they show truthful pictures of humans and what can we become.”
Hers is the first film to address this still-contentious national shame, though she sensitively merges history with the fictional story of Aida (played by the remarkable Jasna Duricic), a female U.N. translator who is also a Srebrenica resident, and thus has rare access to multiple sides of the conflict — a position further complicated when her family members are endangered. The script resists blunt rhetoric, but deftly shows how Aida’s gender is held against her, as she fights for the lives of her husband and sons in a war of men’s making. It’s not Žbanić ‘s first film to address the traumatic legacy of the Bosnian War: her 2006 debut feature “Grbavica” won the Golden Bear at Berlin.
“Quo Vadis, Aida?” appears to be connecting with a wider international audience, and its crossover appeal was underlined when Žbanić surprisingly landed on BAFTA’s director longlist.
“The Balkans are still a very patriarchal society,” Žbanić says. “We had years of great progress of women from 1945-1992. But, since the war broke out in 1992, male violence dominated. Our society is deeply affected by war — women are economically and socially marginalized.
“My female colleagues and I are fighting 10 times harder than male directors to have a possibility to do films, to get budgets to deserve certain recognition. But we are changing the landscape.”
The other three women on the shortlist have taken on male-driven stories, all uncovering masculine vulnerability in very different ways.
Perhaps the quirkiest work in contention in Alberdi’s “The Mole Agent,” a beneficiary of the branch’s recently increased receptiveness to non-fiction cinema: last year, “Honeyland” became the first film ever to score nominations in both the documentary and international feature categories, and Alberdi’s film is hoping to repeat the feat.
“Documentary,” however, doesn’t precisely cover everything “The Mole Agent” is up to: Alberdi mixes candid observational footage with more dramatized contrivances in telling the story of Sergio, an octogenarian widower hired to go undercover at a Chilean nursing home suspected of mistreating its residents.
“My first intention was to make a documentary film noir, to have a private detective as a main subject of an observational documentary,” she says. “My goal at the beginning was trying to understand the sense of hired private detectives.
“To research, I worked as an assistant to Romulo, the private detective of the film for a couple of months. I followed him on a few different cases involving a mole agent, and when one case at a retirement home arrived, I realized that that was the case that I wanted to explore.
“It allowed me to explore multiple angles in a case and at the same time I felt that was the only one that I could shoot without killing or giving away the mission of the detective. At the beginning I was completely focused on the case’s narrative, and the possible ‘felonies’ that could happen inside.
“But when Sergio, the mole agent, appeared, he moved the film to another place, different from my original idea and plan. His personal journey in the home was emotional and separate from the spy case. Following a private detective and then this old mole agent was only a starting point on the documentary, and took me down a road to discover how people are often abandoned inside retirement homes.”
Alberdi uses sleek editing techniques and a flamboyant musical score to give proceedings the air of a film noir, or even a low-key James Bond caper — though the playfulness of the filmmaking gives way to a more solemn, serious message: “The Mole Agent” is, ultimately, a film about society’s disregard for the elderly, and the loneliness of that sidelined generation.
Alberdi’s previous documentary, the Down syndrome study “The Grown Ups,” was similar in its compassionate view of a marginalized demographic.
“I believe that in Latin America in the documentary field, which is where I live and work, there is a collaborative environment and spirit,” Alberdi says. “It is an industry that supports each other and where we know each other well. We celebrate each other’s success and projects, and collaborate as much as we can with our colleagues. Our success leads to greater success to Chile as a film industry and a country.”
She is happy that her team was made up completely of women.
“We are proud of that fact but that is never met without its own challenges. Being a team mainly made up of women also brings our unique perspective and experience to a production.”
Director Holland says she was unaware of herbalist-healer Jan Mikolášek (1889-1973) before she started working on the Czech title “Charlatan.”
“He was extremely popular but has been forgotten since,” she says. “So I learned about his existence when reading the script sent to me by the producer and the writer. I found it immediately fascinating and it opened my imagination.”
Even for a filmmaker of her renown, it has been a struggle. “When I started to make films in communist Poland, I didn’t realize [there was a] glass ceiling so many women directors find when starting their career. Maybe because my fellow directors and I had problems with the oppressive power and censorship; mine were even bigger as I always expressed my political opinions and ended up in communist prison for short time.
“I realized only later how difficult it is for the women in our profession, that some opportunities are practically closed for women, that the women in our world have to be twice as talented, hard-working and lucky to achieve success.”
Tunisian helmer Ben Hania is working through this same issue. “Making a film is a difficult journey for both men and women directors but it’s not yet equally difficult! Things get complicated in the financing process,” she says.
The budget for “The Man Who Sold His Skin” was around €2 million ($2.4 million) — small for a European film but huge for a Tunisian one. “The financing was a Chinese puzzle,” she says via email. “The Tunisian money wasn’t enough so we had to look for European financing. In this process I’ve heard some weird reactions like, ‘It’s not what we expect from a North African woman director,’ ‘what’s your legitimacy to talk about contemporary art?’ or ‘It’s a story about a man and he is not even Tunisian!’ Pre-judgments about my gender, my skin color and my cultural background appear when it comes to money! The shift is slow to happen but it’s coming.”
And she is enjoying the payoff. “It’s a hard year for cinema and I was wondering when we finished post-production if the film will ever be screened.
“Since Cannes was canceled, Venice received a huge number of films and the fact that they selected my movie was so comforting.
“The physical screening with an audience and a long standing ovation in Lido was just heartwarming. Since then, the movie was shown in other physical festivals and every time the reaction was so strong.
“Being shortlisted in the Oscars is another very good news.”