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Foreign-Language Films With Small Budgets Struggle to Stand Out

The Crying Steppe Kazakhstan Film
Courtesy of Melograno Films LLC

Kazakhs this year are very passionate about a film, and it does not feature Borat.

The Crying Steppe,” Kazakhstan’s entry for the international film Oscar and Golden Globes is supported by crowdfunding from the people.

“It’s an important story,” says creative producer Eleanora Granata. Unfortunately, it’s also a story she fears many will not hear. The film is not getting the buzz of frontrunners such as Denmark’s “Another Round” or Taiwan’s “A Sun.”

Without the benefit of festivals and a tiny budget, “Crying Steppe” is struggling to be seen. The filmmakers managed to put together funds for a publicity campaign, but it’s not much, Granata says.

She hopes to show the film to the U.N. because of its importance. “Crying Steppe” covers the genocide of the Kazakhs under Stalin in the early 20th century. The previously untold story of the way the Soviets imposed an artificial famine to starve the local population is one the world should hear, she says.

Written and directed by Marina Kunarova, “Crying Steppe” centers around a struggling hunter and his wife.

“It is really very hard in a very masculine country like Kazakhstan to prevail in any event on a story that was buried. No one can talk about to this day because it is very important to understand there are no stories about the genocide of 70% of Kazakh people” because it is still very political. “No one wants to displease Russia, today, yesterday or forever,” Granata says.

The director traveled around the country for five years to gather the real stories from the survivors, Granata says. Some of them were cast as extras in the film.

“The government doesn’t have any passion to support something that can create a lack of equilibrium between what they need to do to survive between [neighbors] Russia and China,” she says.

Lazy loaded image
Courtesy of Venice Film Festival

Jasmila Žbanić, director of Bosnia’s “Quo Vadis, Aida?,” has similar budget issues when it comes to promote her much-lauded film. At least “Quo Vadis” premiered at the Venice Film Festival, where it got glowing reviews. It is tipped to be on the Oscar shortlist by many awards watchers.

The Venice bow was a highlight for Žbanić, especially to see her film unspool in a theater after the pandemic closed everything.

“It was such a beautiful festival because it was the first after lockdown,” Žbanić says. “The people were so happy by the fact that they are seeing films in a cinema in open conditions with other people. I am happy we got this chance to get feedback from real people in real time. It was very moving, we had a 10-minute applause and standing ovations. It was very, very beautiful. It is food for director’s heart.”

Like “The Crying Steppe,” Bosnia’s “Quo Vadis, Aida?” also deals with the difficult topic of a genocide. That it happened in the 1990s meant that it was still fresh in the minds of many people who would take objection if it was not accurately depicted and at the same time there was a lot of exposition to be made.

In Hungary’s 2015 Oscar foreign-language winner “Son of Saul,” Žbanić says, “you are immediately with the character and nothing has to be explained. But with my film, people don’t know where is Bosnia, what happened in Srebrenica so it was also a big challenge in writing the script … how to invite people [into the story] who had never seen footage from this real event, who never heard about it.”

“Aida” centers around a U.N. translator who watches as its peacekeepers do nothing to help Bosnians in Srbrenica who are seeking shelter in its compound, and as a result, thousands are slaughtered in front of their eyes. At the same time, the translator is trying to rescue her own family from the massacre.

Žbanić’s film, made with a $4.5 million budget that may seem small by Hollywood measure, is lavish by Bosnian standards, the filmmaker says.

Still there is precious little money for an Oscar or Golden Globes campaign. The film is depending on word-of-mouth to be seen and promoted.

It does not have U.S. distribution yet. “I want to give it a chance that as many people see it as possible,” she says.

Her film has a message for the world and, especially the U.S. “for the moment we live in,” she says, referring to the invasion of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

“It can all go so wrong when institutions are gone, when security is gone, and this is what we Bosnians witnessed. Suddenly everything you knew … could disappear. The end of it is genocide.”

There are several other films lacking both U.S. distribution and international sales agents in the international Oscar hunt. Countries as diverse as Sudan, Suriname and Lesotho are entering the foreign-language campaigns for the first time. As they try to navigate the Oscars, Golden Globes and BAFTA races some have pooled their resources to hire publicists as well as to get their films covered on many publications’ video streaming platforms to promote their films.

Granata says after spending on the Los Angeles Times’ Envelope round table their film ran out of funds to pay for anything else.

It is to level the playing field that the Academy hosts foreign-language films, along with documentaries, shorts and animation for free on its platform while other category entries have to pay $12,500. Per the Academy’s website, for a $5,000 fee, films can upload to Scene at the Academy in which the filmmakers and talent participate in a virtual chat.

There is also a charge for an email blast to members.

The Academy outsources the emails for which it charges $250. But it’s the add-ons from the email houses that some publicists have a problem with. The charges range from $1,000 to $1,700 per email blast sent, according to the publicists.

That is because there is a 10¢ to 20¢ charge to send to each committee member. For some categories the emails are targeted to the branches. But without knowing how many committee members are on international film Oscar the films have to pay for all 6,500 who consented to receive emails.

The Academy does not release committee information, a spokesperson says. For the first time this year, all members have been invited to opt-in and participate in the international feature category; additionally all of the country-selected films are available to view in the Academy Screening Room. There is global participation in the category.

Also, the Academy rep directed questions on the FYC email blast to the individual mailing houses as it does not handle that part.

Some publicists balk at the idea that the Academy is solving the dilemma.

“There is a definite haves and have-nots situation,” says one who prefers not to be identified.

Wealthier countries can afford to enter in the best picture category, paying the $12,500 as well as the $5,000 for the virtual chat, which is not an option for poorer countries.

They would like to have virtual Q&As of their films to give some background and invite committee members to watch their films.