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In what has been the widest open Oscars’ international feature category race in years, countries that previously had not been dominant in the category have emerged as strong contenders. 

For instance, Cambodia sent in Davy Chou’s “Return to Seoul,” which debuted at Cannes. The country has been nominated only once in this category, for 2013’s “The Missing Picture.” “Return to Seoul” follows an adoptee who makes a journey of discovery from France to her Korean birth home. Star Park Ji-min makes a striking debut. Before the end of 2022, the film would have played at more than 60 noted festivals and it has been picking up awards on the way. 

“I think the unpredictability of the narration, resulting from the unpredictability of Freddie, the main character of the film, her force and anger, her vitality and self-destructiveness, and the amazing performance of Park Ji-min who interprets her, are something the academy voters could feel sensitive to,” Chou told Variety. “Secondly, I’m hoping the thematics the film is dealing with, from identity search and the longing for belonging, to broken families and the difficulties to connect, will resonate as well with the members watching the film.

“But most importantly is I think the strong emotional response to the film, both from audiences who expressed it after screening or from film reviews. That shows us that the film seems to resonate deeply with a large audience, from various demographics, cultures and backgrounds,” Chou says.

The film is being distributed in the U.S. by Sony Pictures Classics. Michael Barker, co-president and co-founder of the company describes Chou as a “force of nature.” Barker points to the awards the film has won, particularly the audience prize at the Hamptons festival. 

“It’s obvious, we have evidence that the movie is really well loved by the people we screen it for,” Barker told Variety. “The more we screen the movie, the more chances it has both with the Academy and with the public, because the word-of-mouth is so good on it when it screens.” The plan then is to screen it as much as possible. “The key to movies like this is to get people to see it, whether they’re critics, whether they’re Academy members or opinion makers to spread the word to the public. It’s as simple as that.”

SPC is also giving Park a major profile and Barker highlights the nominations his company has secured over the years for lead actress, though he admits that it is an exceptionally strong year for the category. “I think it really helps the profile of the film to highlight her, whether it’s for the public or for the voters or for the critics, because she’s that great. And she’s very much the center of the film,” Barker says. 

On the other hand, the farthest Ireland has come in the race was in 2015 when “Viva” made the shortlist. This year, Colm Bairéad’s “The Quiet Girl” has been gathering momentum since it made an award-winning debut in Berlin. It swept the Irish Film and Television Awards and was a box office success in the U.K. and Ireland and Australia and New Zealand at a time when the theatrical arthouse market is enduring great uncertainty. Set in rural Ireland circa 1981, the film follows a quiet, neglected girl is who is sent away from her dysfunctional family to live with foster parents for the summer. 

Bairéad highlights the emotional nature of the film. “’The Quiet Girl’ is, above all else, a deeply emotional film. We believe what makes the film truly special is the truthfulness with which it explores its themes and the manner in which it allows its audience to see the world through the eyes of a young child,” Bairéad told Variety. “As Roger Ebert famously said, cinema is a machine that can generate empathy. The impulse to make this film came entirely from that sentiment. ‘The Quiet Girl’ culminates in an ending that is, for many, emotionally overwhelming and it becomes a film that stays with its audience long after the credits have rolled.”

The plan for “The Quiet Girl,” like “Return to Seoul” is for as many voters to see it as possible. It is being driven by U.S. distributor Super and awards strategist Steven Raphael, who appreciate the central debut performance — in this case the young lead, Catherine Clinch, and a hope that voters will thrill to the cadences of the musical Irish language. 

“A lot of people have spoken about ‘The Quiet Girl’ as being a kind of antidote to the frenzied nature of many films today — and indeed to the frenzied pace of modern living. It gently embraces its audience and carefully unspools its story in a way that is deeply respectful of its characters and their emotional lives,” Bairéad says. “We strove to make an honest and truthful film and audiences seem to have taken these characters into their hearts. We hope that Academy voters will do the same.”

Similarly, Morocco has made the shortlist once before, for 2011’s “Omar Killed Me.” Maryam Touzani’s “The Blue Caftan” made an award-winning debut in May at Cannes and has been on an accolade-laden journey since. The film follows a middle-aged tailor and his ill wife who find their relationship challenged by the arrival of a handsome new apprentice.

“It’s a film that talks about a subject that in Morocco that is very complicated to talk about, it’s very hard. So the fact that it’s representing Morocco, for me, symbolically means a lot in what I wanted to also defend through this film, because for me, above all, this is a film that talks about love, about all the phases of love, about the love of a craft, also, but also the love between beings and a love that is free to express itself in all its forms,” Touzani told Variety

Like most of the more fancied contenders in the international feature category, “The Blue Caftan” has also displayed tremendous festival legs, picking up awards on its journey. One of the campaign’s highlights is shining a light on suppressed voices, another voter magnet. 

“I think it’s going to really help also in bringing about a debate that I believe is essential — a debate about freedom, about the freedom of being who you want to be loving, who you want to love,” Touzani says. “These were characters that evolved in a society where they were not allowed to have a voice. And I wanted through the film, to be able to give these characters a voice to make them exist, to make their stories matter, because I think these are stories that need to be told. And it’s not always easy to tell some stories, especially in certain contexts. Culturally, it’s not necessarily easy to tell such a story in the social context, like the one I live in. But for me, it’s absolutely essential. My heart was, was beating at the same time as these characters. And I really felt that I needed to tell their story.” 

From a spotty record of entering the Oscars and never having cracked the shortlist let alone gaining a nomination, Pakistan’s entry, Saim Sadiq’s “Joyland” has been sparking buzz in this category.  This film also highlights the voices of the marginalized and made an award-winning debut at Cannes. The youngest son in a traditional Pakistani family takes a job as a backup dancer in a burlesque and becomes infatuated with the trans lead of the show. The film found a powerful ally in Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai who signed on as an executive producer. In recent weeks it has gained visibility for being banned in Pakistan, Yousafzai making an impassioned plea for the film in Variety and for the ban being subsequently reversed. 

“The themes that are touched upon in this movie resonate with people all around the world. We hear about family dynamics, we hear about the relationship between parents and children, between husband and wife, between the work that you are expected to do inside your house compared to the role you want to play outside in society. And these are the things that that we hear about in every corner of the world,” Yousafzai says. “There are disappointments from parents, there are disappointments in relationships as well. And these are the themes that this movie has touched upon so beautifully. We also hear about identity and how people are trying to understand their own identity and then find a place for it in their home and outside as well, finding that dignity and respect that they deserve.”

“There is something to be said about how we’ve been talking on issues about identity and sexuality and gender, and the politics regarding trans issues, which we’ve only seen with the Western frame of reference so far in movies and film. That may not be the same as what is a South Asian frame of reference, because, even though the issues are pretty much the same, the way of dealing with them emotionally and politically, are very different,” Sadiq told Variety. “This film does introduce a new leaf in terms of the conversation around that, because it’s just refreshing to see a very empowered trans character who happens to be brown and Muslim and in a country like Pakistan.”

Further west, another underdog is Israel, which has never won though it has been nominated several times and last made the shortlist in 2017. Helmer Orit Fouks Rotem’s “Cinema Sabaya” won the Ophir Awards, automatically making it Israel’s Oscar submission. 

With its documentary feel, the film about Arab and Jewish women taking a moviemaking class during which they learn about each other has traveled the festival circuit. During a Q&A in Los Angeles, Rotem explained that it was inspired by classes she had taught. When she approached the women about making a doc they told her to hire actresses. Kino Lorber is distributing “Cinema Sabaya” in the U.S.

On the other side of the world, Argentina has been a contender even winning the Oscar a few times. This year it is fielding Santiago Mitre’s “Argentina, 1985.” The accent here is on the quest for justice, another emotive topic. The film is a drama inspired by real-life Argentinian lawyers Julio Strassera and Luis Moreno Ocampo, who were presented with an impossible task — to prosecute members of the former military junta to bring justice to the victims of their deadly regime when they still had enormous power. 

For Academy voters, the film has an instantly recognizable face in Ricardo Darín, star of 2010 Oscar winner “The Secret in Their Eyes.” It made an award-winning debut at Venice. 

“We feel ‘Argentina, 1985’ is a timely and inspirational examination of democratic systems —  how they can succeed, especially with a younger generation that has been galvanized. This event that happened almost 30 years ago in Argentina set legal precedent that informed the international criminal courts moving forward, but we face many of the same challenges to democracy today, in every country. We hope voters will engage with this true story and will find it not only eye-opening, but also entertaining, producer Axel Kuschevatzky told Variety.

The film has Amazon behind it as a distributor and besides the physical screenings, it’s available on Prime Video worldwide. “The fact that the real Luis Moreno Ocampo, one of the real-life prosecutors that inspired the film, is giving lectures about the true story behind the movie has been a highlight of this journey,” Kuschevatzky says. 

Shalini Dore contributed to this report.