OSCAR: Analyzing Foreign Language Race

This season, 63 countries have submitted films for consideration in the Foreign Language Film category for the 84th Academy Awards. The 2011 submissions are vying to be among the 9 long-listed by the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences before the 5 finalists are announced with Oscar nominations on January 24. Here are the films that AwardsLine London Contributor Tim Adler believes will make the semifinal round:

Declaration Of War (France)
Sundance Selects, U.S. release date: January 27
Valérie Donzelli’s Declaration Of War has been a huge hit with critics and the public alike. The movie, which opened Cannes Critics’ Week this  year, has sold to more than 30 territories and has already generated over 810,000 admissions in France for distributor-sales agent Wild Bunch. Declaration Of War is based on Donzelli’s own life story. She and her former partner Jérémie Elkaïm play themselves in the film, which charts their fight to save the baby they had together after he is diagnosed with a brain tumor. The film’s success with audiences is largely attributed to its happy ending: the baby survives. Donzelli tells me, “The audience is confronted with the worst thing you can imagine, and yet they see people overcoming the situation. It’s not about the anguish of death but passion for life.”

The Flowers Of War (China)
Wrekin Hill, U.S. Release: 2012

Flowers marks a return to high drama for China’s favorite director Zhang Yimou and represents his fourth attempt at an Academy Award,
following defeats for Hero (2003), Raise the Red Lantern (1992) and Ju Dou (1991). With a budget of nearly $100 million, The Flowers of War – starring Christian Bale – is Zhang’s most expensive film ever. Zhang’s problem: Judges of the Best Foreign-Language Film category don’t really go for blockbusters. The film is based on events in the former Chinese capital of Nanjing when the Japanese occupied it during the Second World War. Bale plays a mortician who goes to collect the body of an American priest from Nanjing Cathedral, where he discovers local schoolgirls hiding from the carnage outside. Pledging to protect them, he dresses up as a priest and also shelters a group of prostitutes who have arrived at the cathedral. The Flowers of War ran for seven days in a 22-seat Beijing cinema to meet entry standards for the Oscars, which requires films to be  shown in domestic theatres for at least a week. (It’s reportedly 40% English-language and 60% Mandarin, which lets it squeak by one of the Academy’s rules.) Despite little promotion and tickets costing 200 yuan ($30), double the normal price, Zhang’s latest sold out within 40 minutes of its box office opening. Chinese producer New Pictures Films  handled U.S. rights with exec producers Chaoying Deng and David Linde and Stephen Saltzman of Loeb & Loeb. Wrekin Hill has acquired for U.S. distribution and releases on December 23.

Footnote (Israel)
Sony Pictures Classics, U.S. release: February

A film about bitter rivalry between two Hebrew scholars forensically examining the Talmud does not sound like a bundle of laughs. So it’s a delight to find that Footnote is a Mozartian comedy, about a father and son who are rival professors at a university. Writer/director Joseph Cedar got the idea after a mix-up when the Italians offered him the wrong award. This got him thinking about what would happen if there was similar confusion for the prestigious Israel Prize, awarded once a year for outstanding achievement in arts and sciences. Cedar excavated his story while researching the obscure Talmudic research department of Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Footnote was also partly inspired by his own troubled relationship with his world-renowned biologist father, Howard Cedar. Cedar’s research paid off when he took home the Best Screenplay Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Cedar was previously nominated for Best Foreign Language Oscar in 2008 for Beaufort, and the country also picked up nominations the following two years for Waltz With Bashir and Ajami.

Le Havre (Finland)
Janus Films, U.S. release: October 21

There is a question as to whether director Aki Kaurismäki will even attend the Oscars should Le Havre be nominated. He has only just ended his “personal boycott” of the USA, which he imposed after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Kaurismäki told the Academy he could not attend the 2003 Oscars when his The Man Without a Past was nominated in the same category “while the United States is preparing to commit a criminal act towards humanity for shameless personal economic reasons”. Politics are much less upfront in Kaurismäki’s new film Le Havre. Shot in French – a language Kaurismäki admits he doesn’t understand – Le Havre is the purely enjoyable story of a former author who has turned his back on Parisian literary life to go and live in the French port as a shoeshine man. There he befriends an illegal African immigrant child and has to decide whether to blow his anonymity by saving the boy. Kaurismäki has been described as Finland’s Jim Jarmusch with his idiosyncratic films and spoof Soviet kitsch rock band, the Leningrad Cowboys. “The more skeptical and cynical I get, the softer are my films,” Kaurismäki said recently. “I can’t help it. I start to be tender in my old age. I even start to like my characters.”

In Darkness (Poland)
Sony Pictures Classics, U.S. release: January

The latest from director Agnieszka Holland returns her to the Holocaust, the subject of both her films previously nominated for Academy Awards: best adapted screenplay in 1992 for Europa Europa and in 1986 for Best Foreign-Language Film Angry Harvest. She admits it is a subject that has never really ended for her. Her Jewish grandparents died in the Warsaw Ghetto during the Second World War. Based on Robert Marshall’s nonfiction book, In Darkness tells the true story of a group of Jews hiding in the sewers in Lvov, Poland who are helped – for money – by a Polish Catholic sewer worker. What starts out as a straightforward and cynical business arrangement becomes something unexpected as the sewer worker is compelled to save these men, women and children all trying to outwit certain death. “How many honest movies have you seen about the Holocaust?” she asks,  “For me it was the frontline event of our time that asks so many questions, and there will never be definitive answers.” Holland originally turned the project down – twice – because the German and Polish co-producers insisted that In Darkness be shot in English. She felt equally strongly that the story should be told in the original ghetto languages: Polish, German, Yiddish and Ukrainian. “I felt it would be difficult to tell the truth if it was shot in English,” she tells me. The Polish director rejected this Hollywood-ized version despite working as a director on AMC’s The Killing.

Miss Bala (Mexico)
20th Century Fox, U.S. release: January 20

Miss Bala (translation Miss Bullet), is a reaction to what director Gerardo Naranjo calls “the virus of melodrama.” Inspired by a real event, Miss Bala is set in the Mexican border city of Tijuana and follows Laura, an innocent teenager who inadvertently gets caught up in a violent drug war on her way to compete in the Miss Baja California beauty pageant. Trapped in a no-win situation, the innocent is forced to become an unwilling participant in Mexico’s so-called war on drugs – a conflict that has claimed the lives of more people than the casualties of wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. An unrelentingly bleak account of man’s inhumanity to man, the power of Miss Bala comes from the ignorance of the heroine, who’s just as much in the dark about what’s going on as the audience. “This is Laura’s story rather than a violently glamorous story of the drugs trade, and our golden rule was to never leave the point of view of our character,” says co-writer Mauricio Katz. Given the production values, it is hard to believe Naranjo brought Miss Bala in at thrifty production cost of $1.5 million, including an extraordinary 90-second shootout, which he completed in one take. CAA recently signed Naranjo, who says he has been offered a lot of action movies on the back of Miss Bala – not surprising given the American Film Institute graduate’s virtuoso technique. For now, Naranjo is more interested in challenging himself with a more international canvas. Should he score the ultimate prize, Naranjo would be the first Mexican director to win an Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film – despite the country being nominated eight times since 1957.

Once Upon A Time In Anatolia (Turkey)
Cinema Guild, release: January

A true auteur, Nuri Bilge Ceylan co-wrote, directed, produced, lit, edited, color-graded and even mixed the sound for Once Upon a Time In Anatolia. He has been called the Satyajit Ray of Turkey. Once Upon A Time In Anatolia is based on the experience of his co-writer, real-life doctor Ercan Kesal and follows the search for a dead body on the Anatolia steppe. When the dead man is found at last, themes of guilt and adultery are dug up with him.

A Separation (Iran)
Sony Pictures Classics, U.S. release: December 30

The first time director Asghar Farhadi knew about production on his film A Separation being shut down was when he received a text message from Iran’s deputy culture minister. Farhadi’s alleged crime was speaking out on behalf of banned Iranian filmmakers such as his friend Jafar Panahi, who faces six years in jail on top of a 20-year moviemaking ban. Filming on A Separation was suspended for two weeks until Farhadi made the right noises and the ban was lifted. “They wanted to give me a heads-up and warn me that if I speak out, there are going to be consequences,” he tells me over the phone from Tehran. Seen as the one to beat in this year’s competition, A Separation won the Golden Bear in Berlin. If nominated, it would mark the second time that the country will be on the Foreign-Language Oscar ballot (Children Of Heaven, 1999). A Separation begins with a middle-class couple before a judge: the wife wants to escape Iran with their daughter; her husband feels he must stay behind and look after his father who’s dying from Alzheimer’s. They separate. The husband hires a burka-wearing peasant woman from the country as his father’s caregiver – with disastrous consequences. The couple is re-united in the court room, except this time the fault line is class difference. Given what has happened to other Iranian directors, Farhadi knows how careful he must be when speaking publicly. He is also aware that should he hoist the Oscar, his situation at home will become more precarious. Says Farhadi, “The more attention I get, the harder things get for me. Parts of the government are always going to find an excuse to dislike this kind of cinema.”

Where Do We Go Now? (Lebanon)
Sony Pictures Classics, U.S. release: Spring

Nadine Labaki’s comedy drama won the Toronto Film Festival audience award, which, having gone to titles like The King’s Speech and Slumdog Millionaire, is seen as a bellwether for Oscar success. Iran’s A Separation, seen as the front-runner for this year’s best Foreign Language Film Oscar, was runner-up. The Lebanese director, who says moviemaking is therapy for her, got the idea for the film in May 2008 when she was pregnant with her first child and Lebanon stood on the brink of sectarian violence. As every parent knows, the world is really divided between those who have had children and those who haven’t. Labaki worried what she would do if her teenager was called up to fight. Set in a remote village where church and mosque stand side by side, Where Do We Go Now? follows a group of Lebanese women who try to stop their blowhard men from starting a religious war. Their diversionary tactics include hash cookies and hiring a troupe of Ukrainian strippers. Growing up in Beirut, Labaki was influenced by repeat viewings of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs as a child. There were no famous local directors she could hold up as paragons, so she had to teach herself: “I’m learning from my mistakes.”

  1. Good piece, but ignore MONSIEUR LAZHAR at your peril. Massive hit in homeground of Canada, and winning awards whereever it plays.

  2. The problem for Yimou Zhang is that his film looks terrible. Just watch the trailer. When the Chinese soldier jumped from a balcony with a bundle of dynamite to blow up a Japanese tank, that’s when I started laughing. I wouldn’t call this “high drama” at all.

  3. Hey guys,

    nice selection but my favourite out of all the titles is TILT, the Bulgarian entry. What I found refreshing in the movie is the love story and humor that are set on more serious topics as political changes, turmoil, corruption. Also very nice cinematography.

  4. IT’S ABOUT TIME!! I’VE BEN SEARCHING AND WAITING ANXIOUSLY FOR A U.S. RELESE DATE FOR MISS BALA! JAN 20 MARKED ON MY CALENDAR!

  5. Hope Yimou Zhang’s “The Flowers of War” can make into the final. It’s such a great film, one of Zhang’s best.

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