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Oscars: 'Mustang' Ends Dry Spell For France In Foreign Language Field Full Of Firsts

With today’s Oscar nominations, the Foreign Language race has been whittled down to five. While there are no major shocks like last year when Force Majeure did not advance from the shortlist, there are nevertheless some interesting twists here. Notably, Mustang director Deniz Gamze Erguven has brought an Oscar nomination back to France for the first time since 2009’s A Prophet. The six-year dry spell was the longest gap between nominations for France in the history of the Oscars. Erguven is a first-time director as are two of the other nominees: Son Of Saul‘s Laszlo Nemes and Theeb‘s Naji Abu Nowar. The latter is only the second-ever entry from Jordan and the first to be nominated. Tobias Lindholm’s A War and Ciro Guerra’s Embrace Of The Serpent are the other two lauded nominees.

Mustang (Cohen Media Group), a Franco-Turkish co-production set in Turkey, premiered in Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes last May and was selected to represent France this fall, stepping over Jacques Audiard’s Palme d’Or winner Dheepan. The story follows five teenage sisters whose summer at the beach with their male classmates turns into a scandal with unintended consequences. Despite that, their bond helps them as they find new ways of rebelling and chasing freedom. Since 1948, France had earned 39 nominations in the Foreign Language category and won 12 times. Of the earlier films to compete, three were directed by women. Erguven is now the fourth to join the ranks and brings the nominations total to 40.

The Franco-Turkish Erguven told me today that she feels the nomination has brought her a sort of “shield.” While the film deals with important issues facing women, the ongoing strife in Turkey has lifted the discussion to “Freedom. Period.” For her film to be validated by the Academy, she says “is like being given an arm. I have a legion behind me.”

Son of SaulSon Of Saul, the intense and haunting Holocaust drama from Hungarian first-timer Nemes looks like the frontrunner here. It won a Golden Globe on Sunday — although it’s worth noting that last year, Leviathan took that honor and the Oscar went to Pawel Palilkowski’s Ida. Nevertheless, it has been one of the most lauded and talked about foreign films of the year. It won the Grand Jury Prize in Cannes where Sony Pictures Classics acquired it and then began a long run on the festival circuit. It’s been named Best Foreign Language Film by critics bodies in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco as well as the National Board of Review. This week, Nemes scored a DGA nomination for best first outing.

Nemes, who was in Budapest today during the nominations, says he thinks the film is resonating because “people had no immersive experience of the Holocaust and no sense of what the individual must have gone through and that’s compelling for people and creates a whole experience. There’s also the fact that it speaks very naturally to younger audiences, for the first time they really feel and are not only trying to understand in an intellectual way.” The exposure has been “a great thing for Hungarian cinema and for the idea of taking risks in filmmaking. How much risk as a filmmaker are you willing to take? Are you willing to interrogate the language of cinema? Do you take it for granted or want to push boundaries? Those are important questions and it’s encouraging to have the nomination for taking risks.”

theebAlso a first-time director, Abu Nowar’s Theeb (Film Movement) is only the second film ever submitted by Jordan and the first to score a nod. Set during World War I, the western coming-of-age tale centers on a young Bedouin boy who embarks on a dangerous journey to guide a British officer across the desert. Having trouble getting the film financed, Abu Nowar took a “Roger Corman” approach he told me recently. He ended up taking the directing prize in Venice’s Horizons section last year and today made history for the country.

embrace of the serpentBoth Lindholm and Guerra have previous Oscar experience, in a roundabout sort of way. Embrace Of The Serpent helmer Guerra has repped Colombia twice before but never advanced to the shortlist. This is the first time Colombia has ever been nominated since it began submitting movies off and on in 1980. The nomination is such a big deal that Guerra tells me the Colombian President called him this morning. “He was super happy and congratulating us. It’s making headlines in all the outlets and people are going crazy on social media. We don’t have so much good news here so people really take it personally.”

The winner of the Directors’ Fortnight C.I.C.A.E. Award and an Indie Spirit nominee, Embrace Of The Serpent (Oscilloscope) tells parallel stories of treks through the Amazon set in different time periods which share a common character and the search for a healing plant with the ravages of colonialism as backdrop. Guerra says he thinks it’s striking a chord because it “deals with spiritual issues. It’s ironic because people are in spiritual crisis. The world is filled with violence and hate and many people are looking for another way to be human. I think it speaks to that. It’s a very special moment for mankind.”

a-warLindholm for his part regularly collaborates with Thomas Vinterberg so knows a thing or two about the Oscar game after having written 2012 nominee The Hunt. This is the Danish multi-hyphenate’s first nomination as director and only his third film. Establishing himself with R and A Hijacking, he’s next writing Paul Greengrass’ The Tunnels. A War is a contemporary drama about life and decisions on and off the battlefield. It had a 15-minute standing ovation in Venice with some of the real soldiers in the audience. Tonight, an “extremely thrilled” Lindholm tells me, he’s meeting up with them to celebrate. “The drum is on, they’re coming marching in from everywhere.” But tomorrow it’s back to work. “It’s not only a party, it’s also hard work to get this far and to create a platform for a wider audience to see the film.”

This has been a big decade for Denmark at the Oscars. The only year in the last six where it has not advanced to the shortlist and beyond was with the 2014 entry. Otherwise, movies from the country have won, been shortlisted or nominated. Lindholm told me today A War‘s nomination is a victory for the entire Danish film industry. “We’re a country of 5.5M and this isn’t the first time we’ve had a nomination. It means a lot for the political engagement in Danish film.”

brand new testamentThe shortlisted films which will not continue on the Oscar journey are Ireland’s crowdpleaser Viva; German thriller Labyrinth Of Lies, Finland’s Golden Globe nominee The Fencer and Belgium’s The Brand New Testament which had a lot of momentum going for it. This week it picked up 10 nominations for the Magritte Awards in its home country.