The five nominees for the Foreign Language Oscar this year include three first-time directors as well as two features from countries that have never before reached this stage. Somewhat unusually, when the Academy whittled down its choices to this last grouping, there were none of the major shocks that there have been in the past. Nevertheless, there was, as usual, a strong field of deserving candidates to choose from.
The nominees have spent the season talking up their own films, but we wanted to know how they’d each react to three more leftfield questions. What did they wish had been nominated in previous years? What are they rooting for outside their own category this year? And how are their respective countries reacting to the ongoing Oscar diversity debate? Let’s find out.
Ciro Guerra – Embrace of the Serpent (Colombia)
Guerra has represented Colombia on the Oscar long-list three times. His first nomination comes for this Amazon-set drama that takes place in two timelines and features spiritual elements.
Deniz Gamze Erguven – Mustang (France)
This Franco-Turkish coming of age tale of five sisters brings France its first nomination since 2009 and makes 38-year-old Ergüven one of only four women from the country ever to be nominated.
Laszlo Nemes – Son of Saul (Hungary)
Nemes is a first-time feature director whose intense and haunting Holocaust drama, starring Géza Röhrig as a concentration camp inmate, first hit at Cannes, winning the Grand Jury Prize.
Naji Abu Nowar – Theeb (Jordan)
Theeb is only Jordan’s second presentation, and its first nominee. The coming-of-age tale is set during WWI, as a young Bedouin boy embarks on a dangerous journey with a British officer.
Tobias Lindholm – A War (Denmark)
Lindholm wrote the Oscar-nominated 2012 Thomas Vinterberg film The Hunt, but this is his first time to the party as a director, with a drama about hard decisions on and off the battlefield.
Is there a Foreign Language film from the past that wasn’t nominated but that you wish had been?
Guerra: I would have loved for Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Cuban masterpiece Memories of Underdevelopment to have been nominated back in 1968.
Erguven: I would have said Germany Year Zero, by Roberto Rossellini, should have been nominated. It was shot in 1948 and the Foreign Language category started a few years later [in 1956], but a few films were getting honorary awards, so I think it should have got one. That film is so central for me in terms of cinema and I would have loved it to be spotlighted.
Nemes: I’m thinking of Come and See by Elem Klimov. It was submitted from Russia in 1985, but never nominated. I really love it; I think it’s the best war film ever made. It’s a reference for Son of Saul.
Abu Nowar: Jacques Audiard’s film, The Beat That My Heart Skipped, was never nominated. That is one of my favorite films of this century.
Lindholm: La Promesse, made by the Belgian Dardenne brothers in 1996, deserved all the praise it got. And I could easily have seen it as a contender in the Foreign Language category.
What has been the reaction in your home country to the current diversity controversy surrounding the Oscars?
Guerra: We feel the lack of diversity is not just a problem for the Oscars, but a problem for films in general, and especially for those that have access to wider distribution.
Erguven: In France the debate on diversity has been quite prevalent this year, but more in terms of gender at the Cannes Film Festival. We’ve been looking closely at the diversity discussion around the Oscars and there have been a lot of comparisons to France’s own César Awards fuelling the debate. In Turkey, the political context is so problematic and there’s a war and a refugee crisis. There are big problems with democracy now. Honestly, it’s not a question that is a priority in the debate in Turkey.
Nemes: Frankly, I don’t know. I really haven’t heard anything, but maybe I was a little isolated this past month since I spent so much time in the United States.
Abu Nowar: We’ve seen a lot of serious and joking tweets and social media posts by people questioning how the Oscars can be racist if they have nominated a Jordanian, Arabic-language film with Bedouin actors. Their argument is that, given the current trend towards global prejudice against both Arabic and Islamic culture, if the Oscars were racist, our film would not have been nominated. But mostly, I think people are more concerned with the humanitarian crisis we’re facing, with more than a million Syrian refugees needing basic care like food, clothing, housing and medical treatment in the midst of a bitter winter.
Lindholm: It is hard to say, since I have spent more time in the United States than in Denmark over the last few months. But I think that we see the controversy over the Oscars as part of a necessary development for the Academy and the country in general.
Outside of the Foreign Language category, are there any particular films you’re rooting for this year?
Guerra: I’m rooting for Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence to win for Best Documentary. It was shocking that he did not win for The Act of Killing, and this film is just as good; possibly even better.
Erguven: Unfortunately, this year has not been a very cinephile year for me, because I had a film and a baby, so I’ve seen very little, and even fewer that have been nominated. So I’ve got the next few weeks to catch up as much as I can, and there are a lot of films that I’m very, very eager to see.
Nemes: That’s a tricky question, because when you’re in the campaign and festivals, you don’t have much time to watch movies. Every time I meet with other directors, we laugh about it, saying, “I haven’t seen your movie yet.” This is the kind of thing that comes up because [the campaign] is really so demanding that you don’t have time to watch movies. I really want to see Carol. I’ve heard so many good things about it and I hope to catch up soon.
Abu Nowar: I hope Asif Kapadia’s Amy wins Best Documentary. It was an incredibly powerful and tragic film, and definitely my favorite this year out of every category.
Lindholm: I recently saw Room, directed by Lenny Abrahamson, and it made me cry like I have not cried in years. I am the father of three small boys, and I have to say that the escape sequence is some of the most terrifying, thrilling, simple and beautiful filmmaking I have seen in a long time.