oscarLast year, I offered up a preview of the 15 films that had the most buzz going into the unveiling of the Foreign Language Oscar shortlist. Somehow this year, with a record 76 entries (last year it was 71), I whittled down another 15 films that have a shot at the shortlist which is expected to be finalized later this week. This was not an easy task in one of the strongest fields for foreign film in recent years. While 2012’s eventual winner Amour seemed like a foregone conclusion, this year has any number of possible outcomes. Movies that started their careers in Berlin and Cannes are represented below, but so are others that didn’t make it to those high-profile events. I spoke with the directors of each film about their inspirations and expectations, and in some cases with the U.S. distributor about what gave them the confidence to acquire. Notably, Harvey Weinstein clarifies the controversy surrounding an edit of Wong Kar Wai’s Hong Kong entry The Grandmaster. There’s also a lot more here from folks like Paolo Sorrentino, Thomas Vinterberg and Sebastian Lelio, among many others. The rules for selecting the final winner have changed this year with the entire Academy voting body able to weigh in without proving they have seen the films in a movie theater. But the regs for establishing the shortlist remain the same: The Phase I committee determines six of the nine films on the shortlist. The other three titles will be determined by the select Foreign Language Film Award Executive Committee. Those three extra titles might have international renown but been somehow overlooked by the larger committee (wink, wink City Of God, 4 Months, 3 Weeks And 2 Days and others). After that, an uber-committee of 30 higher profile members chooses the ultimate five nominees after viewing the finalists over the course of a long weekend. Below (in alphabetical order by title) are profiles of the 15 films that I believe have a shot at the first stage:

Related: Wong Kar Wai On China’s Growth, Kung Fu, Oscar Contenders & Bruce Lee

Bethlehem (Israel), Director: Yuval Adler
U.S distributor: Adopt Films

bethlememDirector Yuval Adler’s Bethlehem won six Israeli Academy Awards earlier this year, including Best Film and Best Director. It also scooped the Best Film prize in Venice Days in September before heading to Toronto where Adler was signed by WME. Now, the helmer’s feature debut is Israel’s Foreign Language Oscar entry and Adler is feeling a tiny bit stressed. “If you told me tomorrow, ‘It’s over, you’re not in’, or ‘You are in,’ I’ll be relieved. The thing is, it’s hard when you’re a director used to trying to control things, that’s your job. Here, it’s a process I don’t understand. I’m just anxious by not knowing what’s going on, and should I be doing something or not something,” he muses. “But everything that’s happened with this film is so much beyond what I would expect… whatever happens I’m very happy.” Bethlehem’s success has been a long time coming. Adler and co-writer Ali Wakad spent years interviewing Israeli secret service officers, Palestinian militants, ex-Hamas members and Christians from Bethlehem caught in the middle of the ongoing conflict to create the story of a young Palestinian who is recruited as an informant by the Israeli secret service. He becomes caught between two very different kinds of loyalty when he discovers that his employers are plotting to assassinate his radical brother. Adler says the initial idea was to make a film exploring the relationship between a handler and their informants. Not from the “macro politics of it, but the lives of the guys at the center.” Wanting to tell the story from both the Palestinian and the Israeli points of view, Adler says he “knew I had to write it with a Palestinian.” He hooked up with investigative journalist Wakad who had deep knowledge of the subject. “Hamas leaders always called him to pass information,” Adler explains. The pair shared the Israeli Academy Award for their screenplay. One particularity of Bethlehem, Adler says, is that it doesn’t take a position. “In Israel there are a lot of films on this subject, but they usually have an agenda and we felt everything has been said. What was neglected was the mechanics of the thing.” They wanted to show “what the life really looks like of an informant” and “all these people caught in this thing as a web of cause and effect.” The script took four years to fine tune because Adler and Wakad kept discovering new twists and turns. At the suggestion of producer Talia Kleinhendler, they pitched it at the 2010 Berlin Festival’s co-production market and walked away with Belgian and German funding. The film was released in Israel in September and is still in theaters with strong box office. It doesn’t offer any solutions to the conflict, but it has people talking and asking questions. Adler has a varied background having studied mathematics and physics and then getting a PHD in philosophy from Columbia University. Working also as a sculptor and photographer led him to film. One of the most valuable experiences he’s had, however, is having studied acting at the Lee Strasberg School. “I’m not an actor. Nobody has ever seen me act, or ever will, but you learn to write by acting. You learn how dialogue sits on the tongue.” On the Oscar campaign trail in LA, Adler says “I didn’t know anything so I was handled. I felt like a prop all the time.” The former academic adds, “I was a grad student and nobody talked to me,” now “people are suddenly interested,” he laughs. With his “fifteen minutes,” Adler says he’s receiving a lot of scripts. “I’m trying to figure out what I can do and what I can do well, what’s meaningful to me.”

broken circleThe Broken Circle Breakdown (Belgium), Director: Felix van Groeningen
U.S. distributor: Tribeca Film
The Broken Circle Breakdown started its festival career in Berlin in February, but in an odd turn, it had already been released in its home country of Belgium where it sold a very healthy 400,000 tickets. Director Felix van Groeningen tells me, “It took a while to find the right place to premiere.” But hooking up with sales company The Match Factory was a move that drove the film towards a Berlin berth. Van Groeningen says while he might have preferred to see it in competition, the Panorama section “turned out great. (Competition) is a higher level with a bigger scale but it’s maybe harder to stand out.” And stand out it did winning the Audience Award and the Label Europa Cinemas. Tribeca Films later acquired the film, a little ahead of its festival where it won the Best Actress prize for Veerle Baetens and the screenplay award for Carl Joos and Van Groeningen. Tribeca’s Geoff Gilmore says they “really responded to the melodrama” and the structure which uses flashbacks and flashforwards. The movie is based on a play that was originally written by lead actor Johan Heldenbergh. It’s the story of a couple that is deeply in love, but when unexpected tragedy befalls their new family, they are severely tested. And, it’s all set to a backdrop of American Bluegrass music. Van Groeningen says he didn’t immediately see the stage piece as a film. “It was just an amazing experience to see the play, but it didn’t convince me immediately to make a movie. I was extremely scared of turning it into a not-so-good movie. It took a while to see the cinematic qualities.” So, he took six months to “consider it and reject it. But it didn’t let go of me.” The film is a melodrama and perhaps somewhat more commercial than your typical European art house fare, but Van Groeningen says, “I don’t see myself as a commercial filmmaker. I just really want to make the films that I would like to see myself.” He allows that “more and more while I’m writing, I do think about what an audience might feel with me. Not that I’m writing for an audience, but I’m more aware what an audience might like. You want always the whole world to love your movie, but you want it for yourself too.” The helmer wasn’t overly familiar with Bluegrass music prior to Broken Circle. “I had the impression I knew the music, but probably just from O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” he laughs. Van Groeningen is repped by Management 360 and by CAA but isn’t 100% ready to dive into Hollywood. “I’ve realized the last couple of years that if I want to do it, I want to do it on my own terms… I need to be really part of the writing. If I do something in English, I want to write or co-write, but it takes time and I don’t want to jeopardize what I have at home. Someday it will happen.” His next project is Belgica, a Belgian-French co-production about two brothers. He’s been writing the film this year for a shooting start next winter. “I’m always afraid to get carried away when I finish a movie. I don’t want to spend too much time enjoying the success. I’m happy for the movie, but at the same time what makes me happier is making films.” Still, he’s having to focus on the success of Broken Circle right now. Van Groeningen says of the road to a possible spot on the Oscar shortlist, “I’m getting nervous, I wasn’t really. I was really just enjoying the ride, but it’s been so great to spend time spend in LA with great screenings and great feedback.” He says he learned a valuable lesson, however, from Mads Mikkelsen who stars in Denmark’s Oscar entry The Hunt. “We were sitting in a hotel in LA and then Mads said something like ‘You have to take it very seriously when it turns out well, and don’t have to take it seriously when it doesn’t turn out well’.” For Van Groeningen, “Something has really happened, it was out of my hands at some point and became something on its own. I’d be happy for the movie to get the recognition… It’s such a crazy competition and so prestigious and so ungraspable. That’s the magic thing about it.”

Child’s Pose (Romania), Director: Calin Peter Netzer
U.S. distributor: Zeitgeist

childs poseAs with many of the Foreign Language Oscar submissions, family drama Child’s Pose started its career at the Berlin Film Festival in February. There, it won the top prize Golden Bear from a jury that was presided over by Wong Kar Wai, who himself is the director of the Oscar entry from Hong Kong this year. In a bravura turn, Luminita Gheorghiu plays a bourgeois mother who is deeply protective of her adult son and who steps in when he gets into serious trouble after running down a young boy with his car. Gheorghiu is the star of many of Romania’s most high-profile films including The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, 4 Months, 3 Weeks And 2 Days, and Beyond The Hills. Each of those was the Romanian submission for the Foreign Language Oscar and only the latter made the shortlist. Romania, despite a New Wave that’s been building for years, has never had a nomination. Child’s Pose director Calin Peter Netzer says he thinks “festivals are paying more attention to Romanian films… and that’s changed in last seven or eight years. They are getting released in many countries and that’s very important.” Child’s Pose is Romania’s top local film of the year, but it’s far behind Hollywood fare in the rankings. Still, Netzer says making frothier fare than the Romanian dramas we’ve been seeing would be a challenge. “It’s quite difficult to do commercial movies because they don’t have audience. The only way is to make dramas to get to festivals. If you make a good commercial film, you get like 20 or 30,000 entries and that’s ridiculous. Child’s Pose broke a record with most the most admissions (120K) in the last ten years.” Berlin was very helpful in building buzz for the film which was released shortly thereafter in Romania. In its home territory, the film’s admissions were higher in the third week than the first, “word of mouth was working,” Netzer says. The subject matter was very personal for him. Netzer and co-writer Razvan Radulescu, originally wanted to make a film about retired English people on Spain’s Costa del Sol. “We went there for research and tried to understand the mentality of the people… We didn’t quite understand and got back to our families and changed the subject.” That ultimately became the duo’s “difficult relationships to our mothers.” But Netzer’s own mother didn’t take offense, she is “quite happy about the success and taking it like an homage.” Asked if he thinks about making a movie in Hollwyood, Netzer, who was in LA when we spoke, said, “Yes and no. It depends on what kind of subject. I have to find a subject and I think if I were to work here on an indie film, I would have to stay to understand the mentality. I’m looking around and finding myself a little bit in another world. But the intention exists.” Circling back to today, Netzer says that if Child’s Pose ends up on the shortlist or with an Oscar nomination it would “mean very much. There’s no Romanian film nominated before so it would be something very big for us… I think people would be very happy in Romania… It would be a great buzz and celebration.”

Gabrielle (Canada), Director: Louise Archambault
U.S. distributor: eOne Films

gabrielle_xlgCanada has had a strong run at the Oscars in recent years with a nominee or a shortlisted film in each of the last seven, save 2009. But Gabrielle director Louise Archambault says, “People feel more pressure around me than I do. It’s great if it happens but hopefully I won’t die if I’m not selected.” Still, many folks feel she has a shot at the shortlist with the relationship drama about a musically talented woman (Gabrielle Marion-Rivard) suffering from Williams syndrome, a neurodevelopmental disorder that’s characterized, in part, by mental disability, heart defects, an unusually cheerful demeanor and ease with strangers. When she falls in love with a fellow choir member, Gabrielle seeks valiantly to prove her independence while confronting the prejudices of others and her own limitations. Archambault tells me from Montréal that she wanted to tell a story about the “happiness of outcast people.” The inspiration came from a mentally challenged woman in her home neighborhood whom she knew from the local public swimming pool. “She was always a strong personality. She’d be in the water on floaters and sing super well. I felt people around her were uneasy, but she felt so good.” The director was also working with the charitable group Jeunes Musiciens Du Monde, an organization that offers music lessons to underprivileged kids. That’s how choir singing entered the equation. Archambault is pleased that the film is representing Canada at the Oscars, especially because it’s such a feel-good picture. “That’s not usually the case in that category. The audience is very open to it.” The eponymous Gabrielle accompanied Archambault to AFI recently and the director says getting an eventual Oscar nomination would mean they’d both pack their bags for LA again. “It would be my highlight to see Gabrielle there.”

Gloria (Chile), Director: Sebastian Lelio
U.S. distributor: Roadside Attractions

Gloria_posterBerlin has been good to Sebastian Lelio, the Chilean director who now makes the German capital his home. He initially moved there as the recipient of a DAAD grant and “fell in love with the city.” Last February, he also saw his fourth feature, Gloria, debut in competition at the Berlin Film Festival. It walked away with the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury and the Best Actress Silver Bear for Paulina Garcia. The story of a spirited 58-year-old divorcée who embarks on a relationship with an ex-naval officer and is ultimately forced to confront her own dark secrets, has been widely embraced and picked up an Independent Spirit nomination as Best International Film. Lelio tells me he’s been talking about the film all year and yet it still “always seems to be a kilometer ahead of me. I’m always running behind it because it is moving so fast and bringing more situations and news, wonderful news.” The inspiration for the film was to make a movie about his and co-screenwriter Gonzalo Maza mothers’ generation. “We both thought there might be a movie there and that got mixed with the excitement of giving a main role to Paulina Garcia.” Of Garcia, he says, “I always wondered how come no one offered her a main role in a movie… I was waiting for the right project to call her because I always thought she was great.” Lelio has great praise for his star who is “a wonderful actress who deserves to be recognized.” The attention the film has been getting – lately at its AFI screenings and Q&As – has been great, he says. “This is what you make films for, not the awards.” Last year, one of Gloria’s producers, Pablo Larrain, scored an Oscar nomination for No. Lelio and Larrain have been friends a long time and each has made three other movies. “From the outside (the attention) seems like something new, but for us we’ve been working constantly and learning along the way, passionately.” If Gloria gets a shortlist slot next week, Lelio says he’ll probably set up a Skype meeting with Larrain, who’s away on vacation, and his own brother in Santiago, and “drink together in different places on the planet.”

The Grandmaster (Hong Kong), Director: Wong Kar Wai
U.S. distributor: The Weinstein Co

poster-the-grandmasterThe Grandmaster, Wong Kar Wai’s return to martial arts, is only his second film ever submitted by Hong Kong as the Foreign Language Oscar candidate. The first time was for a far different film, In The Mood For Love – although the lead actor, Tony Leung Chiu Wai, is a common link between the films. In The Grandmaster, the actor plays the iconic IP Man, the kung fu teacher who, among other things, was Bruce Lee’s trainer. The epic story of his life and legacy that’s set in 1930s China has won myriad international prizes this year, but it’s also been the subject of some controversy over the fact that the original Chinese version was cut down for a U.S. release. Harvey Weinstein, whose Weinstein Co has U.S., Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand rights on the movie, told me this weekend he wanted to address that controversy head-on. “The reviews out of Berlin (where it premiered) were mixed. The audience didn’t understand some things.” Some of the subplots were hard to decipher for a non-Chinese public. “So, we told him and he made the adjustments. People think it was us,” Weinstein says referring to himself executive producer Megan Ellison. “As presumptuous as I can be, I’m not presumptuous enough to tell Kar Wai” what to do,” Weinstein says. Ultimately, the version that was released in Hong Kong, the submitting country, is the same as the U.S. version. The Chinese domestic version was longer and, Weinstein says, “People think ‘oh, the incredible things they must have taken out!’” But what was taken out was done so to avoid confusion and Wong also “added subtitles to explain the cultural significance.” Wong recently told my colleague Dominic Patten that he wanted to make a “commercial and colorful film that really has a message about a world that I’m interested in.” He called the film “a story about one of the golden periods of the development of martial arts in China.” Weinstein and the filmmaker go way back to 1994’s Chungking Express which Miramax released. Weinstein calls Wong “probably the most visual filmmaker that we have.” Asked how he’s grown as a filmmaker, Weinstein says, first of all, “He doesn’t have to mature for me,” but “he’s like an impressionistic painter and we are so narrative driven in Europe and America and I think he’s finding a way to be impressionistic and narrative.” Weinstein says that notwithstanding the controversy, which he attributes to “our competition that is trying to spread these things,” the film has a good chance to make the shortlist. He notes it’s the highest-grossing movie of all of the submissions, and would benefit from a theatrical re-release if it ends up on that list. But could the fact it’s made so much money hurt it? Weinstein says last year’s The Intouchables was a victim of its success and that’s why it didn’t get a nomination. But he says, “I think it’s a more sophisticated group this year.” Wong says awards season is “a very important time for The Grandmaster. Not for the film itself but because of the message the film carries. I really want to have this film be seen by as much people as possible and to be aware of the traditional martial arts in China.”

The Great Beauty (Italy), Director: Paolo Sorrentino
U.S. distributor: Janus

great beautyThe Great Beauty did not win a prize in Cannes earlier this year, but it won an awful lot of supporters. That’s evidenced by its eventual win at the European Film Awards for Best Film, Director and Actor (Toni Servillo); by its Indie Spirit nomination; and by this week’s Golden Globe nomination in the foreign language category. The story of an aging writer recollecting his lost youth that’s a sort of love letter to Rome was acquired by Janus Films which released it in November. Paolo Sorrentino, who was just back to Italy from the Marrakech Film Festival when I spoke with him this week, told me he had watched the live stream of the Golden Globe nominations earlier in the day. He was, he said, “very curious to see movie stars up at 5AM.” He also felt very honored. “It’s a great responsibility. It’s a case in which I represent Italy and so it’s important in this moment when Italian cinema isn’t having a great time in its life… I hope we go ahead not only for me, but also for Italian cinema.” Comparisons have been made between The Great Beauty and the work of Federico Fellini, especially Roma and La Dolce Vita. At Cannes, Sorrentino said he had long been collecting “little anecdotes” linked to Rome and decided to put them all together into a film so that the lead character would be a witness to that world. He’s proud now of getting the film made because “like in many other countries, there is the (financial) crisis and fear is the most important thing for producers. They are not able to run risks on big drama movies. So, they decide to do overall comedies. I am happy that my movie is another thing and I think it’s a brave movie where the language and the style is pretty courageous.” The film’s success on an international level will hopefully “stimulate other producers to do the same and not only comic movies,” Sorrentino says. Peter Becker of distributor Janus Films, which coincidentally released the first Fellini films to go to the U.S., tells me he saw The Great Beauty in Cannes and “I didn’t want the movie to be over. I wrote two emails from the Palais saying I had seen my favorite film of the year. I was bowled over… We’ve been watching Paolo, a commanding filmmaker who is working in a different grain from what we see on the international scene. He is not an austere ultra-realist. It’s a full-throated maximalist celebration of cinema.” The director, whose last film was the English-language This Must Be The Place, says he’s open to working again in the language. “I’m ready to change if I find a good project that I am able to do well.” Next up, he’ll head to Palm Springs in support of The Great Beauty and stick around for the Golden Globes. “I love to stay in LA, it feels like being on a long holiday.”

Halima’s Path (Croatia), Director: Arsen Anton Ostojic
halimas-pathHalima’s Path makes a trifecta of films from director Arsen Anton Ostojic that have been the official Croatian entry for the Foreign Language Oscar. Speaking from LA, he tells me, “This is my third shot at the Academy Award… but this film is different from my other films. I try to make each unique on its own not to repeat myself… I’m trying to adjust my style to the story and not the story to my style.” Then he allows, “There’s a saying in my country: Third time’s the chance.” Of course that’s a saying in the States as well and were this time around to prove lucky for Ostojic and nab him a shortlist slot or a nomination, it would mark the first time that Croatia would have either. Halima’s Path, which debuted at Croatia’s Pula Film Festival in July 2012, follows a strong-willed Muslim woman (Alma Prica) searching for the remains of her husband and son who were buried in mass graves during the Bosnian War. She is able to locate her husband, but her DNA will not help identify the boy. Instead, she must approach her estranged niece for a DNA sample as it was she who gave her son to Halima to raise as her own. The story was inspired by the plight of a real-life couple whose 20-year search for their son’s biological mother made the newspapers. The young man’s funeral was held just five days before the first screening of Halima’s Path, Ostojic tells me. At the Pula Fest, it won the Audience Award with what Ostojic says was the highest score in the event’s 59-year history. “It’s an intimate film, but I tried to make it big in terms of its emotional impact,” Ostojic says. “You cannot change the tragic events that happened. The only thing we can do as artists is to show what happened and show respect to the victims. I think it’s important these things are not forgotten.” And that’s part of why he’s grateful to be the Croatian candidate again this year. “It gets the chance to have the film seen by audiences” in places like Los Angeles. Halima’s Path does not yet have a distributor but Ostojic is bullish. “It’s going to happen… This film is a slow builder. It continues to grow steadily.” In the meantime, the bi-continental Ostojic, who got his MFA at New York University, is in development on “several” English-language projects. He’s playing it like a fisherman, however, “who puts more hooks on a line and throws the ten hooks into the water to see which one catches the fish.”

The Hunt (Denmark), Director: Thomas Vinterberg
U.S. distributor: Magnolia Films

jagtenDenmark’s Oscar entry The Hunt debuted in Cannes all the way back in 2012 and although it suffered one of the rainiest red carpets in recent memory, ended up snagging the Best Actor prize for Mads Mikkelsen as well as the prize of the Ecumenical jury. Director Thomas Vinterberg tells me that the reason the film was advanced to the Oscar race this year rather than last is because prior to the Cannes awards, it was already slated for a January 2013 release in Denmark. It was actually released in other countries before Denmark, but the team stuck with the January release which pushed it into contention for this year. Vinterberg doesn’t mind the lengthy process. “It’s a nice film to draw out. I’ve just wrapped a movie and coming back to this is like being movie jet-lagged a bit.” The film’s reception at home was stellar. It held the No. 1 spot among all movies until just last month when it dropped to No. 2 with a cume of about $8M. Denmark has a very strong local industry and Vinterberg attributes that to being “a country of state support. There is massive art support for our films which means we can put quality in front of anything else… It’s a very fortunate and lucky thing.” But the other particularity is that Denmark is “a community of film workers meaning we help each other. There is a great sense of collaboration there.” When, for example, Lars von Trier – a founding member along with Vinterberg of the Dogme movement – makes a movie, Vinterberg reads his script and sees cuts through the editing process. “We compete and keep each other strong,” the director says. The spark for The Hunt came at a period in Vinterberg’s personal life where he wasn’t feeling quite so strong. Back in 1999, right after his celebrated Festen came out, a child psychiatrist turned up, literally, on his doorstep. He wanted Vinterberg to read through a stack of documents that had to do with children and their fantasies, and concepts like repressed memory. His theory was that “thought is a virus” and he believed this should be the basis of the helmer’s next picture. Vinterberg never read the files, but 10 years later needed a psychologist and called this same man. “Out of politeness, I read some of the cases and had a big shock. I was spellbound. I could see his idea to do the antithesis of Festen.” He says he felt there was a story in the notes that had to be told of a modern-day witch hunt. The Hunt is the story of how a lie becomes the truth when gossip, doubt and malice are allowed to flourish. Mikkelsen plays a former school teacher who has been forced to start over having overcome a tough divorce and the loss of his job. Just as things are starting to go his way, his life is shattered when an untruthful remark throws his small community into a collective state of hysteria. As the lie spreads, he is forced to fight for his life and dignity. Mikkelsen was Vinterberg’s first choice for the lead role of Lucas. But he wasn’t part of the first draft. Because the director says he usually writes for a specific actor, he called Mikkelsen to talk to him about the project but said he didn’t yet have a script. Since Mikkelsen “is a star now… in this case he needed to read a script because he’s covered by agents. So I wrote it for a young Robert DeNiro (circa) The Deer Hunter. In the script he became a tough guy, a man of few words up until Mads read it and said yes, and then we changed the whole thing together” making Lucas a “Scandinavian softy school teacher.” For the role of the kindergarten boss who is the impetus to the lie, Vinterberg turned to Susse Wold, an actress who is near royalty in Denmark and who hadn’t done a film in 27 years. “I always admired Susse and her talent as an actress and I always thought she looked fantastic. When I had this idea of putting her in this part, I didn’t meet any resistance from her. She was categorized as a bourgeois lady and suddenly she’s a kindergarten teacher.” Vinterberg is himself not a stranger to taking time away from the screen. After his 1998 breakout with Festen, he didn’t immediately get back to work. “I had a period where I didn’t know what to do. Early in my life I completed Festen and felt I couldn’t get further down the lane and had to reinvent. It was a big mistake to not do a film right away,” he says now. He feels he may have “became too strategic and mindful. Big decisions in life are to be taken very lightly and small things very seriously. I should have made decisions quicker and more left-handed.” Still, he’s happy with the outcome. I’ve “started to work faster and done more over the last couple of years” including theater projects in Vienna and his just-wrapped Far From The Madding Crowd. That Thomas Hardy adaptation stars Carey Mulligan and Matthias Schoenaerts and was “a really great experience,” says Vinterberg, even though he jokes he “had to shoot 210 scenes in nine weeks with bad English weather.” Bright things may be on the horizon, however, with a lot of buzz surrounding The Hunt’s awards season run. It’s got Indie Spirit and Golden Globe nominations and could end up on the Oscar shortlist. Vinterberg says “I don’t know this whole Oscar system. It’s all very new, but obviously I would be very proud… It’s very important for the film and it’s a huge acknowledgement.”

Ilo Ilo (Singapore), dir: Anthony Chen
U.S. distributor: Film Movement

ilo iloWhen I caught up with Anthony Chen this week, he was in Macau ahead of the Asia Pacific Film Festival awards ceremony. He’d arrived there from Dubai where his Ilo Ilo scooped the Best AsiaAfrica feature prize. Chen says he’s been travelling with Ilo Ilo ever since it won the Camera d’Or for best first feature in Cannes. In just the past little while, he says, “I’ve been on five continents in five weeks… No one told me you spend three years making a film and then spend a year and a half promoting it,” he laughs. Ilo Ilo is set in Singapore during the beginning of the Asian financial crisis and chronicles the relationship between the Lim family, especially young son Jiale, and their newly arrived Filipino maid. Her presence worsens the family’s strained relationship but she also forms a unique bond with the boy. Chen tells me the story is deeply personal. About three years ago, “a lot of childhood memories kept flooding back into my head. I remembered when I grew up I had a Filipino nanny in our household for 8 years.” When the woman was going to leave and Chen was 12 years old, he says he remembers “we were in the airport and I was just crying and crying. It was awfully painful.” So with that, he began trying to understand why he had repressed the memory for so many years and wanted to know “What’s that relationship really? She’s not a family member, but how do you develop such feelings?” (They recently reunited after 20 years). Chen says he didn’t expect the reaction to the film which has won myriad prizes from Cannes to London, Hong Kong and Dubai. “It was made with very pure intentions. I just wanted to tell an honest and sincere” story. He also thought that the subject matter might be too culturally specific – that audiences would “have to be Singaporean or Asian to have the context of hiring maids from the Philippines into your household. What proved me wrong was bringing it to Cannes. The premiere had such a rapturous response, I realized it was much more universal.” And that response came even though there was a 15-minute break in the middle due to a technical glitch. Rebeca Conget, VP of acquisitions and distribution at Film Movement which picked up the film in Cannes, tells me “everyone in the audience, including ourselves, remained glued to their seats till the end.” She adds, “For us it was the characters and the humanity in the story that drew us in… Chen has managed the rare achievement of making an incredibly moving film without an ounce of sentimentality.” The helmer had actually appeared in Cannes twice before this year with two short films. The latter, Grandmother, scored a special mention in 2007. Chen calls it “nerve-wracking” to return to Cannes. “We all know how brutal it is… but at the same time you feel like you’ve graduated. You’re now a real filmmaker.” He’s also only the fifth Singaporean filmmaker ever to have a film submitted for the Foreign Language Oscar. Chen is managing his expectations, though, “It’s great to fly the flag, but I’m not expecting much.” Then, he adds, “I’m sure the country would be super, super excited. It would be like winning the World Cup if the film scores a nomination.” Overall, he says, “I can only be very grateful. This opens doors for myself, but also for a whole generation.” As for his next project, the bi-lingual director says “It’s very important to really let things calm down before I make a real decision on what the next film is I’m going to make.”

Omar (Palestine) Director: Hany Abu-Assad
U.S. distributor: Adopt Films

omarPalestine has submitted six films to the Oscars for Foreign Language consideration. Exactly one has been nominated. That film, Paradise Now, was also directed by the helmer of this year’s entry, Omar. Hany Abu-Assad notes the distinction and is grateful, but says he hopes the experience this time around is less politically charged. With Paradise Now, which was about two young men preparing for a suicide bombing mission, he feels the film was largely seen through the prism of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Now, he says, “Everyone has their own political view, but we should judge movies as movies, through the language of cinema.” Omar, about young Palestinian baker (Adam Bakri) whose loyalty to family and country are complicated by his love for a beautiful young student, mixes elements of Shakespearean tragedy with suspense thriller and international intrigue. For Adopt Films’ Jeff Lipsky, “The story is Romeo And Juliet. The characters (are) instantly identifiable and need no background in terms of the politics of the region.” Abu-Assad says the story arose from “the need to make a good movie after so many years of walking around from one project to another. Some didn’t happen and somehow you panic.” That’s what “forced me to come up with ideas” and drawing from his own experiences, those of a friend and partly “from the newspaper,” Abu-Assad says he “put it together one night when I was panicking.” He wrote the structure of the story in four hours and wrote the script in four days. After a year of financing, he was in business. Omar won the Jury Prize in Un Certain Regard in Cannes this year where the jury was led by fellow Oscar hopeful Thomas Vinterberg, Abu-Assad points out. It also took the Asia Pacific Screen Award for Best Film and the Dubai Muhr Arab Feature prizes for Best Film and Best Director. He recently spent time in LA for AFI Fest and, having been part of the process before, says the Oscar run may be more difficult this time around. “You know how hard the road is so you have more worries when you know it’s going to be so tough again. You are more prepared, but in the past I was more naïve… It’s going to be a battle. I feel like this year the competition is huge.” In the end, he says, “My principle is this: I do really my best in everything, try to make the best possible movie. I do my best, but I don’t expect a lot because it’s the best way to survive.”

The Past, (Iran), Director: Asghar Farhadi
U.S. distributor: Sony Pictures Classics

Asghar-Farhadi-The-PastAsghar Farhadi has been down the awards season road before. His 2011 film A Separation won a Golden Globe for foreign language as well as the Foreign Language Oscar; and he was also nominated for Best Original Screenplay. Just last week, his current film, The Past, picked up Golden Globe nomination. But this is all still a different experience. What’s happening now, the director says through an interpreter, “is happening to a film that’s a bit different from the previous film.” Not only is the Paris-set The Past the first film he’s made outside of Iran, he adds that “the story is a little more complex.” But he allows that he feels “more comfortable because now I know how much time I should spend on it. I don’t attend every ceremony.” Farhadi shot The Past in France in French – a language he does not speak. The movie, which debuted in Cannes where it won the Ecumenical Jury prize and scooped a Best Actress honor for Bérénice Bejo, begins with the estranged husband (Ali Mosaffa) of Bejo’s character arriving in Paris to finalize their divorce. She is planning to marry her current boyfriend (Tahar Rahim) but one of her daughters strongly disapproves and secrets begin to emerge. Farhadi’s family melodrama is the opposite of his own situation. “My family life is very calm and in peace and I have a very good relationship with my wife and two daughters.” Instead, the story came to him “through a memory that a friend of mine had told me,” he says. To make the film, Farhadi went to France for two years with his family, and “spent many hours during the day walking around outside and listening to the French language and learning the melody and rhythm of the French.” On set there were a few translators who helped interpret “not just information, but feelings and emotions. It seems to me that language is only one medium for humans to communicate.” The director has left himself “open” to returning to France to make a film, or doing one elsewhere, but says his preference is “to make films in my country.” Given that some prominent Iranian directors have faced censorship or been banned from filmmaking at home, I asked him how hard it is for him to make movies there. “It’s both difficult and to an extent it’s easy. It’s easy because after all these years, I know the culture and am closer to the people. It’s difficult because you cannot really make films about every topic.” The reception The Past has received “is very valuable to me… I’m a kind of filmmaker that cannot make films without an audience.” And, he says, the more people see his movies “then my preciseness and my sensibilities are increasing.” He’d be very happy to be on the receiving end of an Oscar nomination again, but allows, “This year’s Oscar is a little too unpredictable.”

The Rocket (Australia), Director: Kim Mordaunt/
U.S. distributor: Kino Lorber

TheRocket_A4posterDirector Kim Mordaunt’s The Rocket blasted off in Berlin last February where it won three prizes including Best Debut Feature. It subsequently played Tribeca and took three awards including Best Narrative Feature and scooped the Best Actor trophy for young star Sitthiphon Disamoe. The film tells the plight of a 10-year-old boy who is blamed for a string of disasters that kill his mother and deeply affect his community. When his family is forced to move, he leads them through war-scarred land to find a new home. A hit on the festival circuit, The Rocket is Mordaunt’s first narrative feature. He previously made a handful of TV movies and the feature documentary Bomb Harvest about kids who collect scrap metal in Laos. The Rocket is in the Lao language and is also set in Laos where Mordaunt has been embedded for about 10 years. The background of the story is “a mixture” of what he and producer Sylvia Wilczynski “have experienced in the country for the last 10 years,” he tells me, and is also related to Mordaunt’s own loss of a parent. The cast came from Laos, Australia and Thailand. But The Rocket has been banned in Laos where the Communist regime is sensitive to films with a political message. The movie deals with the subject of the relocation of traditional people to make way for the building of hydroelectric dams along the Mekong River which are “big business mostly driven by multinational companies from outside of Laos, turning over hundreds of millions of dollars annually,” Mordaunt tells me. He’s hopeful that the ban may lift one day and allows, “I could have cut it… but that’s not the sort of film we want to make.” Even if the ban isn’t abolished, “The Lao people will find a way to see it.” In Berlin, members of the Lao embassy were invited. Mordaunt was “pouring with sweat from top to bottom” so much was he worried about the reaction. “Luckily, it was really good.” At the Tribeca Film Festival, members of the local Lao community came to the screening and at the Sydney Film Festival, Mordaunt says there were 400 Laotians. The Rocket recently screened at AFI Fest and will next head to Palm Springs. It’s also up for 12 Australian Academy Awards. In the meantime, it has U.S. distribution via Kino Lorber and will be released in New York on January 10th followed by Los Angeles on January 17th.

Two Lives (Germany), Director: Georg Maas
U.S. distributor: IFC

zwei-leben ^psterGerman director Georg Maas says some reviews for his Two Lives have been less than favorable, “but in a way that I really like.” Some critics, he says, found the film complicated. But, he explains, because the film is a puzzle, “if you are just occupied with a certain detail, you might miss a piece of information. I don’t see that as a problem. I just say see it a second time.” The film is inspired by real events and follows a former East German spy played by Juliane Köhler, who leads a happy life with her family and mother (Liv Ullmann) in Norway. But with the fall of the Berlin Wall, she is suddenly confronted with her secret Stasi past. Maas’ previous work has included narrative features as well as documentaries, and when his producer pitched him this story, based on a novel by a German journalist, it took three minutes to convince him. That isn’t even a blink of an eye compared to how long it took to bring the project to fruition. Maas tells me, “It was so long that my producer forbid me to say how long.” (It was about 10 years, he will allow.) The writing and funding processes were lengthy because the character at the beginning was not sympathetic enough and German TV didn’t think people would like her. Because the main character “is both victim and perpetrator, the identification process is more complicated than in conventional movies. I think that’s the fun of it,” Maas says. Getting Liv Ullman to sign on as the main character’s Norwegian mother actually helped shake up the story. When the legendary actress received the first script, it was set in 2005 and would have had her play much older, which she balked at. The filmmakers then switched the setting to 1990, which “for the Stasi part of the story is much more interesting,” and Ullman, who could now play her own age, was aboard. “She was very supportive during the shooting and created this whole family with the other actors and that influenced how we see the family on screen now,” Maas gushes. He took Two Lives to Palm Springs last January for its first screening and is going back again this year. Maas has also spent time in Los Angeles recently doing screenings and Q&A rounds and says that even though he was “skeptical” of the Oscar process, because he was unfamiliar, it’s ultimately been “really fun… I can see people are really into the movie.” The Resolution-repped director also made a “water bottle tour” of LA and is reading, with two scripts so far out of about 20 that have intrigued him. But he wants to be careful. “I was working for ten years on Two Lives and for eight years it was not clear the film would ever happen… I had to get independent from this because I heard ‘No’ so often that if I really let this affect me I probably wouldn’t be alive right now.” Instead, he’s hearing a lot of yesses these days. But is “happy in the moment that I’m not totally emotionally dependent on what other people say.” Of the Oscars, he says, “I would be very happy to be on the shortlist and think I would be quite a bit disappointed if we weren’t.” But, he’s looking at the situation with an open mind and says he has a lot of respect for the voting process. “If we are not among the (final) five, I know there will be five stronger films.”

Wadjda (Saudi Arabia), Director: Haifaa Al Mansour
U.S. distributor: Sony Pictures Classics

WadjdaSaudi Arabian filmmaker Haifaa Al Mansour’s Wadjda boasts a lot of firsts. It’s the first-ever feature shot entirely inside the Kingdom; the first Saudi film made by a female director; and the first movie the Kingdom has ever submitted to the Oscars. When the entry was announced in September, Sultan AI Bazie, head of the Saudi Arabian Society for Culture and Arts, and chairman of the nominating committee, said, “We are very proud of the film as an authentic representation of our country and culture, and are very pleased to see the themes and story of the film resonate with audiences well beyond our borders.” Getting the picture qualified – Academy rules state a film has to have a theatrical screening in its country of origin – was no small feat. Since Saudi Arabia has no movie theaters, the film had to jump through hoops and loads of red tape to even be eligible. In order to do so, screenings were set up in obliging foreign embassies inside Saudi Arabia. Al Mansour’s movie is the story of a young girl who challenges deep-rooted Saudi traditions in a determined quest to buy a bicycle. It’s been a talking point ever since in debuted in Venice in 2012. Not least because of how she had to go about helming the picture. Because Saudi law doesn’t allow women to be seen outside with men who are not their husbands, the director was relegated to sometimes helming via walkie-talkie from inside a van. “It was a major obstacle to go out in the street and talk to my actors,” she said. After Venice, Wadjda played the Telluride, Palm Springs, London, Tribeca and LA Film Festivals among others. Sony Pictures Classics acquired it in September of 2012 and released it a full year later. Co-president Michael Barker tells me that was a purposeful move, “You have to take your time… When you have a foreign language film you know is good but from a relative unknown, you have to take time and screen many times before you open. We wanted the film to have a profile. It’s important that people are aware.” To help that cause, there were early screenings for critics and when the film played in Tribeca, noted feminist Gloria Steinem was on hand as was Jordan’s Queen Noor. Barker calls Al Mansour one of the most “genuine” filmmakers he’s ever worked with. He adds that with foreign films, “the fresher the better… this felt very fresh.” While many are buzzing about Wadjda’s Oscar chances, Barker, who’s been down this road many times, says, “it’s always so unpredictable,” but regardless, even without any Oscar notions, “We would have pursued this film anyway.”

Among the other notables:
The Missing Picture, Cambodia
The Butterfly’s Dream, Turkey
Neighboring Sounds, Brazil
Metro Manila, UK