The Best Foreign Language Film Oscar race has its share of passionate supporters each year, and certainly also has had its fair share of controversy. The one-two punch of 2007’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days not making the shortlist easily springs to mind, as does the disqualification of The Band’s Visit that year over its use of English. This year, we got off to a rollicking start as Paul Verhoeven’s Elle was snubbed by the folks who select the shortlist. That furor calmed as the movie won two Golden Globes, and when the final nominations were announced, they came peacefully and without surprise. Enter Donald Trump.
On January 27, the new President of the United States signed an executive order titled “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry.” This barred people from seven predominantly Muslim countries from traveling to the U.S. and threw into question the status of at least one nominated director, while also affecting talent from other films — in a category designed to celebrate the world’s different points of view. The Academy, the guilds and Hollywood in general rallied behind those impacted, and those involved with the movies largely have told me they stand in solidarity.
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An Oscar winner for A Separation, Iran’s Asghar Farhadi is nominated this year for psychological drama The Salesman. The film is about a young couple forced to move into a new apartment after their old flat becomes damaged. Once relocated, a sudden eruption of violence linked to the previous tenant changes the couple’s life. In the film, they also are starring in a production of Death of a Salesman.
Even before the executive order was signed, star Taraneh Alidoosti said she would not attend the Oscars in protest, calling the ban “racist”. Over the next few days, word spread that the travel ban would impact Farhadi. Sure enough, the director released a powerful statement on January 29 saying he would not attend, even if exceptions for his trip were to be made.
Farhadi said he had fully intended to attend the ceremony and share his “opinions about these circumstances” with the local press. He did not want to “boycott the event as a show of objection” but his presence had become accompanied “by ifs and buts,” which were “in no way acceptable,” he said.
Trump’s executive order was almost immediately challenged in the courts and has been stalled. Its impact has been widespread nevertheless.
Filmmakers and talent support Farhadi’s decision, though some with nuance.
Bahar Pars, a fellow Iranian who also carries a Swedish passport and stars in Hannes Holm’s nominee A Man Called Ove, hoped to attend the Oscars but was unsure she would be able to. Still, she told me she respected Farhadi’s choice. “I understand him totally, and he lives in Iran. He’s much more Iranian. I can understand you don’t want somewhere somebody to tell you, ‘We don’t want you here.’ I totally understand and respect his decision. It is more important for me to stand there and support the Iranian team.”
Ove was a smash hit in Sweden and is based on the bestselling book by Fredrik Backman, whose wife also happens to be Iranian and was facing a similar situation to Pars’. The story centers on a grumpy retiree who is still mourning his wife and forms an unlikely friendship with the Iranian woman (Pars) who moves in next door. It’s about love and changing stereotypes, messages which are certainly timely today.
Pars says of Trump’s travel ban: “It’s so crazy, but I’m not so surprised. The world is burning, things are happening. Families can’t see each other, so my own problem seems very small. But if I’m standing there on the red carpet, it’s the biggest statement we can do.”
From the other side of the world, Bentley Dean, a co-director of Australian Oscar nominee Tanna, says he thinks the Foreign Language category “is just wonderful. It says the Academy is serious about diversity in cinema. It’s a celebration of the medium, and it’s directly saying that it doesn’t have to be spoken in English. A President effectively saying, ‘No, you cannot participate in this medium, in the celebration of this medium,’ is the antithesis of what should be.”
Of Farhadi specifically, Dean says, “My heart goes out to the filmmaker, and all people affected by this. … It’s a slap in the face. I hope that all of Hollywood does rally around this terrible injustice.”
Tanna is the first film to score a nomination for Australia, which has submitted 10 titles since 1996. The movie also is the first feature from Dean and Martin Butler and the first shot in the nation of Vanuatu. It stars non-actors who had never even watched a film, and it was made with no electricity — everything was solar-powered, including the editing bay.
Set on the titular volcanic South Pacific island, it’s a story of star-crossed lovers that’s been compared to Romeo and Juliet. Wawa, being readied for the ceremony that will recognize her as a grown woman, is in love with the handsome grandson of the tribal chief. When, as part of an effort to prevent a war, Wawa is betrothed to a man from another tribe, she must choose between loyalty to her clan and her own heart.
Dean and Butler worked up the story with the local community over several months and were amazed at the tribe’s capacity for change. They also were the first people in the world to see the finished film. Bentley went in with a digital projector and “queen-sized sheets I sewed together and strung them from a Bunyan tree.” It was a “magical experience,” with the tribe’s chiefs saying they formally considered it their film. “For Martin and I, we will never get a better review than that.” They’ll be strolling the red carpet with two of the film’s local actors.
Heading back to Europe, Martin Zandvliet is nominated for his post-WWII drama Land of Mine. The Sony Pictures Classics title focuses on the story of German POWs forced to remove land mines from Danish beaches. Zandvliet was led to the story by certain family issues but also because Denmark has “a way of portraying ourselves as the good, helping nation. In all the movies we make, we’re always helping the Jews flee to Sweden, and I just think it’s bullshit. We’re just as evil as any other country. We have the same dark chapters, and I think it’s my responsibility as a director to tell those stories.”
He spoke those words to me in early December. In early February, he said: “It’s different than a few weeks ago. The world has changed and brought more fear to it.” Thrilled about the nomination, he nevertheless is pensive about this moment in time, particularly regarding Farhadi. “It’s difficult because I totally understand he doesn’t want to come. But I also think that it’s important that we’re together to use the freedom of speech. Six directors might be stronger than staying away. … We should not let politics rule and win.”
Zandvliet says he feels it’s the job of filmmakers from all over the world to “tell and show and say what we feel. Whether it grows while you’re doing the movie, you have to be present and see how the world is going. It’s important we look back and see what has happened and treat each other with respect and dignity.”
He didn’t set out to make a political film. “The way I see it, unfortunately the movie becomes more and more about how history almost repeats itself, almost like if the past was forgotten,” Zandvliet said. “It’s scary. It’s scaring me that people don’t learn from what happened not too long ago in Europe. People need to wake up.”
He added: “I hope the movie industry and artists in general will not lay down, will not give up. It’s important for even the millions of viewers who watch the [Oscar] show to see that life goes on and there is beauty in the world.”
Maren Ade, director of the lauded Toni Erdmann, which wowed audiences at Cannes and has been on an awards-and-adulation run since, says she has enjoyed the season, but “in the end it’s only about the films. I mean, the film is what I wanted to send out to the world, hoping that it transforms in each [viewer’s] head.”
With regard to recent events, she says, “I think we are all affected by this, and for me it’s not relevant which countries Donald Trump has banned. It’s racist and inhuman politics he is doing, from the very beginning.”
For her, Farhadi “made a very good and clear statement and I agree with him.” Ade says she is a “political person” who is “interested in cinema where there is someone with a strong opinion behind [it], which doesn’t mean that the films need to be purely political.”
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