Three Questions: A Conversation With This Year’s Best Foreign Language Film Nominees

Cohen Media Group

Oscar’s five nominated directors in the Best Foreign Language Film race this year include one returnee to the category and four newcomers. They’re each seasoned filmmakers who’ve had their fair share of festival and awards success, and each has told a story that, despite years in the making, is somehow entirely relevant to today.

They’ve spent an awards season talking up their movies, and we wanted to find out what they’ve learned in the process as well as give them a chance to provide a shout-out to their producers—and see how their movies came to be a reflection of the world we’re living in despite all that time from conception to realization.

The Directors

From left to right:

  • Ziad Doueiri – The Insult (Lebanon)
  • Ildikó Enyedi – On Body and Soul (Hungary)
  • Sebastián Leli– A Fantastic Woman (Chile)
  • Ruben Östlund – The Square (Sweden)
  • Andrey Zvyagintsev – Loveless (Russia)

The Questions

1. What has been the most surprising or enlightening reaction to your film since you began traveling with it?

Doueiri: People who watched the film, no matter what country it played in, related to the story and the characters and didn’t get bogged down to some local politics of the film. I kept hearing, “It’s like what’s happening in this country.”

Enyedi: The biggest and most rewarding surprise was the audience itself. It was stunning with what a natural ease people from Korea to Norway looked deeper than just the love story of the film, understood effortlessly the hidden layers, and at the same time, were “going with it”, enjoying the humor, the emotions. The film made people think without being “brainy,” which just proves how much audiences are underestimated by distributors. We spectators are smart, sensitive, open and we want more daring films in cinemas—I have the proof for it!

On Body and Soul Inforg – M&M Film

Lelio: The love that Daniela Vega has triggered everywhere we have shown the film. She has been a beautiful bridge between the film and the real world. A beautiful ambassador. I’m very proud of her.

Östlund: The best thing has been that we have built four squares [the art piece at the center of the film] around Scandinavia. Two in Sweden and one in Norway, and they are planning to build two more in Sweden. The squares have been used in a beautiful way, especially in Värnamo where it has created a kind of movement, manifesting the film’s themes of altruism.

Zvyagintsev: Probably the most unexpected reaction that I have heard came from a woman, who waited patiently for the Q&A to finish and for all of the other viewers to depart, to approach me. Then when we were alone she told me, her voice trembling with excitement, that she came to the screening specifically to thank me for my film and to tell me, “After watching Loveless, I decided to come back to my husband.” That was a very precious moment for me.

2. The Foreign Language Oscar category rewards a director who is considered the author of their work, whereas the main Best Picture category gives recognition to the producer. What’s your relationship with your producers?

Doueiri: The involvement of Antoun Sehnaoui and Fred Domont from the early stages of the film is very significant. They believed it was crucial to make the film at a time when Lebanon is going through rough periods, due to tensions between the various communities. Their involvement became even more significant when the film and myself were legally challenged back in September.

A Fantastic Woman Sony Pictures Classics

Enyedi: Although I am an author who initiated and wrote all her projects and took part also in the fight for the necessary financing, I have a huge respect for this highly creative job. Beside good eyes, stamina, emotional intelligence and strategic thinking, what is perhaps the most important for them is the maturity of character. They should not trust you but in fact, they should trust themselves, trust their own good instincts and their own initial decision to team up with you. If they are able to share your priorities, they can be a tremendously effective shield against the less deeply understanding forces of the outside world. A producer can destroy the integrity of a film (I had that and I abandoned my own script rather than continue with such a partner), and they can be the best guardians of it (I had that as well; for example, with On Body and Soul). I am happy to have worked and continue to work with Mónika Mécs who is such a character. Calm, kind, respectful with everybody, but sharp, smart, relentless and a broad thinker. A real partner in good and bad.

Lelio: I’m very lucky to work with producers that have been brave, crazy and passionate enough to support even the more fragile ideas in the film (that turned out to be the more memorable ones).

Östlund: I would say that my producers are very European and have a great respect for the auteur tradition. They are fighting just as hard for the films to be unique as I am. In the award speech for the Palme d’Or in Cannes, I told a story that points that out. After seeing the film in Cannes, Erik Hemmendorff, one of the producers, said to me that we have to recut the film and make it longer. This is even though The Square is two-and-a-half hours long. Erik and I have been working together for 16 years and I’m very grateful to have someone next to me that fights for the films as he does.

The Square
The Square Platform Produktion

Zvyagintsev: The key element in our relationships with my producer Alexander Rodnyansky is trust. We did three films together, and we both know that each one of us can be relied upon to do his job responsibly. Rodnyansky is a film director himself and he understands how important creative freedom is for a director. I know that he will always support me in any unexpected event during production. He is a great partner and I hope he feels the same about me.

3. Each of your films seems to be so relevant to today, and yet you began the process with them years ago. How do you explain being so prescient?

Doueiri: I ask myself the same question. Probably because the world is cyclical and I just happened to fit in the right loop. We live in a very exciting and relevant time. The world is distressed and out of balance, polarized, but very dynamic. Certainly having grown up in Beirut during the Civil War made me sensitive to what’s going on today.

Enyedi: I always compared filmmaking to dancing, where your partner is the world itself. You have to ‘feel’ your partner, then you do not have to logically analyze and make plans for your next step. It would kill the main appeal of the dance. If you and your partner are tuned together, you can safely make even surprising, daring moves. The dance will not fall apart, but will become even more thrilling. So, as a filmmaker I should not resist the present, but should be part of it. Then I have a chance to bring in something new, something surprising, that finds its inspiration in this very present. My films are never dealing with a topic concretely attached to the present day; they are rather searching for the hidden, eternal patterns in today’s life. I consider ourselves like a rock covered with the thin moss layer of our culture. I try to understand how our present is dealing with this duality.

Loveless Sony Pictures Classics

Lelio: When you’re filming you’re blind. But if you follow what really moves you, then you operate from a place of hope: maybe that the story you’re telling will resonate with whatever the world will have become when the film is ready to be born.

Östlund: I’m happy that you think so, because it’s a great challenge when you’re making movies. Not at the least nowadays when there are so many ways to express yourself more quickly. Basically it takes three years for me to do a movie, from impression to expression, so to speak. An approach that I have, which may not be unique, is that I try to update the project constantly during the process. I add things, change things and take away things when I feel that it’s no longer needed, or if I need to tell it in another way because the world has changed.

Zvyagintsev: I trust my intuition and the intuition of my closest friends and collaborators. My focus has always been on people and the nature of human relationships. I strive to honestly depict my heroes and the world that they inhabit, and if I succeed and my films are honest to reality, and my characters are true and complex, then it creates the kind of resonance that you mention.

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