UPDATED with Academy statement: The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science’s decision to disqualify Nigeria’s first International Feature Film submission, Genevieve Nnaji’s Lionheart, has been met with criticism since the news first broke. But the Academy said in a statement Tuesday that the film simply didn’t meet eligibility requirements.
The pic, which Netflix acquired ahead of its debut at the 2018 Toronto Film Festival, was one of 93 films officially submitted to the Oscars this year, in the newly named International Feature Film category.
But on Monday, news broke that the Academy said Lionheart did not meet eligibility requirements of a submitted film being predominately in a foreign language. Most of the film is in English, with a small portion of the 95-minute run time in the Igbo language.
“In April 2019, we announced that the name of the Foreign Language Film category changed to International Feature Film. We also confirmed that the rules for the category would not change,” the Academy said in its statement. “The intent of the award remains the same — to recognize accomplishment in films created outside of the United States in languages other than English.
“As this year’s submitted films were evaluated, we discovered that Lionheart includes only 11 minutes of non-English dialogue, which makes it ineligible for this award category.”
In Nigeria, a former British colony, the official language is English, which Nnaji pointed out after the news broke of the Academy’s decision, and names including Ava DuVernay took to Twitter to question the ruling.
“To @TheAcademy,” wrote DuVernay on Monday afternoon. “You disqualified Nigeria’s first-ever submission for Best International Feature because its in English. But English is the official language of Nigeria. Are you barring the country from ever competing for an Oscar in its official language?”
It is unclear of the exact appeals process for such decisions, but co-chair of the International Feature Film executive committee Larry Karaszewski told Deadline’s Nancy Tartaglione that it would be too late in the process in the case of Lionheart.
Karaszewski, who called the situation “less of a controversy, and more of a misunderstanding,” added that “If you’re submitting for something as important as an Academy Award, I would think you should look at the rules.” But he said “there are no bad intentions on either side. We would love a film from this country and for it to be part of the process.”
The Nigerian committee that selects the country’s Oscar submission told Bloomberg that “Going forward, the committee intends to submit films which are predominantly foreign language – non-English recording dialogue.”
The last high-profile film to be disqualified for not meeting the language requirement was the 2007 Israeli film The Band’s Visit, which had more than 50% English dialogue.
Nkem Owoh, Pete Edochie and Onyeka Onwenu star in Lionheart, about a woman (Nnaji) who steps up to the challenge when her father is forced to take a step back from running the family’s company due to health issues. He appoints his crude and eccentric brother to run the company with her, and complications arise when they discover the business is in dire financial straits and both try to save it in their own way with divergent results. The pic is currently streaming on Netflix.
The Academy will announce an International Feature Film shortlist in December. Along with the new category name (it formerly was Best Foreign Language Film), other changes in the category this year include the shortlist moving to 10 films (up from nine), with seven selected from the committee currently viewing all 93 entries, and three “saves” selected by the executive committee.
Five finalists will be selected for the Oscar nominations which will be announced January 13.
Here is the full list of this year’s official films.