EXCLUSIVE: Following online criticism over the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science’s decision to disqualify Nigeria’s first International Feature Film submission, Genevieve Nnaji’s Lionheart, co-chair of the International Feature Film executive committee Larry Karaszewski has responded, calling the situation “less of a controversy, and more of a misunderstanding.”
Academy rules for the category stipulate that “the recording of the original dialogue track as well as the completed picture must be predominantly in a language or languages other than English.” Lionheart’s 95-minute running time is understood to contain a little more than 11 minutes which are not in English.
Nevertheless, when word began to spread that the film had been deemed ineligible, names including Ava DuVernay took to Twitter to question the ruling. DuVernay commented, “English is the official language of Nigeria. Are you barring the country from ever competing for an Oscar in its official language?”
While the name change of the category this year, from Best Foreign Language Film to Best International Feature Film, perhaps lends itself to some confusion — since it excised the words “foreign language” — the rules have remained the same. There is a track record of eligible submissions from countries such as the UK, Ireland, Australia and Canada which are not in the English language.
The fact that the regulations have not changed has been clearly communicated to the submitting committees in overseas markets. Says Karaszewski, “We changed the title of the award, but made it clear the rules remain the same.”
He allows there may have been a “misconception,” but says, “If you’re submitting for something as important as an Academy Award, I would think you should look at the rules.” Still, he allows, “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.” An appeals process this year, however, would fall too far after the fact given the submission deadline was October 1.
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.”
Karaszewski says, “We are trying to be as global as we can. We opened Phase II (voting) of this category this year to all members. We are not looking to make things ineligible. I don’t think this film was disqualified as much as it was ineligible… It’s not a dismissal. It’s not like we didn’t like the movie, but it would be unfair to other films to not (adhere to) the rules.”
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.
Netflix acquired Lionheart ahead of its debut at the 2018 Toronto Film Festival and it was one of 93 films officially submitted to the Oscars this year. The Academy published its list of the 93 on October 7. However, typically this list is compiled of the submitting countries which have been vetted for country of origin purposes, but not yet in all cases screened for content (ie, language requirements).
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.