The International Feature Film Oscar shortlist is due out on Monday, with an expanded 10 titles up from the traditional nine. Preliminary voting closed in the category on Wednesday with the first seven films determined (although still held under wraps) and the Executive Committee will meet Monday morning to decide on the three so-called “saves.” As ever, this is a year with a rich crop of films from talent outside the United States. In total, there are 91 movies vying for a mention.
Filmmakers have trotted the globe to festivals and Q&A screenings while presumed favorite Bong Joon-Ho even made a recent stop on The Tonight Show. Along with the Korean director’s Parasite, there are a host of other possibilities for the shortlist, and below we take a look at a cross-section of titles that could turn up on the roster on Monday.
Here’s our shot at the major contenders:
AND THEN WE DANCED; Director:Levan Akin; U.S. Distributor: Music Box
Levan Akin is a Swedish-born filmmaker of Georgian descent whose third film, And Then We Danced, is Sweden’s Oscar submission for the International Feature race. The Georgian-language film is the first LGBTQ+ movie set in the country and debuted in the Directors’ Fortnight section of Cannes earlier this year. When Akin came to Deadline’s Cannes Studio at the time, he told me the subject matter required the team to be scrappy while shooting in Tbilisi. But he wasn’t really prepared for what would follow.
“It’s been a turbulent week,” he understated to me recently. This was following the November 8 premiere in the Georgian capital which was stormed by several hundred protesters who chanted “Long live Georgia!” and “Shame!” before burning a rainbow flag. The demonstrators created a “corridor of shame” leading to cinemas showing the movie, but the screenings were able to carry on. Riot police were on hand, although injuries ensued and at least 11 people were arrested.
Set in the strict and gender conservative scene of ancient Georgian dance, And Then We Danced follows an obsessive young dancer Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani), who has been training at the National Georgian Ensemble with his partner, Mary (Ana Javakishvili), since he was a child. However, when new dancer Irakli (Bachi Valishvili) arrives, what begins as a rivalry soon turns to longing as the two draw closer together.
It has been legal to be gay in Georgia since 2000 and there is protection on an official level. Akin says the protests have not been endorsed by the government, but there are “these loudmouths that are screaming who are homophobic by default — and there is also a large group that supports the movie.”
Akin calls it a “film about tradition and culture and how to carve out one’s own place. This discourse is happening not only in Georgia, but happening all over the world.” (See here for more from our earlier discussion.)
ATLANTICS (Senegal); Director: Mati Diop; U.S. Distributor: Netflix
Mati Diop’s Cannes prize-winning film is an intense young love story rooted in elements of the supernatural. The director made history at the festival, becoming the first black female director to have a film in competition — and went on to scoop the Grand Prize.
Diop says that in Cannes she had just come out of months of preparation and “wasn’t ready for it.” Afterwards, when she started to do promotion on the film, there was a point when she began to be “fed up” by the attention paid to her history-making role, rather than the movie. Now, she says, “I understand it is an event and it takes up space, I accept it, I embrace it. But what’s unjust is that it brings a shadow to the film and what I propose as a filmmaker. Frankly, it requires me to be more rigorous with how I talk about the film.”
Atlantics is set along the coast of Senegal where a soon-to-be-inaugurated futuristic tower looms over a suburb of Dakar. There in the capital is 17-year-old Ada, who is in love with Souleiman, a young construction worker, but has been promised to another man. One night, Souleiman and his co-workers leave the country by sea, in hope of a better future. Several days later, a fire ruins Ada’s wedding and a mysterious fever starts to spread. Little does Ada know that Souleiman has returned.
The film originated with Diop’s 2009 short of the same name. The project took a long time to build and Diop notes, “It’s very strong to feel that a film wasn’t there when we started to write, but in the necessity of demands, it evolved. In the same way I conceived of this film in this part of the world, an audience was formulating to see this sort of film. It wasn’t just me, but an audience asking for this type of representation.”
Earlier this fall, she told Deadline, “I kept on thinking about the desire, but mostly the need, to write a feature about the situation of migration but from another point of view. The first major choice was to talk about the disappeared youth in the ocean from the point of view of the living, of the ones who stay, in order to talk about the experience of losing these people, of how does it transform the everyday life and imagination of the people who stay.”
Talking about her experience on the Oscar trail, Diop says “for a French person it’s very unreal.” From a sociological point of view, she’s also fascinated by the “reality versus the fantasy” of Hollywood. The more she advances in the campaign, “the more I realize I want it to happen. If a film by a first time director set in Dakar with non-actors and a monster (can be recognized by the Oscars) it’s a wonderful sign. I do think it’s important because a film like this sends a strong signal to the world.” Either way, she says, “I’ve already won in a way because today I am in a position to do what I want for a second film.” But, she “also wants it to evolve for reasons bigger than me.”
BEANPOLE (Russia); Director: Kantemir Balagov; U.S. Distributor: Kino Lorber
Balagov is Russia’s entry for the International Feature Film Oscar for the first time, with his second film. The story of the plight of two women in a devastated post-WWII Leningrad brought Balagov a Best Director win in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section this year. He visited with Deadline at the festival back in May, and we recently caught up to discuss his journey since, the reasons why he has tended to focus on female stories and what the future holds.
Balagov’s inspiration for Beanpole came from Svetlana Alexievich’s book The Unwomanly Face Of War, and centers on Iya and Masha as they search for meaning and hope in the struggle to rebuild their lives amongst the ruins.
The film has a notable palette. Balagov credits his DP, Kseniya Sereda, with finding the look of Beanpole. The pair discussed extensively how Balagov envisioned it, and “after a couple days of shooting, when I saw the material, I realized that she is not just a cinematographer. I saw her for the first time as my soulmate and I started to trust her more and told her ‘Shoot it like you see it.’”
This is the director’s second film in a row that tells a woman’s story and was important, “because no one has shown in Russian modern cinema the face of the women after the war.” See more from Balagov and on the film, here.
THE BOY WHO HARNESSED THE WIND (UK); Director: Chiwetel Ejiofor; U.S. Distributor: Netflix
Chiwetel Ejiofor’s directorial debut is this year’s British entry for the Oscar, which he shot in Chichewa, the local Bantu language of Malawi. Ejiofor, who did not speak the language, says that wasn’t a deterrence even though he was going to be behind and in front of the camera. “There was not really a moment where we were going to do it in English,” he told me.
When the decision was made to shoot in Malawi, “we felt what we were rooting for was something very authentic and that meant trying to be honest about the language and how it’s used in certain spaces in the village. It felt important to represent that authentically.”
The true story follows William Kamkwamba, a young boy whose family struggles to pay for his schooling when a drought leads to a devastating famine and they are unable to farm the land. It’s his thirst for science — and a desire to teach himself even when he is refused a place at school — that leads him to design a windmill to power an electrical water pump. But not before a complicated negotiation with his father (Ejiofor) to scavenge the family bicycle for parts, when it’s the only major asset they own.
The film debuted in Sundance and Ejiofor says he “wasn’t really even thinking in terms of the whole year and this part, but I’m thrilled to begin a process of getting a film out there and engaging people with William’s story. Really, what I suspected and what became true are that the themes of the story and William and living in the solution to things were really pertinent when I read the book (by Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer), but over time just became more so.”
The story, Ejiofor feels, “has a classic traditional element in terms of cinema, but also underlying themes that you feel just personally connect to you: family and generational knowledge. These sort of understandings, and one’s relationship to place, come through in really strong ideas about education and these dynamics.”
The book came out 10 years ago when the conversation around alternative energy “was not raging as much as it is today, but was part of it in the way land is exploited,” Ejiofor notes. “I feel like in a way I was looking at a lot of different stories and this one combined all the elements and themes. Just as those pennines started to drop while reading the book, I thought it would be great to adapt.”
Asked if taking on a directorial debut, a new language and acting in the film all at once consumed his life, the 12 Years A Slave Oscar nominee shares a deep, knowing laugh: “Total consumption of life,” he says. “It was a lot, but trying to go for everything gave everything a sort of clarity.”
LES MISERABLES (France); Director: Ladj Ly; U.S. Distributor: Amazon Studios
One of the breakout filmmakers of this year’s Cannes, Les Misérables writer/director Ladj Ly’s star is on the rise. His feature debut won the Jury Prize at the festival, shortly after he signed with CAA and had already been named a Deadline One to Watch. The film then sold to Amazon Studios in one of the biggest domestic deals ever for a French-language movie.
A veteran of documentaries and shorts Ly was a rare first-timer in the Cannes competition and is expected on Oscar’s shortlist Monday. He has a Golden Globe and an Indie Spirit nomination already under his belt.
Ly’s been making movies for 20 years and is an autodidact who didn’t go to film school. He has told Deadline, “My references are what I have lived, the people around me, the experience that I’ve gained over all these years. My cinema is really (that) I am inspired by reality, what I live, and that produces Les Misérables.”
The politically charged urban drama was inspired by the 2005 Paris riots, and Ly’s César-nominated short film of the same name. It’s set in Montfermeil, the Paris suburb where Ly grew up and also the same setting for much of Victor Hugo’s classic 1862 novel. It takes a provocative look into the tensions between neighborhood residents and police. Overall, Ly’s oeuvre has concentrated on stories that depict the realities of social and political life.
Les Misérables has become more timely over the past year given the ongoing strikes and protests in France amid the “yellow vest” movement. Ly recently said there is a clear connection. “We’ve been yellow vests in the banlieu, the suburbs, for 20 years,” he said. “We’ve been fighting the same struggle for all this time.”
MONOS (Colombia); Director: Alejandro Landes; U.S. Distributor: Neon
Alejandro Landes has had a busy year. His survivalist saga Monos debuted at Sundance in January where it won a Special Jury Award and was acquired by Neon after its world premiere there. Landes was then signed by UTA and the film went on to play Berlin as well as a host of other festivals, scooping prizes along they way including in London and San Sebastian among others. In late August, Monos was selected as Colombia’s entry for the International Feature Oscar race.
Monos follows group of young soldiers and guerrillas training on a remote mountain in Latin America with an American hostage played by Julianne Nicholson. The teenage commandos, who have nicknames like Rambo, Smurg, Bigfoot, Wolf and Boom-Boom, perform military training exercises while watching over a prisoner and a conscripted dairy cow for a shadow force know only as The Organization. After an ambush drives the squadron into the jungle, the mission begins to collapse.
He tells me, “My first fiction film (Porfirio) premiered in Directors’ Fortnight. It was about a man in a wheelchair who hijacks a plane hiding grenades in his diaper. It was a big casting process to play the hijacker, and I ended up casting the real guy himself who was at end of his long house arrest. I went to the Ministry of Justice to ask for permission and the place was packed with kids in jeans and sneakers running around the halls. It felt like a high school. These were kids who had left illegal armies in Colombia and were there in a reinsertion program and had a theater workshop that I attended… The kids were fascinating — a few had fought with the guerrillas and also the paramilitary, and it stayed with me.”
Landes also muses that he had never seen a war film “that really spoke to me… There is a romantic notion of WWI and WWII where the battle lines and ideology were clear: good and bad. But the character of modern warfare today like in Colombia is fought from the shadows, backlines, shifting lines. You look at Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, these are messy wars with no clean-cut ideological lines like the cinema about WWII.”
So, the idea was “to create a war film, but in an ideological vacuum, not from left or right… an allegorical situation from the lens of the Colombian conflict in a way that spoke about the nature of war today.” For more on Monos, click here.
NE ZHA (China); Director: Jiao Zi; U.S. Distributor: Well Go USA
Chinese blockbuster Ne Zha was a phenomenon at the summer box office this year, grossing a staggering $701M and being praised as a new achievement in Middle Kingdom storytelling.
The film hails from Chinese mythology with “this rather rebellious image of a juvenile ‘bad boy’ hero, says director Jiao. The boy, Nezha, is birthed from a heavenly pearl by the Primeval Lord of Heaven. Born with unique powers, he finds himself as an outcast who is hated and feared. Destined by prophecy to bring destruction to the world, the young boy must choose between good and evil in order to break the shackles of fate and become the hero.
Jiao recalls seeing Shanghai Animation Studio’s 1979 pic Prince Nezha’s Triumph Against Dragon King when he was a little boy… “I fell deeply in love with this character. He was courageous, he wasn’t afraid to challenge the mighty Dragon King in order to protect innocent civilians. In the end, he sacrificed his own life for the people. He was a perfect fit for the movie’s non-conventional theme on the twist of fate. That was the main reason we chose him to be the protagonist.”
Jiao demurs that he doesn’t feel “like I’ve reached new heights, I can only say Ne Zha set a new box office record for animated features in China.” He points to such movies as Havoc In Heaven (1965), Legend Of Sealed Book (1983), and the aforementioned Prince Nezha’s Triumph which “retained the substance of traditional Chinese culture and are highly regarded by their esteemed artistic value. I would say they influenced me the most as an animator.” He is also a fan of Hollywood movies and says, “I have learned many valuable lessons from Hollywood animations.”
Despite local films’ success, Hollywood animation has struggled in the world’s second largest market. Says Jiao, “Movie audiences from every region worldwide have their own distinctive taste and aesthetics. Because Hollywood movies enjoy the dividends of the global market, they will make compromises and adjustments to cater to wider international audiences. Conversely Chinese animations have limited acceptance from markets outside of China. When we make animated features, we never consider catering to audiences from other regions, we have the creative freedom to explore our own interests without limitation.”
Jiao was unable to get a visa to travel to the U.S. so has not been able to do local promotion, but says he sees cultural exchange as a pathway to better understanding between the two nations. “I’ll use horror film as an analogy,” he offers. “The most effective trick in a horror film is to hide the ghost in darkness, while we know nothing about this ghost. But once we steer the ghost into the light, that fear of the unknown dissipates. So communication is the best way to eliminate fear and suspicion. Once we see a clear picture, we then realize we were actually scaring ourselves, the perception of cultural misunderstanding is really much ado about nothing.”
OUR MOTHERS (Belgium); Director: Cesar Diaz
César Diaz won the Camera d’Or in Cannes this year with his first feature, the Guatemala-set Our MothersThe Spanish-language film has since become Belgium’s entry for the International Feature Film Oscar and tells a very personal, if not autobiographical, story for the director.
The social drama takes place as Guatemala is immersed in the trial of the soldiers who sparked the civil war. Ernesto is a young anthropologist working for the Forensic Foundation whose job is to recover bones of people killed during the 1980s genocide and identify the missing. While hearing the account of an old woman, he thinks he has found a lead that might guide him to his father, a guerrilla who disappeared during the war. Against his mother’s wishes, Ernesto flings himself body and soul into the case, looking for truth and resilience.
Diaz himself has a missing father and a mother who was a guerrilla fighter. “That past helped me to understand the characters and build (the story) and bring it to fiction,” he says. The original idea was to focus on “the mother” and in coupling this with forensics, Diaz says, “Science helps you to learn and close chapters.”
The fact that Belgium has selected a Spanish-language title as its entry this year is “almost a political statement” for Diaz. It’s a recognition that “our society is changing and immigration is changing the face of this country. This is a way to tell the world we accept diversity and the different faces of a moving society.”
For more from previous coverage of Our Mothers, click here.
OUT STEALING HORSES (Norway); Director: Hans Petter Moland; U.S. Distributor (Magnolia)
Adapted from the award-winning bestseller by Per Pettersen, Out Stealing Horses stars director Hans Petter Moland’s pal Stellan Skarsgard as a grieving widower who moves to the countryside where a chance encounter rekindles the past.
Moland, who recently made the English-Language Cold Pursuit with Liam Neeson, originally passed on transferring the bestseller to the screen back in 2004, but the project came around years later and was “a perfect fit.” What clicked the second time? “One of the things I take from the experience is that timing has a lot to do with where you are in your life.” He compares the reading experience to Arundhati Roy’s The God Of Small Things. “It is so immersive I could never tell you the storyline of that book, but it was a universe and characters I loved being with.” Moland also sparked to the story because he grew up on “a really really remote farm and spent a lot of time in that kind of milieu, alone in the forest. That really spoke to me.”
In Out Stealing Horses, Skarsgard plays 67-year-old Trond who lives in new-found solitude and looks forward to spending New Year’s Eve 2000 alone. As winter arrives, he discovers he has a neighbor, a man Trond knew back in 1948, the summer he turned 15 and the summer Trond’s father prepared him to carry the burden of his forthcoming betrayal and disappearance. And also the summer Trond grew up and smelled the scent of a woman he longed for. The same woman Trond’s father was preparing to spend his life with.
Part of the story that might be unfamiliar to overseas audiences is how Trond helps ferry people across the border. Explains Moland, “Right after the war, Norway was really impoverished and had been occupied by Nazis. The border regions were neutral so didn’t have the devastation of war. People escaped into Sweden to avoid the Gestapo.”
Moland himself has a strange relationship with Norway which “has changed so much since I started making films. I came back from studying in the States and came back to a deeply politicized Norway where the film business was dominated by Marxist Leninists. I had basically learned by working with the enemy,” he laughs. “In many ways, the U.S. is my second home and having the opportunity to make something that is so typically Norwegian and experience the reaction from an American audience has been quite satisfying in many ways.”
PAIN AND GLORY (Spain); Director: Pedro Almodovar; U.S. Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Pedro Almodovar’s most autobiographical film to date marks the 7th time he is repping Spain at the Oscars, having won the International (then Foreign Language Film) category with 1999’s All About My Mother. He also took an Original Screenplay statue for Talk To Her in 2003, for which he was likewise in the Best Director race, even though the movie was not Spain’s FL submission.
Pain And Glory is also expected to expand beyond the International Oscar race this year, with lead Antonio Banderas having already scooped prizes in Cannes and elsewhere. In short, he plays a director reflecting on his past.
Almodovar recently told Deadline about the process of getting to this very personal movie. “It’s always very mysterious when you start writing, because usually the first pages are not the movie that results. They will become a script, and after that a movie… This specific script was started just as you see in the movie, writing about those moments when I was in my swimming pool, under the water, and they were the only moments where I didn’t have any kind of muscular tension. The only moments I was in peace. The only problem is that you can’t breathe underwater. It was relieving for me, because I was going through surgery on my back and I was in a lot of pain. So, I started there, writing about the situation of feeling like a ghost inside the water, alone with yourself, your mind and your memory.”
Of his storied career, Almodovar said,“I think I’ve matured very well as a filmmaker. I didn’t really know how to make movies in the beginning, and I’ve been learning, one after another, until I made my 21 films. I’ve matured, perhaps, personally in the sense that I’ve come to accept whatever physical limitations that I have to live within. Inside my head, inside my being, I’m still that 24-year-old. In that sense, I have not quite matured.”
He also said that he expected Pain And Glory “would be much harder and tougher because of the nature, or the implied nature, or the intimate nature of the story. But it was the opposite. It was absolutely faster, quicker and easier At the same time, it could be as deep as I wanted it…Truffaut used to say that shooting a film was like having yourself and your whole team on a train, on a fast track and with no brakes. And that it was the director’s job to make sure the train didn’t derail. But sometimes it happens in a peaceful and blessed way, as this one did.”
PAPICHA (Algeria); Director: Mounia Meddour
Mounia Meddour’s debut feature Papicha was the first film submitted to this year’s International Feature Film Oscar race, announcing itself way back in July. But the Algerian entry then had a rocky road to staying in the mix when the film’s local September release was cancelled by the government. The reasons were never made clear.
The 1990s-set story, which debuted in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard, focuses on a university student who refuses to let the tragic events of the Algerian Civil War keep her from experiencing a normal life. As the social climate becomes more conservative, she rejects the new bans set by the radicals and decides to fight for her freedom and independence by putting on a fashion show.
Meddour drew from her own life in a college with four young women who each dreamed of a new life. She says, “I really lived in this microcosm of the Algerian community” which also had “the rise of integration. All of this came from a desire to bear witness from the black period. The only images people had of Algeria were the number of victims, the war. I wanted to talk about in the middle of the chaos. There were women who were always there, to support the society and keep energy of the country.”
Meddour cites the arrival of the film at a moment of political transition but with no official reason for its censure. The film, “opens a window on the society that we didn’t know that much. Few people knew what was going on at that time (and the) combat of the women to get out of this situation.”
In a year where the International Feature Film category has had to rule ineligibile two films for language issues, it’s enlightening to know that the Academy gives special dispensation in times of crisis. Says Meddour, “When the film couldn’t come out in Algeria, we contacted the Oscar committee and asked for special dispensation. We had all the elements to prove the film was going to release and the cancellation was the day before. We live in Paris and had our plane tickets then heard it was not necessary to come (to Algeria)… the Oscar committee showed is good faith and was sensitive to the sincerity of our request and for the freedom of expression. That’s proof they support art and freedom of expression.”
Here‘s a deeper dive on Papicha.
PARASITE (Korea); Director: Bong Joon-ho; U.S. Distributor: Neon
Arguably the darling of this awards season, with a film that seems guaranteed Oscar nominations in more than one category, Bong Joon-ho and his Parasite have captivated audiences since winning the Palme d’Or in Cannes earlier this year. That was the first time a Korean film scooped the top prize there and unbelievably, no Korean film has ever received an Oscar nomination, despite having one of the richest local industries in the world. This is poised to change.
Parasite has been on an awards season tear (recently picking up three Golden Globe nominations including Best Director, and a SAG nom for the ensemble cast). Bong himself has charmed audiences along the campaign trail, most recently appearing on his first U.S. talk show, paradoxically telling Jimmy Fallon he preferred “say as little as possible.”
The black comedy thriller is about the members of a poor family who together scheme to work in a wealthy household by posing as unrelated, highly qualified help.
The director told me he doesn’t believe the core reason Parasite has resonated is because the film deals with the rich and the poor. “There are a lot of films and TV shows about the same topic, what Parasite brings is a very cinematic experience (that has) restored faith in cinema.”
The director also recently told Deadline how the inspiration for the film came from an early job he held tutoring the son of a wealthy family. Even though he was fired after two months, the seeds of a hit movie were born. It also began with “this idea of infiltration, we all get a sense of guilty pleasure from sort of spying on the private lives of other people.” He has described the movie as a “tragicomedy”: a comedy without clowns, and a tragedy without villains. However, he also fessed up at Deadline’s Contenders LA event that he had been pressured by the marketing department to come up with a couple of descriptive lines and laughed, “It’s a little bit cheesy, right?” Still ,there are no villains and yet it’s “also very difficult to define who is the hero in this story,” he said.
Bong has called the success and the fact that the film has touched a wide audience in the U.S. (it has grossed over $120M globally) “very new and surprising.” With regard to the Korean industry as a whole, Bong says it’s true it’s very dynamic, but, “internally, there are a lot of things to resolve.” Still, there are about 50 domestic films a year, a big number for a small country. “We have a very high population density and lots of multiplexes so people love to go to the theater.”
THE PERFECT CANDIDATE (Saudi Arabia); Director: Haifaa Al-Mansour
Haifaa Al-Mansour is back on the Oscar trail, after she made history with 2012’s Wadjda, the first film submitted by Saudi Arabia, which was also the first made by a Saudi Arabian woman in the Kingdom. She has gone on to create a varied body of work that includes 2017’s English-language feature Mary Shelley and several U.S. TV credits.
Her second Saudi film, The Perfect Candidate, premiered at the Venice ilm Festival this year and is a comedic drama that tells the story of a young female doctor who controversially runs for municipal office while her father is off touring the country with the re-established Saudi National Band, which had been banned under law prohibiting public music performances.
Al-Mansour’s inspiration for the film was to tell a story “about a strong woman who takes center stage but who also needs support from other women. It’s a film about sisterhood. When it comes to leadership positions, women face similar barriers the world over. Of course this is more pronounced in the Middle East, but it’s also noticeable in the West. I felt like this was a timely story about how women can move forward.”
And after recent work elsewhere, Al-Mansour felt a need to return to Saudi. “I want that balance. There aren’t many female filmmakers coming out of the Middle East and I want to tell stories about people on the margins,” she told Deadline earlier this year.
I recently caught up with her from the set of Amazon’s The Wilds where she was also dealing with her daughter’s request to have her ears pierced during an upcoming break in Hawaii. Al-Mansour became an American citizen and her kids are American. Right now the U.S. industry, is experiencing “such an exciting time for diverse women” with better scripts and more opportunities. “It’s important for me too to be part of change. I love Saudi, it’s where I come from and part of who I am. Everyone wants to tell a story about where you’re from. I always want to be a promoter of art, especially in a place like Saudi Arabia where art was vilified for so long. I want to be part of bringing art back and of encouraging young filmmakers tot make their films.”
As for sentiment at home regarding her achievements, Al-Mansour says, “There is not the same resistance as before. People are proud to see the international stage. There is a sense of pride and excitement to see that all over the world.”
She adds, “My dream was to be a working filmmaker. As an independent you can wait 10 years to make another film. I wanted to make a body of work.” And so she has.
THOSE WHO REMAINED (Hungary); Director: Barnabas Toth; U.S. Distributor: Menemsha Films
Barnabas Toth’s post-Holocaust drama debuted to strong reviews at the Telluride Film Festival this year which the director says was “a huge, huge surprise.” Since then, he’s been to festivals in Chicago, Philadelphia and more. “It’s crazy, but I love it,” he enthuses, “who would have thought a year ago…”
Toth started out working as an improv actor in a small theater, then became a director later on. He discovered the 2004 novel upon which Those Who Remained is based, by Zsuzsa F Várkonyi, during his theater days and was immediately struck by its “lightheartedness in a harsh time for Hungarian history.”
A story of the healing power of love in the midst of conflict and trauma, it centers on Aldo, a 42-year-old doctor in post-war Budapest, and Klara, a 16-year old who lives reluctantly with her great-aunt, holding on to hope that her father and mother will return. She meets Aldo, and soon the two of them find something in each other that has long been absent in their lives. As they grow closer and closer, joy slowly returns. But as the Soviet Empire rises to power in Hungary, their pure and loving father-daughter relationship is misunderstood and frowned upon.
Toth says he was drawn to how the characters find each other, becoming like stepfather and stepdaughter. But he was “a bit stuck” after the first draft and called on a more experienced scriptwriter, Klara Muhi, which helped develop how society viewed the lead pair.
Those Who Remained, Toth says, is “easily digested” and he’s seen that the message has resonated with audiences in different areas. “It has an effect and makes them feel better.” But he makes no bones about his roots. “I grew up on Hollywood. I’m not pretending to be a natural born art house filmmaker.” He wouldn’t categorize Those Who Remained as a pure Holocaust movie. “I always have to approach the theme through the characters and personalities. I can never start with ‘I’m going to make about the Holocaust.’ I start with a 16-year-old or it can be a car accident.” But, he allows, “I am aware I wouldn’t be siting in this airport talking to you if it was just a car accident.”
At screenings, Toth says he learns something “every time.” In Chicago, an older Polish man approached him to say that his mother was a survivor and has the same name as the sister in the movie. “He said he liked the movie, but ‘no one we ever met was like this. Real survivors never spoke about it.’ It was very different, too emotional for him which was interesting because normally people say only good things. But I completely respected him and I kind of agreed. And I didn’t want to make a movie about two people being cynical.”
The director has some experience with the Oscars, having been shortlisted for his 2018 short film, comedy Susotazs. This year, he says he feels “lucky” after having been making films for 20 years. “I had the time to grow up,” before seeing international success, which he says he’ll “be able to assess and digest in one or two years. I don’t stress myself, things come as they have to.”
Next up, Toth is juggling ideas for another film. Will it be about medieval women falsely accused of being witches in a mix of violence and humor, or will it be a dark comedy about a Neo-Nazi and a dancer who wake up in each others bodies? He’s not sure, but says, it will be comedy “and very different.”
THE TRAITOR (Italy); Director: Marco Bellocchio; U.S. Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Italian maestro Marco Bellocchio is representing Italy for the third time at the Oscars. Sony Pictures Classics picked up mafia informant drama The Traitor after its Cannes competition screening in May and will release domestically in late January.
The Traitor is based on the true story of Tommaso Buscetta, the man who brought down the Cosa Nostra. In the early 80s, an all-out war rages between Sicilian mafia bosses over the heroin trade. Buscetta, a made man, flees to hide out in Brazil. Back home, scores are being settled and Buscetta watches from afar as his sons and brother are killed in Palermo, knowing he may be next. Arrested and extradited to Italy by the Brazilian police, Buscetta makes a decision that will change everything for the Mafia: he decides to meet with Judge Giovanni Falcone and betray the eternal vow he made to the Cosa Nostra.
Bellocchio says he found the story by accident. “Someone proposed me this character so I started to discover the guy. But at a certain point, the film was completely different to me… At the same time, and surely I don’t have to judge my film, but there is something very personal that I said to myself about my culture, my life.” That includes the use of music, says Bellocchio who sang when he was young, as well as the fact that Buscetta was the last of 17 children while the director is the last of nine. Their respective relationships to their mothers “regard us together.”
How does Bellocchio see Buschetta and his contradictions? “The Cosa Nostra can seem superficial, but universal. In Italy we talk about a character who is a criminal and killed people in his life. Often if we talk about Buschetta, we are scared to have sympathy for the character. He is not a hero. He is someone not afraid. He has a lot of courage, but is very conservative. He’s not a revolutionary. He wasn’t going to change society, he was going to conserve it.”
Bellocchio says of the Oscars, “I love being the candidate” for Italy and “try to aid the film in a system I know very little about. I have good collaborators.” Prizes “don’t change a life, but if we win it lets us work and have more freedom.”
WEATHERING WITH YOU (Japan); Director: Makoto Shinkai; U.S. Distributor: Gkids
Makoto Shinkai’s hit anime is the first Japanese toon to be submitted for the International Feature Oscar race since Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke in 1997. It’s made over $176M worldwide and is the follow-up to Shinkai’s blockbuster $358M grosser Your Name.
Weathering With You is about a runaway boy who befriends a girl who can manipulate the weather. Shinkai explains, “The fact that we were experiencing more and more water-related disasters connected to my idea of making a film about the weather. The weather is a huge phenomenon that is so much larger than humankind itself. Yet it’s true that the doings of each human being have an effect on the climate, and that our feelings are affected every day by the weather. I felt that it was it was necessary to make a film with this motif right now.”
But Shinkai tried to steer clear of being preachy about climate change. “I wanted to avoid making a politicized film that lectures the audience. I wanted viewers to enjoy it as entertainment; a story about a boy meeting a girl. At the same time, I tried to provide various perspectives regarding the climate.” In fact, the climate change motif was perceived more in certain countries than others, Shinkai says. In the U.S. for example, the audience and media roundly mentioned climate change, but in other countries, like Japan, “they didn’t bring up the topic at all.”
Shinkai was surprised by the success of Your Name, saying he had always thought his films “would be able to comfort a small number of audiences, but wouldn’t be able to have an impact on a large number. I know now from experience that movies have a lot of power. Though I realized this late, I feel that making a film comes with societal responsibility. I wish to continue telling stories, in a method that is different from politicians and teachers, that would offer positivity and diversity to the world.”
During the awards season campaign for Weathering With You, Shinkai says he was also surprised by how impressions of th film differed significantly by country and generation. “Overall, the younger generation enjoyed the movie as a straight love story. But the older generation brought up concerns about how the protagonist took actions that weren’t for the greater good of society.”
THE WHISTLERS (Romania); Director: Corneliu Porumboiu; U.S. Distributor: Magnolia
Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu saw a report about the Spanish island of La Gomera and its silbo whistling language on TV about 10 years ago, and from there, a fascination grew. Although busy with other films, it was “a subject I was thinking about all the time” and finally returned to it for this year’s The Whistlers.
The noir thriller follows Cristi, an inspector in Bucharest who plays both sides of the law. Embarking with the beautiful Gilda on a high-stakes heist, both will have to navigate the twists and turns of corruption, treachery and deception. A trip to the Canary Islands to learn a secret whistling language might just be what they need to pull it off.
Porumboiu used the language as a jumping off point. “There are a few places in the world where people communicate like that but because we don’t know the origins, to use something so primitive in our world today which is full of technology, seemed like a good start.”
The Whistlers revisits a character from Porumboiu’s lauded 2009 pic Police, Adjective. “Cristi had stayed like something unfinished in that film and had a certain ideology that can’t last.” So now we find him 10 years later in a different world where he “doesn’t believe in language anymore.”
Will he do that again in the future? “All my films are related to language and come with my point of view. On my first one, the characters were quite naive. There is an evolution in the way that I’m seeing language.”
Porumboiu sees The Whistlers as his most accessible movie. “It has a certain type of appeal maybe in a different way because of the genre.” Being the Oscar rep, particularly for a country of such strong filmmakers but one that has never advanced to a nomination and only been shortlisted once, is important to Porumboiu, “It helps distribution and the film’s visibility. Also for my career.” But, at the same time, “I’m a filmmaker and at the end of the day have my own path.”
A WHITE WHITE DAY (Iceland); Director: Hlynur Palmason; U.S. Distributor: Film Movement
Hlynur Palmason’s Oscar submission fis set in a remote Icelandic town, and follows an off-duty police chief who begins to suspect a local man of having had an affair with his late wife, who died in a tragic accident two years earlier. This is the director’s second feature and screened in Critics’ Week at Cannes where it nabbed a Rising Star Award for lead Ingvar Sigurdsson.
Palmason says the he sparked to the idea while shooting during snowstorms on a photo series called A White Day. During the long process “a narrative began to slowly emerge, so I just added an extra ‘White’ in front of the title. Slowly I fell in love with the title and the repetition. I think repetitions are very difficult to work with, but I love when they work. I was also interested in the relationship between a grandfather and a grandchild which was a very important part of my life and something I wanted to portray. I’m at an age where I’m loosing my grandparents and I think I’m dealing with that in my own way.”
The title refers to a quote from writer Jón Kalmann Stefánsson which is well known in Iceland. Palmason explains that while developing the film, he stumbled upon the citation. Stefansson “quotes an unknown person saying that ‘When everything is white and there is no difference from the earth or the skies, then we can talk with the dead or the people that left us.’ This text really fit with the project and added an extra depth to the mysterious white day I was portraying.”
There are two kinds of love represented in the movie which Palmason says are “a simple and pure love you have for your child or grandchild, that is unconditional. And then another kind of love that is towards your lover that is something completely different. It’s complex, full of desire and it’s physical or even animal and there is a very thin line between love and hate. I think it’s very interesting that you can love someone and hate the same person intensely.”
Talking about his own passions, Palmason says “I think I’m very much an addict when it comes to things coming together. It’s like my fix when the sound begins working with the image or the script with the acting and movement. My films are very personal and I work with my collaborators really hard to get it right. But it never feels like a perfect product, I think I’ve never been interested in making something perfect, but rather to to create and experience what is truthful and human without being some kind of preconceived statement or a product of some kind.”
Palmason has been busy on his next project, Godland, a period film about an ambitious Danish priest sailing towards Iceland to build a church and photograph the process, the people and the landscape. This means he hasn’t been able to do too much promotion. But he has enjoyed doing Q&As. “I hope we made a film that is inviting and open for interpretation like I think all good art is. I want there to be space within the film for each individual to have their own thoughts and feelings… It’s been a joy to see how well the film has done in the world and I’m very thankful
or that. We create films for the cinema and I’m very happy that it’s in cinemas around the world.”
Corpus Christi (Poland); dir: Jan Komasa
Honeyland (Macedonia); dirs: Tamara Kotevska, Ljubomi
Incitement (Israel); dir: Yaron Zilberman
The Painted Bird (Czech Republic); dir: Vaclav Marhoul