Inside the Oscars’ Self-Inflicted Best Foreign-Language Film Headache

November 11, 2019, 10:15 PM UTC

The Oscars have long been Hollywood’s main event, the film industry’s annual snapshot of itself: reflection, referendum, and reckoning all in one glitzy, over-indulgent, champagne-soaked package.

The ceremony is an opportunity for those working in entertainment to both evaluate the health of the industry and parse the state of popular culture as a whole. And simultaneously, it’s a useful metric for those outside the biz to gauge where the film industry is both making representational strides and coming up painfully short.

It’s through that lens that the ever-raging debate about Best Foreign Language Film, long one of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ most controversial categories, must be considered.

The category will undergo a name change ahead of the 2020 ceremony, becoming “Best International Feature Film” instead of “Best Foreign-Language Film.” That shift, while acknowledging the linguistic bias of declaring all non-English films to be “foreign,” is arbitrary in that it has no impact on the requirements for submitted films. As before, movies that previously wouldn’t have qualified—due to less than 50% of their dialogue being in a language other than English—remain ineligible for what’s now the Best International Feature Film Oscar.

On Monday morning, the Academy announced that Sudabeh Mortezai’s Joy, Austria’s submission to the category, had been disqualified for not meeting eligibility requirements related to its dialogue being predominantly in English. The film, which centers on Nigerian sex workers living in Vienna, mixes Pidgin, English, and German throughout its 101-minute runtime; but despite this, not enough of Joy (only 33% of it, by the Academy’s measurement) uses non-English dialogue.

Joy‘s the second international title to be deemed ineligible on such grounds this year; the first, in a mightly cringeworthy coincidence, was Nigeria’s submission, Lionheart, which is primarily in English with some dialogue in Igbo. When the title was deemed ineligible last week, dashing Nigeria’s first-ever bid to compete at the Oscars, it set off a fierce debate on social media. Complicating the Academy’s decision to disqualify Lionheart is that Nigeria’s official language is English. “Are you barring this country from ever competing for an Oscar in its official language?” asked filmmaker Ava DuVernay on Twitter.

‘We did not choose who colonized us’

Lionheart‘s director, Geneviveve Nnaji, protested the Academy’s conclusion that her film cannot qualify for Best International Feature Film. Nnaji opined (via Twitter) that her film “represents the way we speak as Nigerians,” depicting English as “a bridge between the 500+ languages spoken” in her country. “It’s not different to how French connects communities in former French colonies,” she added. “We did not choose who colonized us.”

In a statement to Deadline ostensibly aimed at clearing up the controversy, the Academy’s International Feature Film executive committee co-chair Larry Karaszewski said that the situation was “less of a controversy, and more of a misunderstanding.”

Karaszewski stressed that there may have been a “misconception” that led to outcry around the decision to bar Lionheart and now Joy, but that the requirements for the category are the same as they were. “If you’re submitting for something as important as an Academy Award,” he said, “I would think you should look at the rules.”

Genevieve Nnaji in “Lionheart,” the Nigerian film disqualified from the Best International Feature Film category at the Academy Awards.
Netflix / courtesy Everett Collection

But it’s precisely by looking at the rules that Nnaji and DuVernay have made their compelling point. The same logic that excludes Lionheart from contention this year would seem to similarly disqualify entries from other British colonies like Ghana, Guyana, Zambia, and Kenya, among other countries where English is widely spoken. Under the Academy’s current guidelines, the complexity of colonialism’s lasting legacy in these countries is not taken into account, nor is any recognition of everyday life in such multilingual countries adequately reflected. It betrays the arbitrary nature of the current linguistic requirements that, if a country were colonized by France or Spain and thus a film from it used French or Spanish, it would be considered an international title; not so if the country of the film in question was colonized by the English, leading English language to be depicted on screen.

Even worse, the Academy’s standing language requirement suggests that, for a country like Nigeria to qualify in Best International Feature Film, its filmmakers must performatively “play foreign,” exaggerating the everyday prominence of African languages in a way that’s not reflective of life in those countries but might appear more authentic to Hollywood elite.

As wildly problematic as that takeaway would be, its implications do, as Karaszewski points out, betray a fundamental misunderstanding—but on the Academy’s part rather than that of the filmmakers.

At the heart of the Academy’s current predicament over language requirements is an outdated assertion that English belongs exclusively to American cinema, with all other languages essentially coded as an “other” spoken beyond U.S. borders. From that reductive point of view, films hailing from other countries could historically be considered as distinct from domestic entries, grouped in their reliance on a “foreign” language. But that’s just not the tenor of the times, and the number of movies challenging the Academy’s eligibility requirements for this category proves as much. Furthermore, the name-change, from “foreign” to “international,” suggests that the Academy’s aware of this category’s long-standing issues.

But it’s a superficial fix to a structural problem with the category, and one that promises to further create issues with its insinuation that the other categories involve films specifically rooted in the United States, which is not the case.

A more globalized cinema

Take The Farewell for instance. The acclaimed indie drama follows an American-raised woman (Awkwafina) who travels to China in order to say goodbye to her terminally ill grandmother. Based on the real-life experiences of writer-director Lulu Wang, who is Chinese-American, The Farewell is told primarily in Mandarin with English subtitles, though its protagonist also speaks English. Though ineligible for Best International Feature Film at the Oscars because it’s an American production, the title’s also barred from competing for Best Musical/Comedy at the Golden Globes. Their rationale? It’s a foreign-language film.

While The Farewell, Joy, and Lionheart could conceivably now qualify for Best Picture, the uphill battles small international films face to land a nomination there are rarely won, given Hollywood’s history as an American-English-centric institution. The very existence of the Best Foreign Film/International Feature Film category, created in the 1950s, was intended to highlight under-represented voices in world cinema, giving international filmmakers a seat at the table with the understanding Academy members typically gravitates toward movies that are made in their own backyard and sound like it.

But it’s always been a strange, unwieldy beast, relying on countries to submit only one title apiece for consideration and essentially turning the category in an Olympics of international cinema. While that structure may have once made sense, even a cursory glance around at the movie landscape indicates that it’s out of touch. Hundreds of international films premiere in the United States each year, many from the same powerhouse countries, like France and China.

Limiting those countries to one pick a year at the Oscars has opened up cans of sociopolitical worms, most recently with France’s decision to submit Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables over Celine Sciamma’s acclaimed queer romance Portrait of a Lady on Fire. And it’s not like international films with sufficient stateside backing don’t have a shot at Best Picture contention. Last year, Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, touted as Netflix’s major awards vehicle, was a frontrunner for Best Picture and received 10 overall nominations (tied with 2000’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as the most ever for a non-English film). Told in Spanish and Mixtec, the black-and-white period piece won its director a trophy his own, becoming the first non-English film to win in the Best Director category.

And just in the past month, the stateside box-office success of Bong Joon-ho’s South Korean-made, Neon-released Parasite (on track for huge Motorcycle Diaries numbers in the realm of a projected $25 million haul domestically), coupled with solid results for Pedro Almodovar’s Spanish-language Pain and Glory in a smaller release, indicate the changed state of play for international titles. Those two are the biggest success stories at the specialty box office in recent weeks, but still ahead is Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a film already embraced on the festival circuit and via social media, thanks to a savvy marketing campaign by Neon. These films demonstrate how U.S. audiences can embrace and champion non-English films; looking slightly further back, the same can be said of The Farewell and Chinese hit Ash is Purest White.

It’s this radically more globalized cinema that the Academy must catch up to. While professing to consider only films not in the English language, its Best Foreign Film category has long fallen prey to slightly less obvious but nevertheless problematic biases. That the vast majority of winners in the category have hailed from European countries (57 out of a total 68 winners) points to one ingrained problem: a tendency toward Eurocentrism, overlooking contenders from huge swaths of the world. African films like Lionheart barely ever win at the Oscars; only three have triumphed in Best Foreign Film in the awards ceremony’s history.

A harbinger of change

One of the criticisms most frequently levied at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is that it is behind the times. In the past, the Academy’s struggled to overcome that perception. It even went so far as to propose a “Popular Film” category, a short-lived idea that betrayed the Academy’s clumsy desire to reach the masses without making deeper, structural changes to its modus operandi.

But questions of how it can address the issues systemic to Best International Feature Film cannot be cleared up with a mere title change. The Academy has a vested interest in dispensing with its past exoticization of “foreign” titles and finding ways to ensure the notion of whether a film properly reflects its country’s specific cultural and linguistic traditions is decided by that country, not Academy members thousands of miles away.

Consider how #OscarsSoWhite galvanized the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to begin the long-overdue work of diversifying its membership. Remember how the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have continually spilled out onto the awards-ceremony stage in a number of speeches as powerful as some of the nominated performances, how Frances McDormand brought attention to “inclusion riders” and in the same breath championed women fighting for pay equity in the industry.

The Academy values its reputation as a harbinger for industry-wide change. And as Hollywood’s most public extension to the rest of the world, it’s right to. But until it can disavow itself of the notion that the English language alone belongs to Americans, and that language is a definition of a country’s culture rather than a condition of its history, the Academy risks alienating filmmakers and audiences around the world. And as the politics (and economics) of cinema shift increasingly away from an exclusively Western point of view, it is not those masses but rather the Academy itself that seems most likely to be left behind.

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