Entertainment & Arts

Tongue tied: Foreign film Oscar hard to call

Polish film Ida Image copyright Curzon Artificial Eye
Image caption Polish film Ida won the foreign language film Oscar in 2015

On Oscar night the winner of the award for Best Foreign Language film doesn't get a lot of attention. Once the category was a byword for obscurity, but recent winners have tended more towards the mainstream. This year there seems a clear front-runner - but could a surprise await?

The run-up to this month's Academy Awards has been so dominated by issues of diversity and the Oscars So White campaign that it's no surprise some people looked with a very beady eye at the films nominated for Best Foreign Language Film.

Here, surely, would be a category where the variety of world cinema might produce a better mix of film-makers and on-screen faces.

In fact December's longlist appeared lacking in diversity: all but two of the nine films were European. Critics of the category pointed out that the riches of Asian cinema had received short shrift. Meanwhile African cinema had barely featured at all for years.

But whether by Academy intervention or not - the voting is complex and remains secret - longlisted films from Ireland, Finland, Belgium and Germany were then dropped. The five-strong shortlist ended up somewhat more balanced.


How the selection works:

The voting system for Best Foreign Language Film is different from other categories:

  • The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences invites nominations from film bodies around the world - one per nation. This time that meant 81 nominations.
  • The submissions are viewed by a large volunteer panel of Oscar voters in Los Angeles. Each panellist sees about a quarter of the list. The six films which get most votes go through to the next stage.
  • At this point the Academy's Executive Committee step in to rescue three of the original submissions which it feels should have made it through. The list goes back up to nine.
  • These nine are watched by special Academy committees in LA, New York and London. They watch three films a day for three days and eliminate what they decide are the four weakest titles. So the shortlist is down to five.
  • Finally the Academy's voting members (some 6300 people) vote for the winning film. A rule-change means watching in a cinema is no longer obligatory: viewing a screener (a promotional DVD) is now permitted.

THIS YEAR'S SHORTLIST:

A WAR

Image copyright Optimum

Country: Denmark

Language: Danish

Denmark's track record: 11 nominations including wins in 1987, 1988 and 2010

Director: Tobias Lindholm

Story: The film starts in Helmand in Afghanistan, following the lives of a unit of the Danish military. The commanding officer is played by Pilou Asbaek of the TV drama Borgen. He tries to protect local people from the Taliban. But he calls in support in difficult circumstances and disaster ensues. The second half of the film focuses on court proceedings back in Denmark and on the pressures on his family. Will a Danish officer be found guilty of a war crime?

What are its chances? The film is well made. Its problem is that it doesn't feel fresh: TV and the cinema have already made engrossing studies of western soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq and of the split-second decisions they were forced to make. Cutting back and forth between Helmand province and Denmark feels slightly awkward. It's strange that the audience never learns why the court makes the decision it does. Asbaek is excellent, but the film feels like it should have been made several years ago.


EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT

Image copyright Peccadillo Pictures

Country: Colombia

Language: Cubeo, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Ticuna, Wanano

Colombia's track record: First nomination ever

Director: Ciro Guerra

Story: The film is set on and beside the Amazon during two parallel voyages of discovery - one in the early 20th Century and one in the 1940s. A German explorer is severely ill and relies on a local guide to track down the plant which might return him to health. Their travels reveal the devastation which European colonialism has brought to the Amazon. In the later story the same guide, now much older, accompanies an American on a similar trip.

What are its chances?: The other nominees this year take a pretty traditional view of narrative but Guerra's film demands much more of the audience. The monochrome cinematography is gorgeous (there's one burst into colour late on) which may compensate for some undoubted longueurs. The same plot points could have been made with a less fussy, single-track structure. But it takes audiences into a world few other films enter. An accomplished and slightly hallucinogenic bit of film-making - though Oscar voters will opt for a more straightforward story.


MUSTANG

Image copyright Curzon Artificial Eye

Country: France

Language: Turkish

France's track record: Remarkably this is France's 40th nomination, with 11 wins (including two in the pre-competitive era). Yet France's most recent win was as long ago as 1992.

Director: Deniz Gamze Erguven

Story: Despite its country of production, the story is set entirely in Turkey. Five orphaned sisters live with an uncle and their grandmother in a small village on the Black Sea. The grandmother is outraged at reports of the girls flirting with boys after school. Step by step she and the uncle impose a more conservative set of values until eventually the young women are virtual prisoners at home. Some of the sisters are married off to men of their family's choosing - but some are more rebellious. A tragedy occurs. Will any of the sisters escape repressive attitudes at home?

What are its chances?: In the film's first half there are humorous and charming moments. When the grim turning point comes it's not entirely convincing. There is a sense throughout that the film sets out to flatter a non-Turkish audience which means there's little real debate about two ways of life - which in today's world feels like a missed opportunity. Some have seen an influence of Sofia Coppola's 1999 film The Virgin Suicides.


SON OF SAUL

Image copyright Curzon Artificial Eye

Country: Hungary

Language: German, Hungarian, Yiddish

Hungary's track record: Shortlisted nine times, including one win in 1981

Director: Laszlo Nemes

Story: The setting is a Nazi death camp in 1944. Saul is a Jewish prisoner who works as a member of the Sonderkommando, the group which carries out the hideous process of slaughtering new arrivals and then processing the bodies. Saul realises that a young boy has emerged from the gas chamber alive. Before the child is peremptorily killed he decides the boy is his son. (The audience has to decide if this is true or fantasy on Saul's part.) Even the Sonderkommando have only a stay of execution and the group learn they are to be murdered too. An escape is planned.

What are its chances?: The film won the Grand Prix (in effect the second prize) at last year's Cannes Festival and for months it's been front-runner for the Academy Award. It took the foreign language prize at this year's Golden Globes. Nemes is under 40 but he's made one of the most powerful and impressive of all films about the Holocaust. The film is shot keeping a tight focus on the central character - played by the New York-based Geza Rohrig. There is barely a wide-shot in the whole film and the effect is deliberately oppressive. The screenplay is deeply upsetting and it doesn't seek to dilute the horror of genocide on an industrial scale. At the Oscars it is probably unbeatable. Shouldn't it have been nominated as Best Picture?


THEEB

Image copyright New Wave Films

Country: Jordan

Language: Arabic, English

Jordan's track record: First nomination ever

Director: Naji Abu Nowar

Story: Set in Arabia in the World War One, the film was shot in Jordan. A British officer (played by Jack Fox, the only non-Arabic speaker in the cast) is trying to get to a railway line constructed by the Ottoman powers, presumably to blow it up. The young boy Theeb is part of a family of Bedouin guides and with his older brother becomes part of the mission. A deadly ambush follows - though the script deliberately obscures exactly which faction is which. Theeb, played by Jacir Eid, has to fare for himself in the hostile desert.

What are its chances?: This is the biggest surprise of the five films and a first Oscar nomination for the small Jordanian film industry - though the director is British-born and educated. More than one reviewer has pointed out the adventure has the feel of a western. The striking locations do evoke the much-filmed Monument Valley in the US, though the spirit of Lean's Lawrence of Arabia is not far away either. The central performance is engaging and utterly lacking in cuteness. Director Naji Abu Nowar and producer Rupert Lloyd won the Outstanding Newcomer award this week at the Baftas. It's not likely any film will outdo Son of Saul, but Theeb is in with a chance.

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