5 Out of 94: What makes a ‘Best International Feature’ nominee?

Written by Mariana Rios Sanchez

The moment the 2020 Oscar nominations were announced, the internet exploded with outrage. A couple of new things emerged this year: the Academy Awards accepted a record number of 93 films submitted to the Best International Feature category; or, as it had been known up until a year ago, the “Best Foreign Language Film”. In April, they changed the ‘Foreign’ for ‘International’, as the former was deemed outdated. The contention this article takes with the Oscars, and award ceremonies in general to some extent, is the idea that a category comprised of just 5 films can live up to the vast variety of representation and inclusion that would warrant it the title of “International”. 

When you consider that the category has its own canon of auteurs who are bound to be selected as long as they release a film that year, the number of spaces available for an ‘unknown’ director, or a country that doesn’t count on a large national film industry winds up going down to just 2 or 3. In addition, on what system of merit is a film given a nomination? Under what conditions does a film qualify as “international” or “foreign”?

Lionheart was disqualified from competition because much of the dialogue is in English.

One rule the Academy is sticking to, despite the name change, is the “foreign language” one. They’re only interested in films that, according to them, are in a foreign language (a.k.a. not English). It doesn’t matter where the film is produced or by what country it is submitted. If most of the dialogue is in English, it is automatically disqualified. This is what happened with Nigeria’s 2018 entry, Lionheart, which the Academy disqualified on the basis that most of the dialogue is in English; It doesn’t matter that the official language of Nigeria is English or that this was the country’s first ever submission to the category. This makes it seem like the only language that exists at the Oscars is English, because every film not in English winds up in a huge pile under the same category of “Basically Everything Else”.

It doesn’t matter where the film is produced or by what country it is submitted. If most of the dialogue is in English, it is automatically disqualified.

At the Golden Globes, the director of Parasite, Bong Joon Ho drew attention to the problem by saying people should overcome the “1-inch tall barrier of subtitles” because the reward is access to so many more amazing films. He did a service, not only to the other films nominated for best foreign language film, but also to those that weren’t. He reminded people that beyond the 5 films nominated this year there were so many more to watch. We can have access to film content from all around the world with greater ease than ever before, thanks to the Internet and technology that has held up film industries worldwide. So much so, that this year 94 countries were able to submit an entry to the Academy Awards. This batch of over 90 films were reduced to just 5 to represent them all.

As a result, many gems people were hoping to see didn’t even make the December shortlist. A fan favourite was even excluded from this year’s entries, Céline Sciamma’s historical drama Portrait of a Lady on Fire, telling the secret love affair of a young aristocrat waiting to go through with an arranged marriage and the female painter commissioned to create her wedding portrait. The compelling drama, the stellar performances of both leads, as well as the visually captivating style of the period piece made it very successful in award ceremonies and festival circuits, including two prizes at Cannes and a Golden Globes nomination. However, it wasn’t even entered for the Academy Awards, as the single French entry was given to Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables .

Parasite director Bong Joon-ho pleaded with audiences to consume more cinema with subtitles.

As Alma Har’el, director of Honey Boy pointed out, a problem smaller, independent films face during award season is failing to come up with the financial means to compete with larger productions backed by studios and investors who approach the marketing of a film with the same drive as one would a political campaign. The same applies for films competing for a nomination in the International Feature category. Over 90 nations with different budgets and national industries of different scales support their entry for a chance at a nomination. Films from countries with flourishing film industries will benefit from greater economic support, whilst others that have depended on private investors for sponsorship rely on significantly smaller and restricted budgets.

 Such was the case for this year’s Peruvian entry, Retablo by Alvaro Delgado-Aparicio. The film tells a coming-of-age story of a young boy in rural Peru who is training to be an artisan story-box maker like his father, when he discovers a secret that threatens to shatter his entire world. A film that depicts the traditions and culture of rural Peru in a way that has never been done before, rich in motifs and artistic style, it has participated in festivals around the world, won several awards and recently earned a nomination for a BAFTA. Yet, it didn’t even make the Oscars shortlist.

The shame of the current system is that films get just one chance to make an appearance at an award ceremony, and it’s an important opportunity for them to market their movie, get the word out and make people want to see it. Cinemas often add screenings of films nominated or that end up winning an award, and streaming services take on films and start showing them the day after the ceremony; It makes a difference. The all-encompassing range of categories like “Best Foreign Language Film” or “Best International Feature Film” means that a lot of films fall through the cracks and get missed; it feels like there’s almost no chance for them to exist outside of this category. It’s a loss for us as well, because we don’t get to see our underdog get its moment on a huge stage and we miss out on discovering more films that we would have liked to see this year. I’d like to see an award ceremony that grants these films the time they deserve, not just a 5-nominee category thrown out within the first half of the program.

This year’s Academy Awards will take place on February 10th, 2020.

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