Manipulation or Idealization of Oscar Pretentions

in 15th Palm Springs International Film Festival

by Branka Sömen

The Palm Springs Film Festival provides an ideal setting for anyone interested in a good motion picture – the authors who vote for the upcoming Oscar nominations in the foreign language film category as well as the audiences who wish to see a large number of foreign motion picture productions from which will be selected the magnificent five.

For movie critics, especially those ones in the FIPRESCI jury, this venue allows them to verify some of their earlier decisions, valuations and preferences, for entries at last year’s festivals, and select which is the best among the top ones. This year observers of the program Oscar Buzz – Foreign Language as well as the members of FIPRESCI had a particularly difficult task in that the festival program presented 52 out of 55 motion pictures submitted for Academy Award nomination.

At the same time, the festival gave us all a chance to confirm how many generally accepted clichés have been recurring among the movies selected. Some countries very deliberately submit to the Academy voters works containing such cliches, not because of their quality but in the belief that certain themes are going to fare exceptionally well. This undertaking is made easier by the fact that the foreign language film category nomination is handled by approximately three hundred members of the Academy who also belong to a special selection committee. The committee consists of men and women who seldom travel, and have sufficient time and patience for daily screenings. These members are divided into three groups – blue, pink, and white – and they select the five nominations among the motion pictures presented. As a group, the members are older people – their average age exceeds 65 – and it is easy to figure out that they prefer certain themes filled with sentiment, nostalgic memories of European roots, and have difficulty in accepting artistic and creative themes presented in the motion pictures by such directors as Von Trier, Kaurismaki, Kiarostami, Angelopoulos and Zhang Yimou, among others.

The national production representatives in charge of submitting the movies count on the committee members’ emotional involvement. The representatives push to the forefront subjects generally involving families and children, as well as religious themes, especially Jewish ones. Not infrequently, authors of the movies use generally acknowledged Oscar favorites, namely stories about handicapped and ill individuals, and political intrigues which most often victimize the people from small, unknown places.

Given that this year we saw 52 movies from various countries, we had an exceptional opportunity to peer into the effects of these deliberately-timed manipulations which are most often self-serving, and devoid of any artistic reason or justification. Take, as an example, a vapid jewish theme in the Bulgarian film “Journey to Jerusalem”, or the Dutch picture “Twin Sisters”. Likewise, there is no point in forcing emotions related to the family, or the exploitation of children, as in the Finish movie “Elina”, the Indonesian work “The Stringless Violin”, the Italian picture “I’m Not Scared”, then “I always Wanted to be a Saint”, from Luxembourg, “Muna Madam” from Nepal, “Dekada ’70” from the Philippines, and “The King of Chief” from Slovakia.

An attempt to use sex as a vehicle to win the committee’s votes misfired in “Sexual Dependency” from Bolivia, “Carandiru” from Brazil or “The Debutants” from Chile. In this type of film, in which the language is foreign to many viewers, the problem centers around emotions because when the authors fail to establish emotional contact with, and sincerely communicate to, the audience, everything else becomes an excess. The best proof of the above is the very pictures that succeed, irrespective of linguistic and geographic barriers. Sincerity instead of manipulation, spontaneity instead of calculations, and art instead of commercialism are all part of this premise, i.e., that works based on these elements always engage. Witness this year’s examples of splendid movies, such as the unforgettable, and – in this type of competition – superior in the long run, “The Return” from Russia. It couples the best tradition of the Russian film school: mysticism of its environment, political intrigue, family tragedy, and sets forth an impeccable director’s statement juxtaposing the state of nature against human feelings and fatal authenticity of happening, all told through superb acting.

Afghanistan’s entry “Osama” is, likewise, an example of motion picture handwriting that triggers deep emotional sympathy and, notwithstanding the audience’s possible lack of knowledge of the country and its people, does not leave anyone indifferent. Another movie that seamlessly fits in is “Suite Havana”. It is almost in its entirety a documentary feature, yet its atmosphere ennobles us and brings us closer to the authentic world of ordinary people and their everyday concerns, dreams and aspirations.

The Turkish film “Distant”, the South Korean entry “Spring Summer Fall Winter and Spring”, and Thailand’s “Last Life in the Universe” provide superior and original statements; their actual narratives about loneliness and desolation are fully and clearly understood irrespective of where in the world they take place.

A question remains why some countries send sincere stories, and, indeed, their best pictures, while others seek an angle employing well worn themes, and engage in petty manipulations resulting in no particular effect. This notably relates to this year’s inexplicably strange choice of entries from otherwise powerful motion picture producers, among them France, Italy, Spain, Mexico, Japan, China and Iran.