The Conservatism of Best Foreign Film Nominations: The Academy Changed the Rules, Now Countries Need to Follow

in 20th Palm Springs International Film Festival

by Roger Clarke

The conservatism of best foreign film nominations has been self-evident for years. The countries themselves tend to offer safe bets with uncontroversial subjects, and on top of that, certainly until this year, a weighting towards the more elderly members of the Academy (retirees, we are told, are the only people who have time to watch) has favoured Eastern European, WWII and Italian clichés. Who couldn’t give an Oscar to a Sicilian postman who keeps a box of kittens in the projection booth of Il Duce’s palace?

We’re not going to get a gay film from Iran any time soon. But we will continue to get South American prisons and bus sieges, Germanic freakishness and Scandinavian gloom. South Korea will, if it gets the chance, depict the hell-hole that is its northerly neighbour. If Brits could submit (and there’s a serious school of thought which believes that subtitled Ken Loach films in intractable brogues should count just as much as a welsh-language submission) there would probably be an endless parade of Edwardian frocks and tea-time disasters.

It was refreshing to see Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Three Monkeys make it to the long-list after its submission by Turkey. Turkey realised they had a world-class film-maker with Uzak back in 2003, a better film which was also nominated but completely ignored. After the scandalous ‘snubs’ of last year — Persepolis, Silent Light and 4 Months — the list this year seem to show that the reforms have worked. Though only obvious omission is Italy’s Gomorra, though that film, with its history of authorial flight, Mafia targeting and the arrest of one of the ‘actors’ in it, has strayed into the realms of the meta-story, with a social reach beyond the cinema.

It is tempting to read into some of the choices of the countries concerned. What are nations saying about themselves with the films they send to the Academy? In Departures (Okuribito), the audience award winner here in Palm Springs, Japan seems to suggest that ritual and tradition can provide profound transcendental moments. But there’s also another side to this. By looking at the Buraku caste of ‘unclean’ traders including morticians, this is a hot-button issue in Japan that probably passes over most people’s heads; but the recent election of Japanese prime minister Norimitsu Onishi from the Buraku caste has been described as at least a significant moment for the Japanese as the inauguration of Obama merits for Americans.

In Waltz with Bashir, regarded by many as a shoo-in for the actual Oscar after its triumphs at the Golden Globes, Israel offers up a powerful mea culpa in another time of war and attrition. With The Necessities of Life, which won our best actor prize for Natar Ungalaaq, Canada seems to be saying that the best of intentions are agonisingly fraught when it comes to the ministration of its indigenous Inuit peoples.

France’s critical darling The Class (Entre les murs) offers a slice of inner city schooling which makes for uncomfortable viewing, with race and religion to the fore. Compare that with the Netherlands entry Dunya and Desie, which considers, in comedy mode, cross-cultural and religious accommodation for the Dutch and new Dutch immigrants. At the same time Jordan’s first-ever submission Captain Abu Raed (with its US born director) fastidiously avoids any mention of religion just as the Danish submission World’s Apart (To verdener) takes religion as its solemn subject — in this case, the lot of the Jehovah’s witness.

Certain themes prevail this year. There’s quite a bit of female nudity, some of it gratuitous (step forward Romanian entry The Rest is Silence and Mexican entry Tear This Heart Out) as well as the thoroughly considered Revanche. Swinish men and long-suffering women abound and there’s nary a whisper of sexual ambiguity — except in the safely-dead corpse that opens Departures with a brilliantly-judged scene.

The Academy may have reformed its practices, but it may well take a while for the countries to catch up with these new realities. Who knows, Spain might even start submitting Almodóvar films. Stranger things have been known to happen.