The Labyrinthine Road to the Oscars By Grégory Valens

in 18th Palm Springs International Film Festival

by Grégory Valens

Alongside sections focusing on Latin American cinema and, this year, Scandinavia, as well as the North American premieres of many highlights of the past season — including John Boorman’s brilliant, bittersweet drama of duality, The Tiger’s Tail, which closed the fest — Palm Springs undertakes each year a mission which is probably very frustrating for the festival programmers: presenting most of the national submissions for the Best Foreign-Language Film Academy Award. 55 of the 61 submissions were screened this year; the six whose producers or sales agents did not wish to participate are deprived of major public exposure a few days before the Oscars nominations are announced 100 miles west of Palm Springs… in addition to being excluded from the FIPRESCI awards for Best Foreign Language Film of the Year, Best Actor and Best Actress.

Several contenders were considered for our awards, in addition to Pan’s Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno), After the Wedding (Efter Brylluppet) and In Bed (En La Cama). Among them, The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen), the sensitive debut feature by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, portraying the last years of the Stasi surveillance system of intellectuals in East Germany; Grbavica, also a debut feature by Jasmila Zbanic, which focuses on the lives of a mother and her daughter by an unknown father, and confronts one of the most delicate truths of recent Balkan history, that of the raping of Muslim women during the war; and Black Book (Zwartboek), Paul Verhoeven’s bold return home with a story of a Dutch Resistance group full of surprises and suspense, which reveals a promising new European actress, Carice Van Houten. Three anticonformist looks at history which — together with Guillermo Del Toro’s personal vision of the Spanish civil war and Susanne Bier’s powerful melodrama of humanitarian engagement balanced with personal life choices — compose a revealing portrait of the state of the world in the early 21st century: a time to look back frankly at the past century’s events, with our eyes wide open, before being able to move on to a better future.

Of course, the specificity of this selection, made of films selected by each country to represent them in the hope of an Oscar nomination, implies that most major contenders are widely known: some were shown earlier in Cannes (Pedro Almodovar’s Volver, the recipient of our 2006 Grand Prix), others in Venice, even in Berlin almost a year ago, or have already triumphed (The Lives of Others) at the European Film Awards. This gives very few space to emerging discoveries, as it is unlikely that the major festivals of the previous year have missed the chance to select the best films from, say, Argentina or Iran. But it has many positive effects, the first of which is to allow the public of Palm Springs (which includes many professionals coming in from Los Angeles) access to a range of films for which American distribution is merely a dream. On the other hand, this section allows for the questioning of a system that gives each country the chance to submit one film to the Academy. The repartition — a sort of UN rule-based “one country, one vote”, no matter how small the country’s production may be — shall probably not be altered, even though it is quite intriguing that such countries as France, Italy or Spain, which annually produce dozens of important works, present just a single submission, like any of the former Soviet Asian Republics, the former Yugoslavia, Asian and Latin-American countries and special administrated regions with very limited film production.

The main issue this system raises is the variety of procedures used in each country to pick its Oscar-runner. In some cases, a film is chosen by governmental decision (often via the Ministry of Culture or the national film institution); in others, by a group of experts, and so on. But the common, unfortunate result is that countries often choose a film that may not be their best of the year, but that which they assume have better chances to please Academy members, and American audiences. How else to explain the designation, for Italy, of Emanuele Crialese’s mediocre Golden Door (Nuovomondo), about Sicilian emigration to the USA in the 19th century, or France’s selection of the insignificant comedy Avenue Montaigne (Fauteuils d’Orchestre), a pale imitation of an American choral movie, in which Sydney Pollack — a personal friend of director Danièle Thompson’s — plays a small part? A number of new French or Italian films would have paid a better tribute to these two national cinemas — including some directed by masters such as Alain Resnais, Gianni Amelio or Marco Bellocchio.

When the cinephile knows this system allows certain films to be overlooked — what if Spain had chosen a more commercial film than Volver; what if Mexico had made a less daring designation than that of Pan’s Labyrinth? — he cannot be satisfied with the entries from countries with lesser-known productions. Is Lee Sang-il’s Hula Girls (Hula Gâru), a sort of Billy Elliot of the Rising Sun about young girls learning Hawaiian dance, really the best film Japan could provide this year? Is Fyodor Bondarchuk’s 9th Company (9 Rota), an American-style war movie, the best Russian production of 2006? Is Libertas, an academic costume movie co-produced with Italy, the Croatian film of the year?

Many of these questions (oh yes, there are about thirty more!) will remain unanswered. Still, it is to be hoped that the entities and professionals in charge of designating their respective countries’ Oscar submissions think more in terms of the intrinsic quality of the films themselves, rather than what they imagine a US response may be. In this matter, like in many others, the taste of others is a most unpredictable parameter.