The Oscars make few ripples in geopolitical waters. Hollywood’s most prestigious awards can exert some pressure on American politics, by virtue of the topics the movies tackle, the conversations they provoke, or the speeches the winners make. But in the grander scheme of global politics, the Oscars don’t matter much, with one exception: Best International Feature Film.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the group of elite industry professionals who vote on the Oscars) hasn’t quite figured out what to do with the category, which after more than six decades of existence was renamed in April 2019 from “Best Foreign Language Feature.” The title change marked a step forward and signaled a willingness to reorient the way the Academy thinks about world cinema — not as being “foreign” or “other,” but part of the broader movie landscape.
But the eligibility rules remained the same, and they underline a major problem with how the category functions. It still embodies an outmoded way of thinking about “foreign” films — and the notion of “foreignness” itself — as well as decades-old presumptions about what might qualify a movie made abroad for recognition in Hollywood.
And worse, the rules also allow authoritarian regimes and politically troublesome governments to exert pressure on how Americans, who frequently use the Oscar nominations as a starting point for what to watch, will view those countries.
But with these challenges come opportunities. With some changes, the Academy could both promote exciting voices in world cinema and exercise more control over which films get nominated, using the category as a way to not just recognize the best movies from around the world but also help Americans see them. (An Oscar nomination can be the force that propels an international film toward securing US distribution — an important step for any filmmaker who wants to be able to make movies in the future.)
The Best International Feature Oscar category could become a force for expanding Americans’ view of the world as well as their taste for truly great international cinema. But for that to happen, two big changes are necessary: one to the way the Oscars select the nominees, and one to the way the Academy defines what counts as an “international” film.
Each country picks its own Oscar entry. That’s a problem.
The Best International Feature Film award serves as the Academy’s “acknowledgment that beyond their immediate industry in Hollywood, what they do is global,” Shawn Shimpach, an associate professor in the department of communication at UMass Amherst and director of the Massachusetts Multicultural Film Festival, told me by phone. Shimpach noted that while the category has limitations, it still serves an important purpose: It acknowledges that movies made beyond US borders and outside the Hollywood system matter, and should be considered by the Academy and recognized for their achievements.
Non-English films were occasionally given special awards beginning with the 19th Oscars in 1947, but an official category wasn’t created until 1956, named “Best Foreign Language Feature.” That name stuck until the Academy decided to change it following the 2019 ceremony.
“We have noted that the reference to ‘Foreign’ is outdated within the global filmmaking community,” wrote Larry Karaszewski and Diane Weyermann, co-chairs of the Academy subcommittee that facilitates the category, in a statement explaining the new name. “We believe that International Feature Film better represents this category, and promotes a positive and inclusive view of filmmaking, and the art of film as a universal experience.” (Through an Academy representative, Karaszewski and Weyermann declined to comment for this story.)
Yet while the category’s name changed, its rules didn’t. To qualify for the Best International Feature Film race, films must meet a number of standards. A film doesn’t have to have been distributed in the US, but it must have played in a commercial theater for at least a week in its home country. The dialogue must be predominantly non-English. The “creative control” of the film must have been “largely” in the hands of citizens or residents of the nominating country. And each country gets to select only one movie per year to be considered for nomination, with the process overseen by a committee of the country’s designation.
Once countries have submitted their selections to the Academy, a “Phase I” committee of Academy members watch them and vote by secret ballot. A shortlist of 10 films is then announced, consisting of the committee’s top seven movies plus three more added by the Academy’s International Feature Film Award Executive Committee. (All 10 must have been submitted by their countries for consideration.) Then a “Phase II” committee watches and votes on the 10 shortlisted films, to winnow the field to five nominees. Finally, only Academy members who have seen all five nominated films vote on the winner.
It’s worth pausing on the “country selection” rule. The Academy specifies that each country’s selection must be made by “one approved organization, jury or committee that should include artists and/or craftspeople from the field of motion pictures,” and that the country must submit a list of the selection committee members to the Academy months before the selections are made. But that’s the extent of the control the Academy exerts over who decides which film a country submits. And while countries like France make that information publicly available, there’s evidence that others, like China, try to keep it more under wraps.
While many critiques of the category have fixed on the language requirement as the biggest problem — and I’ll get into that more below — it’s this self-submission rule, which grants individual countries power to determine which of their films will be under consideration for a nomination, that is most troubling to me.
Richard Brody, the longtime New Yorker film critic and columnist, agrees.
“I don’t understand why the Academy outsources its nominations,” Brody told me. Certainly, many countries do nominate the film they consider to have been the best of the year, and Brody acknowledged that many excellent films have been nominated that way. But he also explained the bigger political and even ideological problem with the system: “There are countries where movies are explicitly politicized — where there’s a politics of censorship in place, where filmmakers are literally imprisoned or under house arrest, or literally banned from filmmaking because of their political positions.”
He’s right. It’s no secret that some governments deal with politically inconvenient filmmakers by attempting to silence their voices on the world stage.
For instance, the Cannes Film Festival is arguably the most prestigious global film festival in the world, but at the 2018 festival, the directors of two films in the main competitions were conspicuously absent, even though their movies played were debuting there.
Kirill Serebrennikov, director of the Russian rock musical Leto (titled Summer in English), was under house arrest. Serebrennikov, an outspoken critic of Vladimir Putin, had been charged with masterminding an embezzlement plot that caused harm to the state. But many of his contemporaries believe the allegations were retaliation for his candid views on Putin, LGBTQ rights, and Russia’s annexation of Crimea. (Serebrennikov was released in April 2019.)
The celebrated Iranian director Jafar Panahi was absent from the 2018 festival as well. A seat was reserved for him at the premiere of his film 3 Faces, which criticizes the patriarchy of his home country. But the seat remained empty: Panahi, his wife, his daughter, and 15 of his friends had been arrested in 2010 and charged with creating propaganda against the Iranian government.
Panahi was sentenced to a six-year jail sentence and barred for 20 years from making films, writing screenplays, giving interviews to any media, or leaving the country; even in 2018, he still couldn’t travel to Cannes. But that 2010 sentence didn’t stop him from making films. In 2011, his documentary This Is Not a Film, which chronicled his life under house arrest, was smuggled out of the country in a birthday cake so that it could premiere at Cannes. And two more of his movies premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in 2013 and 2015, winning major awards. Panahi’s film The White Balloon was Iran’s official entry in 1995, though it wasn’t nominated. But today, would Iran ever submit a film from a director like Panahi for Oscars consideration? Unless it was deemed sufficiently apolitical, such a selection seems unlikely.
Other countries, including China, have been known to place filmmakers and artists under house arrest (such as Ai Weiwei and Deng Chuanbin) when they or their works are perceived as a threat to the state. China exercises exacting control over its filmmakers; recently, the country’s only remaining independent film festival shut down, with organizers saying the political climate made it impossible for them to operate, especially since their programming often included films that touched on controversial topics (like homosexuality or political history), or lacked the government’s official seal of censorship approval, which is required in China for public screenings. And in recent years, China’s official Oscar entries have trended noticeably more nationalistic.
So even though filmmakers from these countries often make movies celebrated by major festivals and critics around the globe, many of their films will never stand a chance of being selected by their countries to serve as the official Oscar entry.
“Films that get nominated by such countries are ones that inevitably will do the bidding of the government,” Brody says. “They will completely exclude politically dissident filmmakers, who are often really excellent filmmakers, from ever being considered for an Oscar. And that’s just unseemly. That’s just indecent, morally.”
In some cases, with enough work and resources behind their campaigns, filmmakers working in restrictive countries may be able to eke out a nomination. Alexander Rodnyansky, the Russian producer of the Putin-critical film Leviathan, managed to win his country’s 2015 Oscar bid by personally ensuring that every single member of the 29-person selection committee, including many members loyal to the Kremlin, saw the film.
Rodnyansky had to play detective to figure out who was part of the committee, as that information wasn’t publicly available. But his efforts paid off; Leviathan won the committee’s endorsement with 14 votes and ultimately became one of the five Oscar nominees.
Yet that’s more of an exception than a rule. “In China, you’re not going to make it past that bar unless you please a body of people who are unnamed and unknown, but who we can assume would like filmmakers to toe a line,” Laura Isabel Serna told me. Serna is a film historian and an associate professor of cinematic arts at the University of Southern California. “The whole way that [global film] festivals are organized, which reverberates in this process of nomination for the Academy Awards, is they emerge out of post-World War I nationalism, in which nations take film as a form of soft power.”
Brody agrees. “There are great films — not merely dissident films, but also aesthetically really accomplished films — that will never be nominated,” he notes, arguing that by not being more involved in the selection process, “The Oscars are barring themselves from considering some of the best filmmakers in the world, simply because they are putting their decisions in the hands of causes like governmental organizations.”
The exclusion of some of the major works of world cinema for political reasons is a big reason the Academy needs to change its approach to recognizing world cinema. But there’s a second reason, too: The eligibility rules are based on outmoded, decades-old ideas about what it means for a film to be “international.”
The Academy sometimes deems official selections to be not “international” enough
Curiously, though the Academy relegates the process of submitting films for consideration to sometimes-shadowy groups selected by individual countries, the organization sometimes overrules the resulting submissions anyway. There are two main reasons a movie is rejected after being submitted as a country’s official selection.
The first is that the Academy rules a film is not primarily told in a language other than English. According to the official Oscar rules as they stand, a movie that contains too much English can be deemed insufficiently “international.”
This rule seems to exist, at least in part, to ensure that movies from the United Kingdom don’t dominate the field. (Countries like Canada, the UK, and Australia can — and have — submitted films that aren’t in English; only US-produced films are officially barred from competing in the international category.)
But English is the official language in other countries, due to England’s past as a colonizer. This became an issue most recently with Lionheart, which Nigeria submitted as its official entry for the 2020 Oscars. The movie was disqualified by the Academy because it is mostly in English, which is Nigeria’s official language.
American director Ava DuVernay sharply questioned the decision on Twitter:
To @TheAcademy, You disqualified Nigeria’s first-ever submission for Best International Feature because its in English. But English is the official language of Nigeria. Are you barring this country from ever competing for an Oscar in its official language? https://t.co/X3EGb01tPF— Ava DuVernay (@ava) November 4, 2019
Of course, movies like Lionheart are technically eligible to compete in all the other Oscar categories. And any film that qualifies for Best International Feature can also compete in other categories; in 2020, the North Macedonian documentary Honeyland is a contender both for Best International Feature and Best Documentary Feature.
But given how heavily a successful Oscar campaign depends on a wealth of resources and ability to court potential voters, films with small budgets from countries where English is either the official language or the lingua franca (like Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone, and Liberia) are at a serious disadvantage. A film made in a language that most of the country’s citizens speak and understand would have only the tiniest of shots at earning Oscar recognition. And without Oscar recognition, that film would then struggle to gain distribution in the US, making it more difficult for American viewers (and many others around the world) to see it.
Essentially, the rule sometimes hamstrings the reach of talented filmmakers who wish to make movies about their home country that most people in that country could easily understand. And sometimes it results in strange disqualifications — for instance, The Band’s Visit, a film about an Egyptian band that gets lost when visiting Israel, was disqualified in 2008 for containing too much English, even though the reason the English is included in the film is that it’s the only language the characters could communicate in. (The film went on to become the basis for the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical of the same name.)
This year’s Lionheart situation underscores how much the practice of equating “non-English” with “foreign” or “international” status stems from an archaic understanding of what makes something or someone “international.” By my lights, the Academy’s shift from “foreign,” which carries connotations of being “other,” to “international,” which suggests a more inclusive view of the world, was an attempt to acknowledge that while language is an important part of culture, in today’s globalized filmmaking landscape, movies that bring a new perspective to stories from around the world deserve to be highlighted no matter what language they’re told in.
Yet excluding movies told in English suggests that if you speak English, you’re part of “our” culture — American culture — and if you don’t, then you’re “the other.” That seems dangerously close to the same mindset that drives some American nationalists to demand that their fellow Americans “speak English” because they’re in America. The truth is that in the 21st century, language is often just one of the factors that make up a person’s culture. It should only be one of the factors used to determine whether a movie is “international.”
Furthermore, restricting the “international” category to non-English-language films perpetuates Americans’ already myopic focus on movies in English, and a reticence to watch films with subtitles. Successful filmmakers whose non-English films have garnered Oscar notice beyond the category in recent years, such as Alfonso Cuarón (Roma) and Bong Joon-ho (Parasite), have quipped about this provincialism.
Accepting the Best Foreign-Language Feature Oscar in 2019, Cuarón joked that he “grew up watching foreign-language films and learning so much from them and being inspired — films like Citizen Kane, Jaws, Rashomon, The Godfather, and Breathless.” (Three of those five movies are in English, and none of them are in Cuarón’s native Spanish.) And at the Golden Globes in January 2020, while accepting the award for Best Foreign Language Film, Bong gently ribbed the audience about overcoming the “one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles.”
Shimpach, the communications professor, also thinks that Hollywood’s focus on language as a signifier of international is outdated. “The Academy seems to have inherited a sort of a 19th-century colonial mindset, in that there is a center in which they imagine themselves — Hollywood — and then there’s a periphery, where they imagine other industries and other kinds of filmmaking that goes on,” he said. “They have inherited these 19th-century categories of how you identify these differences. The one they have chosen is language — cultural difference signified through linguistic difference. But now they’re in a 21st-century period of globalization, where if you inspect any of these things too much, they fall apart. The idea of language as a marker of difference certainly doesn’t work after you realize that English has spread around the world.”
Sometimes, the Academy disqualifies a film from the international category not because of the language it’s told in but because the Academy determines a film hasn’t vested “sufficient” creative control in the hands of local talent. It’s reasonable that the Academy would care about this; after all, a country shouldn’t be able to hire outside filmmakers to make a movie, then submit a ringer and win an Oscar for it.
But the guidelines for what does or doesn’t count aren’t sufficiently explained in the Academy rules, and the results can be uneven. Ang Lee’s celebrated Lust, Caution was disqualified from consideration when Taiwan submitted it in 2008, even though the filmmaker and much of the crew were from Taiwan, because some key crew members for the film (which was filmed in Japan) were not Taiwanese. The Academy said the filmmakers did not prove that “creative talent of that country exercised artistic control of the film.”
In another case, the 2011 film The Forgiveness of Blood was disqualified as Albania’s official entry, even though the film was largely crewed by Albanians, about Albania, and told in the Albanian language. The Academy said that because several key crew members were not Albanian, the film was not eligible. But that same year, Finland successfully entered Aki Kaurismäki’s film Le Havre — shot in France, with French dialogue and a French cast.
The Forgiveness of Blood’s director, Joshua Marston, who is American, told Variety at the time, “I think there’s a problem with the system when Hollywood claims to know better than the submitting country whether a film belongs to them. It is incredibly disempowering and disenchanting for a country with a young film industry.”
Film historian Serna notes that the Academy’s rules seem at times to be superficial. “They don’t step back and say, ‘We need to really look at why these roles exist, and whether the film actually reflects the kinds of stories people are telling, how they might be telling them, and where those stories are coming from.’ It makes them look a little philistine, in a way.”
Fixing the category probably means rule changes. The effort will be worth it.
Can the International Feature Film category be fixed?
It’s impossible for the Academy’s rules to capture every possible permutation of film that might be submitted for consideration — especially in a rapidly changing and globalizing world, where funding for movies and the languages they’re told in may vary wildly from case to case.
But there are a few changes the Academy could make to bring the category into the 21st century and truly recognize the best films in world cinema at the Oscars each year.
The New Yorker’s Brody suggests that the Academy should do away with the country selection process altogether, instead following a procedure more like that of the Best Documentary Feature category. That means a committee within the Academy, rather than individual countries, would determine which films are eligible to contend for the nomination. “There are people who pay attention to documentaries, and they help make the selection. There’s no reason in the world why there couldn’t be people in the Academy who have a similar interest in international film, and who would treat it the same way as an Academy treats documentaries — to make the choices themselves,” Brody says.
“That’s my main concern,” he concluded. “Let the Academy make its own decisions.”
Additionally, the Academy currently limits submissions to the International Feature Film category to one per country. But even if submissions are left up to individual countries, the rules could be modified to leave several slots open on the shortlist for films that an Academy committee deems worthy but that weren’t submitted by their countries. That approach might allow for recognition of movies made by subversive or politically troublesome filmmakers that won’t be submitted by their own country. Or it might make room for worthy films that weren’t selected by their home country simply because of the one-movie restriction. (For instance, the French selection for 2020 was the police drama Les Misérables, leaving the critically lauded Portrait of a Lady on Fire, slated for US release on February 14, out in the cold.)
“There are certainly years in which individual countries may have two or three wonderful movies that really ought to be in contention,” Brody noted.
Shimpach also believes the question of how best to accomplish the Academy’s goal — to recognize films from beyond Hollywood’s borders — deserves more careful thought. “It does seem to me that rather than too strictly codifying how that’s achieved, it may be more about carefully curating a selection committee that understands the sort of spirit of those awards,” he says.
Serna notes that part of the problem with how the Academy administers the International Feature Film category is that Hollywood is constantly trying to expand into foreign markets and partner with foreign producers and distributors — particularly in the enormous Chinese market. That means the Academy has vested interest in giving those countries’ governments (which can censor or block movies from abroad from playing in their country) some control over their Oscar submissions. “China is a huge market, and producers are very aware that certain things aren’t going to fly in China,” she says. “If you want access to that market, you’ve got to conform.”
But the Academy isn’t just the movie business; it recognizes the creativity, artistry, and responsibility the filmmaking community bears, especially the powerful American movie industry. “The Academy is separate from the business end, per se, of the industry, and has the opportunity to request transparency in nominating bodies,” Serna says. “They could make it a norm for there to be an established protocol, or at least to insist that it’s clear from the outside who’s doing the nominating.”
Real progress almost certainly involves the Academy changing some of its rules, perhaps radically. But rules, after all, are only useful when they serve the purpose they were created for — something industry insiders and observers know well. “You know,” Brody remarked to me, “rules are both useful and stupid.”
Really, Serna says, it comes down to Hollywood accepting its position as a leader in the worldwide film industry. “The question is whether the Academy will be more proactive in articulating its vision of how they are going to support the best filmmaking.”
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