Long shots in the best foreign language film Oscar race

Salon talks to Oscar hopefuls about their chances to break out and upset the favorites in a competitive field

Published December 3, 2017 3:00PM (EST)

Song of Granite, Félicité, The Wound, Thelma
Song of Granite, Félicité, The Wound, Thelma

The best foreign language film Oscar is intensely competitive. The prize is often awarded to established filmmakers who have “name” recognition, or benefit from a big studio campaign. But every year, there are always one or two films that spoil the frontrunners and favorites by making the shortlist or becoming one of the final five nominees. In the past few years “Embrace of the Serpent,” from Colombia, and “Tangerines,” from Estonia, were long shots that earned Oscar nominations.

The foreign language film Oscar selections for the shortlist are generally composed of titles that appeal to voters because they connect on an emotional or visual level. The filmmakers can sometimes be fresh new voices in world cinema that rout auteurism. Or they are films that make the cut because they are either popular, middlebrow entertainment, or exotic, edgier fare.

This year, there are several titles that could break through and have a chance at Oscar glory and generate attention to a country’s national cinema. But the prize is so idiosyncratic, it can be hard to predict whether voters will honor a bold cinematic voice or a straight-up crowd-pleaser — or both — with a place on the shortlist. Two European films in competition this year are possibilities.

“On Body and Soul” (Hungary), by writer/director Ildikó Enyedi, won four prizes at Berlin, including the Golden Bear. While the film is visually striking, its plot is peculiar. Two lonely slaughterhouse employees, Endre (Géza Morcsányi), who has lost the use of his left arm, and Mária (Alexandra Borbély), who has Asperger’s syndrome, fumble toward romance after they discover they share the same dream. The film, which is both s-l-o-w-l-y paced and contains some gruesome scenes of animal butchering, may be a slog for some viewers, though it has impressed audiences in advance screenings.

In contrast, “Amerika Square” (Greece) is a realistic drama that toggles between two timely stories. In one, the struggling Nakos (Makis Papadimitriou) bemoans looking for work and wanting to rid his neighborhood (Amerika Square) of foreigners. In the other, Tarek (Vassilis Koukalani), a Syrian, is trying to get himself and his daughter safely into Germany via Greece. The film is an urgent drama that depicts how, as one character states, “Those who want to leave [Greece] can’t, while those who can do not want to.” “Amerika Square” is taut and compelling, and it would be nice to see it get shortlisted if not nominated, but its chances are slight at best.

Salon spoke to six foreign language filmmakers about the possibility of being shortlisted for this year’s Oscar.

Writer/director Annemarie Jacir’s “Wajib” (Palestine) is a moving drama about a father and son (real-life father and son Mohammad and Saleh Bakri) driving around town delivering invitations to their daughter/sister’s wedding. Jacir reveals much about the characters in just a single line of dialogue, and she coaxes nuanced performances from her two actors.

This is the third film by Jacir to be submitted in the category from Palestine, and the filmmaker explained that it has become a “much more formal and organized process” than in previous years. She recalled, “When I was last put up, for ‘Salt of the Sea’ (2008), the Ministry of Culture didn’t know what to do. Now they send out an email during the year to all filmmakers, and ask them to officially submit.”

Jacir continued, It’s very special and important to be nominated. [Palestine] has not been represented very often. It’s only in the last decade [since 2003] that we’ve been nominating films. We’re making films not just for ourselves, but for an international audience. It’s about connecting with people and getting our stories out there.”

One of the things that could hurt Jacir’s chances with “Wajib” this year is that the film does not have U.S. distribution. “We are trying,” she claimed. “We have some offers. I know people that have distribution and people backing them and they have extra screenings and ads . . . The point is to get people to see the film. If it’s easier for them to see the film, that helps. I rely on press, and word of mouth  . . . I don’t know if not having distribution affects the campaign. Maybe we’ll get distribution through the campaign? I hope we have a chance.  We’re doing the best we can. But I know so many things are random.”

Jacir is nothing if not realistic about her chances. “People don’t flock to see Palestinian films. Maybe they are not interested; they think it’s going to be a downer. People aren’t expecting to laugh, and that it’s got to be really serious, but I have more humor in ‘Wajib.’”

What might work in Jacir’s favor is being a female filmmaker, and from the Arab world, as well. “In countries with an independent film scene there are a lot more women filmmakers,” she observed. “If you go to Dubai, half the films, not just documentaries, are directed by women. At Venice, one out of 21 films are made by women.”

She concludes with some thoughts about what a nomination could or would mean for her. “It’s important. It’s about the burden of representation. I don’t represent Palestine. My characters don’t represent anyone except themselves. Because there are so few films [from Palestine], you have an audience that wants you to answer all the questions. To represent Palestine and what’s going on. I make films that are reflecting social reality, and have flawed characters that I know. I believe in poetic license and being free to make a film about one story, but there are many stories.”

One of the best-poised contenders for the shortlist is “Thelma” (Norway). Director Joachim Trier’s genre film, made in the Stephen King mold, might just connect with voters. Thelma (Eili Harboe) is a student from a strict religious background who falls in love with Anja (Okay Kaya). As she embarks on a same-sex romance, Thelma discovers she has telekinetic powers.

“We never expected it to be the Norwegian contender. It became a hit for its unusual mix of genre and human elements,” Trier explained. “We won the Norwegian Film Critics Award.”

The Norwegian Oscar selection committee chose ‘Thelma" because, the filmmaker said, “The film played with Norwegian folklore elements. It’s a modern version of the tale of the witch. It’s a supernatural film about a girl from a religious background becoming a lesbian.”

Trier believes that academy members have embraced his film because it is not political or intellectual. It features superb sound design and strong visual elements. There are also several dramatic and virtuoso set pieces. “As we developed it, we told a human story, not a horror film,” he indicated.

While Trier’s 2006 feature debut, “Reprise,” was submitted for the foreign language film Oscar that year, “Reprise” did not have any momentum behind it to be a real contender. Its theatrical release missed the nomination deadline, and with that critical moment passed, the film failed to gain any traction. Which is why Trier is more upbeat this time around. “Thelma” received a theatrical release in November, after screening at the New York Film Festival, AFI, and elsewhere. He said, “The reviews are coming in and they are wonderful. I’m taking it one day at a time. I hope academy members are open to a film that has a genre element. My fingers are crossed. I’m grateful for an opportunity to try.  

John Trengove confessed he was “blown away” that his feature debut, “The Wound” (South Africa), about a love triangle that develops among Xhosa caregivers during a manhood ritual, was chosen to represent South Africa this year. “It was never part of the intention. We were making a gay film. But there was a lot of heat and momentum behind the film and good will upon release.”

An independent jury from the country’s National Film and Video Foundation selected the film after considerable deliberation. “The Wound” was chosen most likely because of the significant international attention it received.

“We are a marginal outsider with a fringe project, so it’s about making noise and getting people to see the film,” Trengove said about campaigning for a spot on the shortlist. But the slow rollout strategy of patience — letting the film “percolate” through film festivals, picking up awards, as well as getting a theatrical run in the states — has paid off. “People have become interested in ‘The Wound’ for all sorts of reasons,” he observed.

One factor in the film’s favor is its exotic portrait of a South African manhood ritual. “I think the thing to do is dig our heels in and make a lot of noise, and not to be middle-of-the-road and not be scared to challenge or divide audiences. That characterizes the film. I think the exotic aspect intrigues the audience, but we also touch on toxic masculinity and the consequences that has on our society. It’s queer-themed, but a look at the culture at the moment; it’s finding an audience by tapping into these nerve endings.”

Director Pat Collins’ biopic of sean-nós singer Joe Heaney, “Song of Granite” (Ireland), is luminously shot in black-and-white, with the actors speaking mostly in Gaelic. Given that the film’s subject may not be well known to voters, and the film takes an experimental approach in presenting Heaney’s life, “Song of Granite” has an uphill climb to get shortlisted.

Collins is pragmatic about his “experiential” film’s chances. But he claims the film is finding an audience. “It is rare to see an Irish language film. The [official] screening in Los Angeles was gratifying. There was an enthusiastic response, and I was pleasantly surprised with how well it has been received.”

He continued, “We have a promoter working on it, and I’m learning as we go along. I presume it’s a long shot as it’s not a mainstream film, but the one advantage is the look of it: The cinematography is great. And Ireland and Irish music has an awareness even if this isn’t your standard Irish music. The film echoes cinematic periods, like neorealism, and cinema vérité — these are elements cinephiles will hopefully be drawn to.”

“Newton” (India) Writer/director Amit Masurkar’s entertaining anti-establishment comedy sends the title character (Rajkummar Rao), a by-the-book government clerk, into the jungle to make sure there is a free and fair election. Of course, things go sideways.

Masurkar seems to be not unlike his film’s genial title character when it comes to the awards. “We read the rules and think they are fair,” he said about the campaigning practices. “It doesn’t benefit people to campaign a lot. We have screenings, and not just official ones. We have good publicists on board. I’ve been available for Q&As and we are showing the film to students.”

“Newton” was nominated by an independent film federation in India, which Masurkar described as a committee consisting of one to two representatives from each regional film industry (Hindi, Bengali, etc.). They are editors, cinematographers and producers from all different parts of the country. Twenty-two people watch the submitted films and decide on the Oscar entry.

“It makes us happy to represent India,” the filmmaker said, “because this story is from the heart of India. Literally! We shot it in the middle of the country. It’s a big deal for us that this film is being watched by an international audience and getting this kind of exposure.”

What was especially gratifying was how this film, made on a $1.5 million budget, collected $5 million in the box office in India when it was released in September.

“Recognition at Berlin and Tribeca validated our efforts,” Masurkar said. “The film was reviewed and we [secured] a good deal with Amazon Prime in January, which helps us get seen. We’re doing a small theatrical release in January, with Eros, the Indian distribution company that handles Bollywood films in the U.S. and Canada. They have a strong presence in the South Asian diaspora. It’s important that the film is seen by a regular and wider audience.”

What might get “Newton” on the shortlist is that the film is a comedy. Given the many heavy and heady dramas submitted in this category, a nice, light film (albeit one with a political point) may just have an edge this year.

It was a rare accomplishment in 2014 when Mauritania landed in the top five nominees with “Timbuktu,” its first-ever submission for the best foreign language film Oscar. Such a feat might be repeated again this year with “Félicité” (Senegal). Alain Gomis’ remarkable film, set in Kinshasa, Congo, is the first-ever nomination from Senegal. The story has Félicité (Véro Tshanda Beya Mputu), a singer in a bar, trying to raise cash to help her son, Samo (Gaetan Claudia), who needs an operation after a motorcycle accident. “Félicité” won the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, as well as many African film awards.  

“It’s a big honor, and there is big pressure to be the first selected film. It’s a long journey to the ceremony. Everybody [in Senegal] thinks we’re going to win the Oscar,” Gomis said.

The filmmaker hopes members of the academy will discover his film and encourage others to see it. A nomination has the power to boost the national cinema. “It’s modern African cinema. It’s not just the story, but another kind of storytelling,” he explained. “If the Oscar [process] can help us have that connection and intimacy, and reach an audience, that’s important to us.”

But just getting submitted to compete was a process. Gomis said, “There was no [Senegalese] Oscar committee. We needed to form a committee to choose the film. It was selected by the Center of Cinematography. We sent it to the Oscar folks, and then, to qualify the film, we had to prove it was released in Senegal for seven consecutive days, which is difficult, because there are few theaters here, and no distribution. It screened here and there, so we had to negotiate with them to make them understand the truth of distribution.”

He continued, “The film is set in Kinshasa, Congo, so, because the crew was Congalese, we had to prove it’s a Senegalese film made in another African country.”

Another hurdle was the application form on the Oscar website. “We went through all the questions and requirements, but Senegal didn’t appear as one of the countries to submit! We had to get them to add it! But now it’s done. The next one will be easier!”

Nevertheless, despite the effort, Gomis is optimistic. “I hope there will be one African film on the shortlist, and I hope it will be us.”

By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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