Every year, when the Oscars nominations are announced, I find myself scrambling to check films off my watchlist, making predictions, and arguing with my parents and friends about our favorites. I’ve never been a sports fan, but I can imagine the excitement cinema lovers worldwide feel about award shows may be comparable to what sports fanatics feel during the final games of a season. Yet, even though these few months may be fun to follow, they also bring about several heated debates in the film industry and “film-buff” communities. One of these controversies that have taken headlines for the past few years is the awarding of “international” films.
The Nomination Process
Per The Academy’s rules, every country gets to decide its nomination, but each country can only submit one film for consideration. This nomination process is the area where the Academy receives one of the biggest criticisms.
Firstly, the national selection bodies pose severe problems for the submission process in some countries, especially those with oppressive governments and antidemocratic political climates. When national bodies with close ties to these governments are the decision-makers, politics dominates cinema and censorship prevails. Films with differing political undertones or criticizing the country’s status quo are likely not to be submitted as a means to silence these voices, regardless of their cinematic quality. In recent years, China, Russia, and Iran have faced criticism for ignoring films that have politically controversial messages and submitting films that fit the dominant ideologies in the countries.
It might help prevent specific countries from dominating the category, but after all, good cinema is good cinema.
More so, the one movie per country rule seems to be limiting. It might help prevent specific countries from dominating the category, but after all, good cinema is good cinema. This rule has barred successful movies from competing in the category before. For example, in the 2003 ceremony, Pedro Almodóvar’s “Talk To Her” wasn’t nominated by Spain, which had already submitted “Mondays in the Sun.” The submission didn’t end up getting a nomination, while Almodóvar went on to win the award for “Best Original Screenplay” with “Talk To Her.” Clearly, the movie was of a certain caliber to win that major award, but due to the one-country-one-movie rule, it couldn’t even secure a nomination in the “Best Foreign Language” category.
The Language Factor
Another point of debate surrounding the awards is the language factor. Both the Academy Awards (more popularly known as the Oscars) and the Golden Globes have certain criteria regarding the languages spoken in the movie that need to be met to qualify for certain awards.
In the Globes Globes, a film can only compete in one of the best picture categories — drama, comedy/musical, or foreign language. A film can be nominated for the foreign-language movie awards if at least 51% of its dialogue is in a language other than English, while the “Best Motion Picture – Drama” and “Best Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical” awards are exclusively for movies in English. The same rule of having more than 50% of the movie be in another language also holds for the Oscars, but a movie does not have to be in English to be nominated for the general “Best Picture” category.
The first problem arises with the term “foreign language.” Both of these awards are based in the United States, and as a natural opposition to a “foreign” language, they accept English to be the “domestic” language. However, the U.S. has no official language, and there are millions of immigrants in the country consider a language other than English to be their native language. In the 2019 Academy Awards ceremony, “Roma,” a Mexican movie directed by Alfonso Cuarón, took home the award for “Best Foreign Language Film.” Although the movie was internationally produced, many viewers noted that Spanish wasn’t a foreign language for a lot of Americans. Subsequently, later in the year, the Academy renamed the category to “Best International Film,” but the rule of having to have over 50% of the dialogue be in non-English stayed. This rule may be help promote different languages and cultures to take center stage, but it is also a barrier for some movies. Specifically for countries with colonial pasts who have English as their official language, this rule greatly diminishes their chances of recognition. In the 2020 ceremony, Nigeria’s entry was banned from competing in the category because it was primarily in English, Nigeria’s official language.
The Globes, which still hold on to the category “Best Motion Picture – Foreign Language,” took headlines this year with the language debate when they nominated “Minari,” a story of an Asian-American family trying to assimilate in America for this award (which it won). Despite how the movie contained most of its dialogue in Korean, audiences were bothered by the fact that this somehow meant the movie wasn’t “American enough” to compete for the award in best drama. In fact, director Lulu Wang and others called it one of the most American stories they had seen in recent years, illustrating the hardships of immigration, family relations, and the American dream.
Hope for the Future
Is winning the “international” award supposed to be a lesser honor?
Even beyond all these very valid criticisms, the existence of such a category raises many questions. Is breaking off cinema into bits and pieces based on these criteria really the way to go? Yes, these awards shows are American — but does that really matter in today’s age of globalization? Last year, “Parasite” took home both the “Best International Film” ad “Best Picture” at the Oscars. If one movie is eligible to win both, why have two categories in the first place? Is winning the “international” award supposed to be a lesser honor? The answers to these may change from person to person, but recent developments generally show hope for the future. The Academy’s renaming of the category from “foreign” (what can be considered a divisive and othering word) to “international” and “Parasite” being the first international film to win Best Picture demonstrate how the industry might need to adopt a more unifying way of looking at cinema.
Edited by: Quynh (Stephanie) Bui