12 Oct The Oscars Need to Reform the International Feature Category
With the news on Tuesday that the Spanish Film Academy has picked the Javier Bardem-led comedy “The Good Boss” instead of Oscar-winner Pedro Almodovar’s “Parallel Mothers” as its submission for the Best International Feature Oscar, the need for the Academy to reform its system for this category is very apparent.
If you are unaware about the Academy’s current rules for this category, here are three important points:
- Each country can only submit one film. Meaning that each year, a country’s representative film academy has to choose which film they want to represent them at this year’s Oscars.
- The film has to be non-American and must be mostly in a language other than English. While prior to the 2006 Academy Awards, a foreign country had to submit a film that was in one of their official languages, that rule is (thankfully) no longer in place and Canada submitted the Hindi-language film Water at the 2007 Oscars as a result of this shift in policy. As a result of the films having to be non-American, films that were primarily in a non-English language like Apocalypto and last year’s Minari were ineligible from competing in this category since they were both American-produced features.
- The director accepts the award on behalf of their producing country’s film academy. The filmmakers themselves do not receive Oscars, their countries do.
The idea that a country can only submit one film for this category is ludicrous as it defeats the point of having this category. This rule is archaic and needs to be amended. In an era like the 1950s where the cinema of countries like France and Italy dominated the American cinephile’s perception of what international cinema was, it makes some sense that each country could only submit one film as the Academy members of the time likely had a limited knowledge and appreciation of cinema outside of the canon of the Western world. Of the 32 International Feature awards given from the late 40s through the 70s, only five were given to non-European countries (three were for Japan, likely due to the fact that the United States was highly involved in the politics of Japan at the time after World War II and thus the Americans had an especially strong access to Japanese art. The two other films were in French and directed by men who worked in France but produced by African countries specifically the Ivory Coast and Algeria.) But in an era where 5 of the last 10 winners in this category were from non-European countries (and when a Korean film can win Best Picture), this system has become obsolete. The fact that only one film can be submitted for each country is quite mind-boggling in today’s world where the Academy has a diverse array of members and access to the art of other countries has been amplified extensively.
A country’s film Academy shouldn’t have to submit films at all and the wealth of choices that international cinema has to offer should not be restricted by the politics of a small closed off voting body. There has been speculation that Spain did not submit Parallel Mothers (whose director and lead actress are Oscar winners) as the film is critical of the Spanish government. While this may not be the reason why the Spanish Film Academy did not choose Almodovar’s film, this situation wouldn’t be an outlier. Take filmmaker Jafar Panahi, one of the most celebrated Middle Eastern filmmakers of the 21st century. None of his films have ever been selected by the Iranian Film Academy as Panahi is a vocal critic of the Iranian government and that is apparent in his work. In 2010, Panahi was arrested and placed under house arrest “for propaganda against the Islamic republic” as he was attempting to make a documentary about the 2009 election of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad which he believed to be fraudulent. He was subsequently banned from making films for 20 years. Panahi’s case is just a symptom of a larger problem. Oppressive countries around the world often suppress art that doesn’t conform to their leaders’ values and beliefs and the Academy is essentially supporting this suppression by creating a system that keeps Academy members from choosing fantastic cinema that may challenge the values of their home country. If the Oscars truly want to reflect the best of film today, they should not restrict International film to a small pool of cinema. With this system, the Academy will actually be able to award the best of International cinema (of course the bias of the Academy towards certain types of films will always be a factor but with the greater diversification of Academy membership, let’s hope that issue becomes less and less prevalent) without the whims of each country’s respective film academies getting in the way.
The other problem with this category is that ridiculously the award is not given to the directors and/or producers of the films but instead to the films’ country. Federico Fellini one of the most celebrated filmmakers to walk the earth has 0 competitive Oscars to his name even though four of his films won in this category. While the directors do accept the award at the ceremony they are actually accepting it on behalf of the country that submitted their film. Ingmar Bergman would have 3 Oscars and Vittorio De Sica would have four (if Special Awards are taken into account) if filmmakers were given their due like they are at other prestigious awards, such as the BAFTAs. Essentially, some of the best directors who have ever lived never received Oscars due to a rule that doesn’t need to have been in place (why couldn’t the Oscar be awarded to both the country and the filmmaker?)
Every year, the Academy seems to tease some sort of major change (like the addition of a Best Popular Film category a few years ago) but this is an advance the Academy actually needs to act upon if we want to get international film and filmmakers to be treated fairly by the Academy. Of course the fact that the Oscars, awards that are supposed to honor the best of cinema no matter where it comes from, have to have an International Feature award in the first place is an inherently faulty notion but the time when the Academy moves away from being so aggressively American-centric is far down the line. But before that time (which will sadly probably never come to fruition) arrives, it wouldn’t be asking for too much for the Academy to amend what is easily its most controversial category.