The 91st Academy Awards are happening in just under a month’s time and all eyes are on whether Black Panther will become the first superhero film to win Best Picture, or whether Glenn Close will finally win the award for Best Actress after 7 previous nominations. As a result, the Best Foreign Language Film category tends to be overlooked, even though these nominees represent some of the best acting and filmmaking talent in world cinema this year. Roma, a film by Alfonso Cuaron which follows the life of a housekeeper of a middle-class family living in the politician turmoil of 1970’s Mexico City, has scored 10 nominations at this year’s Oscars. Its multiple nominations, including for Best Foreign Language film, Best Picture, Best Actress for Yalitza Aparicio and Best Supporting Actress for Marina de Tavira is a massive breakthrough, as Roma would be the first foreign language film to win Best Picture at the Oscars in their 90-year history.
In fact, only 10 foreign language films have ever been nominated for Best Picture. This stems from the fact that the Academy Award’s approach towards foreign language films over the years has tended to be very Ameri-centric. It is also very rare that a film in the best foreign language category also gets nominated in the principal acting categories, with exceptions including Emmanuelle Riva’s Best Actress Nomination for Amour, as the Oscars generally reward stars with nominations in the main acting categories who have starred in more commercially successful films.
I believe that the value in the Best Foreign language film category lies in the fact that without this award, most foreign language films would be overlooked by the Academy simply for being in a non-English language. This would be a massive shame; to put it simply, the majority of films nominated in the Best Foreign language film category at the Oscars tend to be better films. And by better, I mean being more original and less commercialised, even with a much lower budget. This year’s nominated films focus on subject matters such as a 12-year-old boy in Beirut, who is deeply resentful about the poverty he lives in and sues his parents for the fact that he has been born (Capernaum) and a family that relies on shoplifting to survive their life of poverty (Shoplifters).
Unlike the films nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, foreign language films also tend not to star any big names, which underlines the fact that the domestic box office success these films may have is down to the quality of the film alone, rather than due to the ‘star quality’ of the principal actors. This quality so often propels average films to receive Best Picture Nominations (see Bridge of Spies or American Sniper). Capernaum’s director Nadine Labaki even made the ingenious decision to cast only non-professionals, who played characters whose lives are closely related to their own. This gave the audience an at times emotionally intense but always authentic look at how extremely impoverished conditions affect the childlike innocence of the young protagonist.
“foreign language films focus on less widely told stories”
The Best Foreign Language film category also gives a platform for talented up and coming directors to attract the attention of Hollywood studios. For example, many directors that that have directed a film nominated in the Best Foreign Language film category have gone on to be nominated or won the Award for Best Director at the Oscars. This list includes Ang Lee, whose win for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2000 propelled him to be chosen to direct several successful films, including Brokeback Mountain and Life of Pi, for which he both won Best Director at the Oscars.
Furthermore, the films nominated for Best Picture, this year and in the past, have often either been biopics of famous people, men’s stories of triumph/deterioration or both (see Bohemian Rhapsody, Gladiator or The King’s Speech). On the other hand, foreign language films focus on less widely told stories, with themes including the importance of family and women’s narratives featuring more significantly in the last couple of years. In Roma, the protagonists are all resilient young women and in Wadjda, an utterly moving directional debut by Saudi Arabia’s first female director Haifaa al-Mansour, the main protagonist is a 10-year-old girl who dreams of owning a bike and fights against society’s standards that girls shouldn’t be riding bikes.
However, there are some problems with the Best Foreign Language Film category. When awarding nominations in this category, central European language films tend to receive far more nominations from the Academy: Italy, France and Spain are the Top 3 of all time winners in this category, with 30 wins in total. This means that films made in Asia, Africa or Oceania tend to be overlooked by the Academy in favour of European films. For example, Israel has received the largest number of nominations (10) without ever winning. Asian countries such as China and India have prolific and successful film industries but are seldom nominated in the Best Foreign Language category, scoring only 2 and 3 nominations respectively. Shoplifters directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda, which won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival is Japan’s first nomination in the Best Foreign Language Film since Departures won in 2008. Meanwhile, only three African countries (Algeria, South Africa and Ivory Coast) have ever won an award for Best Foreign Language film, with only South Africa’s entry, Tsotsi, being in an African language.
The rules regarding which film can be submitted for the Best Foreign Language film category is also a problem. At the Oscars, the film not only has to be in a foreign language but also has to have no ties to any American production companies. So, for example whilst the hugely successful The Passion of the Christ was entirely in Aramaic, Latin, and Hebrew, it could not be nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, as it was created by Icon Productions, an American company. This differs from the Golden Globes’ rules for eligibility for Best Foreign Language Film, which only requires the film to be in a non-English language.
“they have almost no chance of winning against Hollywood heavyweights”
One way in which the Best Foreign Language film category could be improved is by creating separate acting categories for the actors and actresses starring in non-English language films. Whilst some have been nominated at the Oscars in the main acting categories in the past, including Best Actress Nominations for Catalina Sandino Moreno for Maria Full of Grace in 2004 and Isabelle Huppert for Elle in 2016, it is rare and they have almost no chance of winning against Hollywood heavyweights such as Meryl Streep and Kate Winslet. This is all the more the case if their film is not even nominated for Best Foreign Language film.
However, there is also an argument to scrap the Best Foreign Language film category completely and instead replace it with a category titled ‘Best Film under a certain budget’. This would still allow most foreign language films to be nominated, as winners in the past have had fairly low budgets including 2015 Best Foreign Language film winner Son of Saul, which only had a budget of 1.5 million Euros; conversely, this category would not rule out any excellent independent films with a low budget that are in the English language. British films released in the last couple of years which deserved to have global recognition include Francis Lee’s feature directorial debut God’s Own Country which won the world cinema directing award at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival and Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake which won the Palme d’Or at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. With a category like this, independent films may receive much more international recognition; this could pave the way for the actors and actresses in these films to also be nominated in the main acting categories.
All in all, the foreign language film category as a whole is still incredibly valuable, not just for the talented actors and directors who may finally be noticed by studios and producers, but also for fans of foreign language films like me. It gives us a guide to which films are the ones to watch, which may otherwise have slipped completely under the radar.