Oscar Omissions Provoke Outcry, In Any Language
Saturday, January 19, 2008
When nominations for the 80th annual Academy Awards are announced Tuesday, the usual grousing about who made the cut and who was left out will begin. But that ritual started a week early this year, when the committee that nominates candidates for Best Foreign Language Film released its shortlist on Tuesday.
The outcry was so forceful and so immediate that the committee's chairman has vowed to change the Academy's nominating procedures for this perennially problematic category. Enduring arguments -- that the retired Academy members who tend to serve on the committee habitually shut out the most vibrant and edgy examples of world cinema -- are being revived. Even the notion of the Best Foreign Language Film category itself has come under fire as obsolete in an increasingly cosmopolitan and porous global film culture.
The nine selected films, five of which will be nominated as finalists for the Oscar, weren't in themselves controversial; many of them are by established and even revered directors in the global filmmaking community, among them Denys Arcand, Giuseppe Tornatore, Sergei Bodrov, Andrzej Wajda and Nikita Mikhalkov.
Among the shortlisted films are "The Year My Parents Went on Vacation," by the Brazilian director Cao Hamburger, and "Beaufort," by Israeli filmmaker Joseph Cedar, both of which were enthusiastically received at the 2007 Washington Jewish Film Festival last fall.
But two of the most highly regarded foreign films of 2007 conspicuously did not make the cut: the Romanian film "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes, as well as several other critics' and festival prizes, and "Persepolis," an animated film from France by the Iranian graphic artist Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud that won its own share of laurels and landed on several critics' year-end top 10 lists.
The absence of those two titles -- as well as ones from such vibrant film cultures as Mexico ("Silent Light") and Korea ("Secret Sunshine") -- stirred up immediate ire in film circles, mostly expressed in the blogosphere that covers Hollywood. "How Do You Say 'Oscar Scandal' in Romanian?" read the headline on LA Weekly critic Scott Foundas's Foundas & Taylor on Film blog the day the shortlist was announced. Foundas called the omission of "4 Months," by writer-director Cristian Mungiu, "as embarrassing a blunder as any in the Academy's history."
Todd Hitchcock, who programs films at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, said he reacted to the announcement with "disbelief." Noting that a clear consensus had been built throughout last year regarding the artistic merits of both "4 Months" and "Persepolis" -- which earned 20 awards between them -- he called the controversy "not just a few critics carping about how they know better. This is shocking across the board." (Both films played to sold-out audiences at AFI's European Union Showcase last November.)
Reached by phone on Thursday, Mark Johnson, chairman of the nominating committee for the foreign-language film Oscar, was clearly upset, although he took pains to make clear he didn't take issue with the nine films that were selected. "The outcome is noteworthy not for what made it -- it's not like some ridiculous movies made it onto a list they shouldn't be on -- it's what didn't make it." Citing "4 Months" and "Persepolis" by name, Johnson said, "It's just inconceivable to me that they weren't included."
The exclusions are especially distressing to Johnson in light of recent reforms he made to the nominating process. Along with documentaries, foreign-language films aren't nominated by people in their own "craft" categories (such as directors, cinematographers and actors), but by members of the Academy at large -- who commit to watching around 14 or 15 movies over two months.
Because the process is a significant time commitment (foreign-language committee members can't watch the films on DVD, only at Academy-sanctioned screenings), the demographics of the committee have skewed toward people with time on their hands -- in other words, retirees. The result, many observers say, are films that are safe, conventional and relatively mainstream, both in form and content.
To rectify that, Johnson last year instituted a process by which members of the committee, which numbers around 400, would come up with a shortlist of nine films. Then a smaller group, composed of 10 randomly selected committee members as well as 30 specially invited, more professionally active members (10 in New York and 20 in Los Angeles), would winnow those down to the five nominees.
"Last year was the first year" of trying that process, Johnson said, "and it worked very well. I was really happy with it." Among the nominees selected last year were Guillermo del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth," the Algerian film "Days of Glory," Denmark's "After the Wedding" and the Canadian film "Water." The Oscar winner was the German Cold War drama "The Lives of Others."