The issues with foreign language films at the Oscars

The Oscars are back for another year and with it comes the controversies surrounding the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

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First introduced in 1957, the award is given to films that are produced outside of the United States of America and written in a language other than English.

However, the award has faced its fair share of controversy in the past. One criticism that has been made against the award is the fact that each country can only nominate one film for the category. Nations with a larger film-making industry argue that this imposes too strict a limit on their submissions.

France’s La Vie En Rose received an award in the Best Actress category, but did not even compete for the foreign-language film award; the French animated film Persepolis had been nominated instead.

The frustration of having to choose only one film from a pool of many to compete with another country that only produced one film in the same year is understandable to a certain extent. However, it would be unjust if it was not an equal playing field for all of the 71 nations that take part.

Countries with a smaller film industry benefit from the “one country, one film” policy, as they are given the opportunity to show off their best work alongside those from countries with a more profitable film industry. This in turn provides the Oscars with the diversity that the award claims to uphold.

Another issue with this ruling however is that countries which produce many films each year can only choose a select few to judge, before then choosing one to send to the Academy. This makes the judging process both subjective and potentially flawed.
Last year there were protests against Russia’s choice for the category, Burnt by the Sun 2: Citadel. Not only was it Russia’s biggest box-office flop, the film’s politically influential director Nikita Mikhalkov was a veteran member on the selection committee.

There is also the difficult question over the national identity of certain films. Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution had been disqualified in 2007 because there was supposedly not enough Taiwanese crew members involved to make it a “Taiwanese” film. Ironically, this was the same crew that produced Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a film that won China the award in 2001.

Other countries have suffered similar problems. Being an international co-production, Argentina’s The Motorcycle Diaries could not be associated with any of the nine countries that it was shot in. Meanwhile, Israeli film The Band’s Visit was rejected for having too much English in the film. Naturally this raises the question over whether there is a cookie-cutter formula to determine a film’s “nationality”?

It appears that there is need for a clearer definition over what films can be deemed eligible for the Best Foreign Language Film Award. For the most part however, the system still works in giving films that may be unknown outside of their home country the recognition they deserve.


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