On November 5th, Nigeria’s first ever submission for the Academy Award for Best International Feature Film — Genevieve Nnaji’s Lionheart — was ruled ineligible. Shortly thereafter, Ava DuVernay took to Twitter to voice complaints about its exclusion from the prestigious prize. Although her critiques were popular online and initiated widespread discussion about the current rules, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences stood by their decision. Six days later, yet another film shot in Nigeria — Austria’s submission, Joy — has been disqualified for its predominantly English dialogue track.
Although the category recently changed its name from Best Foreign Language Film to Best International Feature Film, the rules are the same as they’ve been in prior years. A country wishing to be eligible for the prize must submit a film with more than 50 percent of its dialogue in any language other than English. While some English-speaking countries like the United Kingdom have been nominated in the category many times over the years, there are numerous others like Nigeria that have never submitted until now. While countries have been allowed to submit films in languages other than their official language since 2006, the rules still pose an ultimatum for nations like Nigeria whose only official language is English: either sacrifice some of the authenticity of your submission or be excluded altogether from the Oscars.
The Academy Award for Best International Feature Film has an extraordinary influence on a film’s financial success but also for an entire national populous to see themselves and their experiences reflected in and honored at the most influential awards show in the world. In early 2001, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon garnered 10 Oscar nominations and won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. In its opening weekend (before the Oscar nominations were announced), Ang Lee‘s wuxia masterpiece ranked 15th at the box office. It ended up playing in US theaters for 29 weeks earning a domestic gross of $127.9 million. Those numbers are relatively unheard of for international films in an American market.
While there’s ample, just criticism of the Oscars from a myriad of sources, American audiences have still consistently prioritized Oscar favorites over other, similar content. Oscar nominations matter whether we want them to or not, and they’re especially important for international filmmakers with smaller platforms and less name recognition than their American counterparts.
DuVernay’s comments struck a chord with filmmakers, critics, and casual fans alike, illustrating the arbitrary nature of these guidelines and how colonization plays a factor in all of this. English has been forced upon numerous cultures and countries throughout history. By the early 20th century, the British Empire had colonized nearly a quarter of the world and held tremendous power in much of Africa, South Asia, Oceania, and the Caribbean. While most of these countries have gained independence since, English is still central in many of their cultures.
The Academy’s response to criticism has been focused on celebrating globalism and emphasizing preexisting rules, but the reality that they refuse to acknowledge is that these countries are being penalized for having been colonized. While explaining the decision to rename the category back in April, Larry Karaszewski, one of the co-chairs of the International Feature Film Committee, said in a statement, “We have noted that the reference to ‘Foreign’ is outdated within the global filmmaking community…We believe that International Feature Film better represents this category, and promotes a positive and inclusive view of filmmaking, and the art of film as a universal experience.”
While it is commendable that the Academy is striving for inclusivity in their language, changing the category’s name does little to remedy its restrictions. There are certainly arguments to be made for keeping the rules as they are; not only would it be in keeping with past precedents (including the disqualification of The Band’s Visit in 2008), but it spotlights subtitled cinema which often gets ignored among American audiences. However, inclusivity is not something Karaszewski can claim on behalf of the Academy while ignoring the ways in which he and his colleagues are sidelining certain countries and their respective cinematic cultures.
There is something deeply troubling about an American institution such as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences deciding what is and is not “international” or “foreign” enough. This phenomenon feels eerily similar to how Edward W. Said defined Orientalism in his book of the same name. In his introduction, Said writes that the othering of non-white, non-European cultures “helped to define Europe (or the West) as its contrasting image, idea, personality, [and] experience.” The orientalist other must be seen as different enough from the West so that white Europeans (and Americans) can cultivate idealistic identities in response to imagined ideas of what Brown, Black, and Asian cultures embody. Orientalism requires and reproduces stereotypes in order to further drive individual differences and societal segregation.
It’s about time that we acknowledge the problematic roots of assigning, monitoring, and enforcing appropriate standards of cultural difference. Whether that be language or other aspects of culture, this practice is arbitrary, unhelpful, and misguided. As the International Feature Film Committee reflects on this year, their name change, and the controversy that’s emerged over their decisions to disqualify Lionheart and Joy, they will hopefully consider new rules that better represent the “positive and inclusive view of filmmaking” they’re trying to model.