The Academy’s Best Foreign Film category has been dogged by controversy for years. We suggest one potential solution.
This year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences received a record number of submissions for its Best Foreign Language Film (92, up from 85 last year). Nevertheless, the familiar cry of “snub!” continued to ring out when the shortlisted nine films were announced in December, as it was revealed that high-profile favorites like the Barry Jenkins-backed French entry BPM, Norway’s critical hit Thelma and Cambodia’s BAFTA-nominated First They Killed My Father had failed to make the cut. And then, when the nine were whittled down to the final five in January, Germany’s In the Fade — which had picked up prizes at Cannes, the Golden Globes, and the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards — was conspicuously absent.
This sorry state of affairs is not a new one: at last year’s Oscars, two favorites of the National Board of Review — Pedro Almodóvar’s Julieta and the Golden Globe- and Critics’ Choice-winning Elle — didn’t pick up Best Foreign Film nominations. A couple of years prior to that, the Dardenne brothers’ humanity-affirming Two Days, One Night and Xavier Dolan’s Mommy were absent in the category, while the year before that saw a bumper crop of snubs that included Asghar Farhadi’s The Past, Israel’s Venice prize-winning Bethlehem, Chile’s Gloria, Saudi Arabia’s category debut Wadjda and Hong Kong’s The Grandmaster.
The fact that Oscar voters are 72% male, 87% white and, as of 2013 figures, have an average age of 63 may have something to do with why some of the aforementioned movies were passed over — people who fit these kinds of demographics tend to prefer more mainstream films (both in terms of form or subject matter), whereas many of the above movies are decidedly unconventional in content and style. Without detailed voting data, however, we can only speculate as to how voter demographics influence this category. (Regardless, the Academy’s commitment to diversifying its membership is a necessary reform in ensuring the health of this and all other Oscar categories.)
There is another historical trend specific to this category that has indisputably undermined its aims and damaged its reputation, however, and the culprit here is comparably easy to identify: it’s the one-film-one-country rule.
This means exactly what it says on the tin: each country is only permitted to submit one film for consideration in the Best Foreign Film category each year (which film is ultimately submitted is entirely down to the national selection committee of the country of production). Although the reasons behind its implementation are noble – we’ll get to that later – the rule has caused controversy more than a few times since it’s common for one country to produce more than a single fan favorite or critical darling in a year. Take Blue is the Warmest Color, for instance: Abdellatif Kechiche’s much-buzzed-about film lost the chance to compete at the 2015 Oscars to biopic Saint Laurent, which, given the benefit of hindsight, was a bad choice on the part of the French selection committee (Saint Laurent failed to earn even a nomination, a feat Blue would have easily achieved). This example preceded a similar situation at the 2016 Oscars when Jacques Audiard’s deeply affecting Dheepan lost out on the chance to compete to Deniz Gamze Ergüven‘s stunning feature debut Mustang. Three years earlier, Audiard’s Marion Cotillard-starrer Rust and Bone had suffered the same fate when unlikely buddy comedy The Intouchables was submitted by France (Intouchables made the shortlist, but ultimately didn’t feature in the final five nominations).
Whether you prefer one film in each of these pairings or consider them of equal merit, the French example illuminates the recurring problem with the one-film-one-country rule: when more than one exceptional movie is produced by a nation with a robust film industry (like France, Italy, or Japan), deserving films are arbitrarily forced to compete against each other instead of being allowed to shine in their own right. As two of the above examples demonstrate, the (often illogical) national selection decisions can lead to the movie with the most glaringly obvious chance at a nomination losing the submission, and so potential category winners are locked out of the race from the start. (For some non-French examples, the Indian selection for the 2014 Oscars was The Good Road, a surprising pick given the substantial acclaim The Lunchbox was drawing, while Japan passed on Palme d’Or nominee Like Father, Like Son, widely considered the country’s best bet at the Oscars, in favor of The Great Passage in the same year.)
Under the current system, films deserving of submission can also be held hostage by national politics, should it permeate their countries’ selection committees (which are run according to their jurisdiction and entirely separate from the Academy’s exacting rules and regulations). Last year, for instance, Palme d’Or-contender Aquarius was snubbed by the Brazilian selection committee following political statements made by the cast and director on the Cannes red carpet in 2016 that criticised the ongoing impeachment of the then-Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. The new government retaliated by appointing the most high profile of the protest’s critics to the Ministry of Culture’s Oscar selection committee, with the move working to the desired effect: Aquarius was rejected in favor of Little Secret, a film that had achieved comparatively less critical success (and which ultimately failed to make the shortlist).
Despite the faults of the one-film-one-country rule, however, repealing it would be both counter-productive to the aims of the Academy and detrimental to the good of movie-loving audiences. The rule was originally implemented to level the playing field so that movie-making leviathans like France, Italy and Spain couldn’t dominate the race in terms of quantity, thereby allowing films from smaller countries a (theoretically) equal shot at a nomination and a win.
More than just allowing prolific countries a monopoly over the category, abolishing the one-film-one-country rule would also likely have a knock-on effect to the diversity of nominated films — which, as argued above, is something none of the Oscar categories can afford to risk. Since the category’s creation sixty-one years ago, around 84% of the winning films have been from Europe. Roughly speaking, the share of total winning films that featured no actors of color in their principal casts is 82%. Given the proximity of these figures, the suspicion that European films equal films about white people generally bears out. As Hollywood itself has begun to diversify its output at long last, repealing this rule could end up being a regressive move that would shut out crucial diverse voices from countries that deserve as high a profile as their more prolific peers. Keeping the one-film-one-country rule, alongside implementing an overhaul of Academy-wide membership, is the best bet the category has for improving its ability to recognize movies that don’t fit the European status quo.
(As a side note, it’s worth recognizing that some European Oscar winners do tell diverse stories and feature actors of color in principal roles, as is the case in Switzerland’s winning entry for 1990, Journey of Hope. On the flip side, however, almost the entire cast of 1969 winner Z — which was classed as an Algerian entry given its joint production credit with France, since 40% of its funding came from the Algerian government and production took place in the country – were white European actors. Thus, what anomalies do exist on either side generally cancel each other out.)
Getting rid of the one-film-one-country rule would not solve the category’s problems; in fact, on its own, it would likely damage the competition regarding diminishing the range of voices recognized. But why not implement a compromise that would both retain the current system’s diversity-shielding strengths while still allowing for recognition of multiple gems from the same country (as in the Dheepan and Mustang case)?
Bringing the maximum number of Best Foreign Film nominations into line with those of Best Picture could be the first step to resolving the Foreign category’s perpetual woes. As it stands, the Best Picture category allows for up to ten nominees, while nominations for Best Foreign Film are capped at five. The César Awards (France’s answer to the Oscars) have parity between their equivalent two categories, so why can’t the Academy Awards? Arguably, given Hollywood’s globally-recognized synonymity with cinema, the Academy has a greater responsibility than other countries to lead by example and make sure they give proper, thoughtful consideration to the rest of the world’s output.
The second part of this potential solution involves incorporating wildcard picks. If the maximum number of Best Foreign Film nominees is raised to nine or ten, then some of these new spots could be reserved for a special committee that wouldn’t be restrained by the one-film-one-country rule. This doesn’t mean that countries would submit more than one entry each; just that, if one should produce more than a single exceptional film in a year (or, indeed, if a country submits none at all) the special committee could sift through non-submitted films – those that have performed well on the festival circuit, for example – and could then allocate them a wildcard nomination on merit. In the examples cited above, this means that, even if internal politics should bar Aquarius from receiving the Brazilian entry spot, the Academy’s special committee could still make it a viable contender. Equally, should France put out more than one deserving movie in a year — as in the Dheepan and Mustang case — they could both earn themselves a rightful place in the final ten-or-so nominations.
Submissions from less prolific filmmaking countries would still be given, at a minimum, the same attention they’re currently receiving from Oscar voters, and Academy-wide membership reforms would help improve on this. Tweaking the system in this way just ensures that outstanding movies like Blue is the Warmest Color and Aquarius get a fair shot at the Best Foreign Language Film prize. Given the embarrassment that has dogged the category for years, a move like this would serve a dual purpose: it would work to repair the Academy’s damaged reputation and rescue worthy movies from falling through the cracks.