World Cinema: Oscar glory?

As the Academy Awards loom, Nick looks at what impact an Oscar has on world cinema's winners and losers…

So, it’s Oscar time, that annual back-slapping ceremony for the American film industry which matters, year after year, despite what any of us say.

I watched the ceremony live last year and may even do so again this time round (although, due to a Haribo-induced sugar rush, then crash, I don’t really remember the end of the ceremony), and so will a global audience of millions.

It’s the biggest award ceremony on the planet, and it also includes an often overlooked category of Best Foreign Language Film, which is where this column comes in. We all know it means a lot for the English language films that are nominated, but what about the films that come from further afield? Just how big a deal is being recognised by the Western establishment, and does taking home the prize lead to a lasting legacy?

Before taking a look at a few winners, here’s a brief bit of context to the prize. Until 1956, there was no formal category for foreign films, merely a discretionary prize handed out to those films that the Academy believed were deserving enough. Such winners included The Bicycle Thieves and Rashomon.

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However, this was changed to make it an annual award, with nominees battling it out amongst themselves for the top honour. The first film to be officially awarded the Oscar for the Best Foreign Language film was Federico Fellini’s La Strada. Since then, the rules have remained pretty consistent.

Only one film is allowed per country, and it has to be in a language other than English (which is why British films compete in the more mainstream categories). It does not have to be exhibited in the United States, but cannot be an American production (whatever its language), and similarly, the host country must (somewhat subjectively, I guess) have a measure of artistic control over the final product. This often stops internationally successful directors from being nominated in the category, such as Ang Lee for Lust, Caution

However, it does not need to be in the language of the representing country. This was a relatively recent rule change due to the disqualification of the Italian film, Private, which featured Arabic and Hebrew as its spoken languages.

With all that in mind and a few other finer points that are too boring to go into here, it’s game on for the eligible films.

But is Oscar glory worth it? For many, the instant answer would be yes. Winning brings a far greater exposure to the wider moviegoing public in the West than almost any other form of marketing, and can also launch a director’s career. The case of the inaugural winner points to this, as Fellini went on to be one of the most respected European filmmakers of all time and, in fact, went on to win the award several more times.

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In the English speaking realm of film history, and its cousins, film theory and criticism, this win would seem vital in sparking a vibrant film career which has enriched millions.

A glance down the winners list points to other legendary and celebrated names, Ingmar Bergman for Through A Glass Darkly in 1961, Vittorio De Sica for Yesterday, Today And Tomorrow in 1964, and Francois Truffaut for Day For Night in 1973. Each of these wins brought a new audience to these directors’ works and, no doubt, inspired more people to watch world cinema.

To bring the examples of the good a win has done to the most recent ceremony, a look at The Secret In Their Eyes reveals the power of an Oscar award. To many, this was a shock result, beating the far more fancied The White Ribbon and my own personal favourite film of last year, A Prophet.

However, it was definitely the best result. What could have been another overlooked South American film was suddenly thrust into the wider movie viewing public’s conscience. And it is an incredible film, brilliantly shot and tightly told, with a filmmaking craft which deserves to be heralded.

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If not for the win, it would not have been a must-see ticket at many film festivals, nor would it have received a wide release in the UK, which enabled many more (including myself) to see it. Further along it also made sure that it received a prominent position in shop displays and a ready availability on movie rental sites. Truly a case of from zero to hero and all thanks to a shock win.

However, it’s not all accolades and back-patting for this category. As always with the Oscars, it acts as a double-edged sword. While it is brilliant to have the category, and I think, on the balance of things, I would much rather it existed than didn’t, it does have a few flaws.

Firstly, it serves to diminish the work of film festivals around the world by concentrating the world cinema titles of ‘worth’ into a bunch of five films arbitrarily selected by the Academy. These films are put forward by the host country, and as they can only promote one, it is surely to the detriment of all other films produced by that same country.

The general public may show a brief interest in the nominated five, but sadly, will most likely look no further than them. And on occasion it is ambiguous as to what film is selected by each country and why.

The 1975 winner for the Soviet Union was Dersu Uzala, directed by one Akira Kurosawa, surely, a star striker signing if I’ve ever seen one. A look across the history of winners also reveals an alarming European bias, consolidating the often erroneous belief that world cinema equates to European cinema.

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Since 1956, there have been a total of 43 winning films from Europe, of which the big name directors mentioned earlier accounted for 10 by themselves (Truffuat with one, De Sica with two, Bergman with three, and Fellini with four). It wasn’t until 1968 that the Soviet Union won, and then the following year, the first African film took home the prize for Z.

Although recent wins for South Africa’s Tsotsi and Argentina’s The Secret In Their Eyes has opened up the trans-international nature of the award somewhat, the fact remains that the Best Foreign Language Film award still has some way to go before it can truly represent world cinema, rather than the establishment’s view of what constitutes ‘otherness’ in film.

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