Oscars 2022: more foreign titles get recognition outside international film category

Danish entry 'Flee' is the first title in Academy Awards' history to be eligible in the animated, documentary and international nominee lists

A still from 'Flee', which tells the story of an asylum seeking Afghan refugee, Amin. Photo: Neon
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This week, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences announced its shortlists in 10 categories. It’s the annual process in the Oscar race that leads to a whittling down to the final five films before nominations will be announced on February 8. Immediately, and inevitably, the talk turned to the snubs – not least as Julia Ducournau’s French entry Titane did not make the cut, left out of the 15 films shortlisted for the International Feature category.

Given Titane won the Palme d’Or in Cannes earlier this year and has become only the fourth French film to gross more than $1 million at the American box office in the past five years, it certainly constitutes a glaring omission. Then again, this controversial body horror about a psychotic woman with a fixation on cars and killing was always going to be a tough sell for Academy voters, especially to older members of the community.

Yet for every snub, there’s always an inclusion to be celebrated. This year, that is Flee, the Danish entry for the 2022 Oscars, which surely must be considered one of the hot favourites. This acclaimed animated non-fiction film from filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen has been shortlisted for both Best International Feature and Documentary, making it the only film this year to cross over between the two categories.

Detailing the true story of an Afghan refugee and his journey from Kabul to Copenhagen, it’s also the first film in Oscar history to be eligible in the animated, documentary and international categories. Even Ari Folman’s 2008 animated movie Waltz with Bashir, which told of the 1982 Lebanon war, was disqualified from the documentary selection by the academy, due to the film, at the time, not meeting certain release criteria.

Rasmussen’s film bears some comparison to Waltz with Bashir, with both using distinct hand-drawn animation to tell a highly personal tale of trauma. Rasmussen’s work, which has already won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize – Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, is framed by a series of interviews with "Amin" – an asylum seeker who goes by an assumed name and left Afghanistan in the 1990s when conflict intensified.

Alongside Flee, there are some other movies in the shortlist for international feature that have a chance of making an impact beyond one category. Among them is Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Japanese three-hour drama Drive My Car, about an actor-director who finds companionship with his female driver, which has received five-star reviews across the board ever since it played at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, where it won Best Screenplay.

Other Cannes breakouts that made the cut include Valdimar Johannsson’s Icelandic fantasy Lamb, Finnish-made Jury Prize winner Compartment No. 6 and Norwegian romantic-drama The Worst Person in the World, which won Best Actress in Cannes for Renate Reinsve. Also among the contenders is Paolo Sorrentino’s 1980s-set The Hand of God, which took the Silver Lion Grand Jury Prize at Venice this year.

With Sorrentino’s film released by Netflix, the streaming company will doubtless be determined to mount an aggressive awards campaign for the Italian director, who already has Oscar form – winning Best Foreign Language Film for his 2013 drama The Great Beauty. An easy-on-the-eye coming-of-age tale that takes place in Naples, The Hand of God wouldn’t be such a surprise if it landed in the main Best Picture category.

What it does show is that the foreign language berth is no longer considered a ghetto but a competitive category with crossover potential. This year, Thomas Vinterberg’s Danish drama of midlife malaise Another Round won the Best International Feature prize. Doubtless aided by the global appeal of its star Mads Mikkelsen, it also gained Vinterberg his first nomination in the Best Director category.

A year earlier, South Korean tragi-comedy Parasite made Oscar history in 2020 by becoming the first foreign language to take Best Picture. At the time, it was one of only 11 films not in English to have been nominated for the coveted prize in the history of the Oscars, an indication of just how difficult it can be for non-English films to penetrate the American market. Shattering records, Parasite took four Oscars that night, including Best Director and Best Original Screenplay.

Perhaps it was a once-in-a-decade outlier – a film like 2011 French movie The Artist, the silent-era comedy which won five Oscars. Yet Parasite’s director Bong Joon-ho left American audiences with food for thought that night in his acceptance speech: “Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”

A country where foreign movies have often struggled for representation, it looks as if that’s finally changing.

Diverse representation can partly be attributed to streaming platforms like Netflix; with 214 million subscribers around the globe, they don’t just serve the English-language market. Hit shows such as Spain’s Money Heist and South Korea's Squid Game have helped Americans get used to the idea of watching content that doesn’t just come from Hollywood. Meanwhile, distributors like Neon – releasing Titane, Flee and The Worst Person in the World – are specialists in marketing foreign movies to those on in the US.

Admittedly, there is still a long way to go before Flee and The Hand of God can compete on a level playing field with the likes of Steven Spielberg’s musical West Side Story or Ridley Scott’s Italian fashion house murder-mystery House of Gucci (which, let’s face it, will probably trump Sorrentino’s movie among voters, despite the abundance of Italian cliches and dodgy accents from Jared Leto and Lady Gaga).

Yet, should Flee be nominated in the animation category – where it may be up against Disney’s Encanto – it would still be a huge step. Following the US withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan this year, leaving Afghans under Taliban rule, a film like Flee is more relevant than ever.

“It’s just heartbreaking to see how history repeats itself,” Rasmussen told me recently. The more his film can be supported by the Oscars, the more people can hear Amin’s story and understand what life is like for millions of Afghans, even now.

The 94th Academy Awards will take place on March 27, 2022

Updated: December 24, 2021, 3:22 PM