When the first Academy Awards ceremony was held on May 16, 1929, there was no category for foreign language films. It wasn't until the 29th edition in 1956 that the United States-based Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences made the Best Foreign Language Film award a permanent fixture. Out of the 70 Oscars handed out since the first honorary category in 1947, 56 statues have gone to European films.
At the 90th Academy Awards, which is to air in the early hours of Monday morning UAE time, there is particular regional interest in the category thanks to Lebanese filmmaker Ziad Doueiri's nomination for The Insult – a film focused on a minor incident between a Lebanese Christian and a Palestinian refugee turns into an explosive trial that ends up dividing the two communities. While not the first time the Arab world has been represented in this category at Hollywood's night of nights, it is the first time Lebanon has secured itself a nomination.
The region first joined the world's foreign elite in 1959 when Egyptian director Youssef Chahine's classic Cairo Station was selected for one of the earliest Best Foreign Language Film statues. Since then, however, an Arab presence has been somewhat lacking. There was a Best Actor in a Supporting Role nomination for Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia in 1962, and a first Best Foreign Language Film nomination for Hany Abu Assad's Paradise Now in 2005, but by and large, the only Arab faces seen by those at the Oscars table were those dying in a hail of bullets in films such as The Hurt Locker (2008).
In the past five years, however, there has been dramatic improvement in those statistics. The 2014 ceremony saw Abu Assad up for contention for a second time, for his West Bank drama Omar. Two other films from the region were also nominated that year in other categories – Sarah Ishaq's Karama Has No Walls for Best Documentary (Short Subject) and Jehane Noujaim's Egyptian Arab Spring-inspired The Square for Best Documentary Feature – in what was a particularly strong regional showing. Two years later, Naji Abu Nowar's Theeb picked up Jordan's first nomination.
So what does being nominated for, or even winning, such a high-profile award mean? There is no doubting that an Oscar win, or even a nomination, is a big deal. And while the Best Foreign Language Film prize has nowhere near the same clout as a Best Picture or Best Director statue, the recognition does bring films that would otherwise enjoy limited success in their home market to the attention of an audience of millions. You might ask what that means in actual, tangible terms? Does the prize unlock the golden door to Hollywood fame and bring offers, money and audiences flooding in? Or is it more of a matter of personal pride – an honour of little relevance outside the cinephile world?
Taiwanese film director Ang Lee's meteoric rise to Hollywood legend, thanks to the 2001 success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, would suggest the former. At the other end of the scale, how many people know what Nana Dzhordzhadze, the director of 1997 nominee A Chef in Love, has been up to since her status bump? In actual fact, she is still a successful and prolific director in her homeland of Georgia, but hasn't exactly burst on to the international film stage.
Meanwhile, for the Bosnian director of 2001 winner No Man's Land, the accolade has proven a positive experience. While not quite as famous as Lee, Danis Tanovic has been solidly making films, most notably the 2013 Berlin Jury Grand Prize-winning An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker, since. Earlier this month, Tanovic was named by HBO Europe as director of its new Adriatic drama Success.
"Doors do fly open, money does come in – it doesn't flood, but it comes – and it helps your ego, too," Tanovic admits. There's a downside, though, the director adds: "You also get a lot of offers you don't want."
The star of No Man's Land, Bosnian comedian and rock star Branko Djuric, also felt the ripple effect of Oscars glory, eventually going on to appear in Angelina Jolie's directing debut, In the Land of Blood and Honey, in 2011.
The victory of No Man's Land also provided a glimpse into some of the vagaries of the Best Foreign Language Film nomination process – it only made the shortlist thanks to a last-minute change of nationality. "Bosnia really doesn't have a film industry," Djuric explains. "When we made this film, it was the first Bosnian film ever, but in fact it was shot in Slovenia, financed in Slovenia, most of the crew were Slovenian, the cinematographer was Belgian.
“We’d actually planned to enter the film to the Oscars as a Slovenian film, but the Slovenian Film Foundation chose a different film for their Oscar nomination. It was only then that it struck us that since the director, the scriptwriter and I are all Bosnian, and we speak Bosnian in the movie, it qualified as Bosnian, too. We went to the Bosnian government and asked if we could be their candidate. They said: ‘Sure – we don’t have anything else’.”
Closer to home, the director of another movie with somewhat mixed parentage – British/Jordanian Abu Nowar's Theeb was largely financed by backers in the United Kingdom – has shared Tanovic's positive experiences post-nomination. After being nominated, Nowar's film suddenly became a global phenomenon, rather than a Jordanian one, even though it didn't take home the coveted prize. "When we picked up the Oscar nomination, we suddenly picked up all these territories that wanted to screen the film that we never thought we would get," he says. "France, Greece, Columbia – it's just been growing [since the nomination]."
If there is one man who knows how the foreign-language film industry works, it is Paris-based film consultant Mohamed Bendjebbour. He works largely in the Gulf region, and was previously the French cultural attaché for audio-visual arts based out of the French Embassy in the UAE, and has served the same role in both Mumbai and Hollywood.
His previous role largely involved promoting French cinema in the Middle East and encouraging France/Gulf co-productions.
France has achieved more Best Foreign Language Film nominations than any other country, with 39, and as such, Bendjebbour has some experience of the effects of an Oscar nomination on a movie. “Winning the foreign language award changes everything because it opens a lot of doors into international markets,” he says. “It gives a boost to the domestic market, obviously. You can expect an additional 20 to 30 per cent on top of the original box office, and it definitely multiplies sales abroad for additional territories, too. Secondly, and importantly, it allows the distributor or producer to sell the film more expensively, and that can be crucial in a tough market.”
For Bendjebbour, the award is about far more than pride, though he concedes it isn’t necessarily a golden ticket to fame. “It really puts the director on the international map, but I wouldn’t say it’s an automatic door to Hollywood – although that can happen, and has, but it’s definitely a huge boost in profile, and it’s far more than a matter of personal pride.”
Doueiri agrees: for him, the nomination is a major source of national, as well as personal, pride. "It says we have lifted Lebanese cinema to an international level," he asserts. "This film is judged on every single aspect. The story, the actors, the screenplay, the photography, the directing, the music, everything. Everything adds a layer to it, and then we were nominated. This is a 100 per cent Lebanese film and the first time Lebanon's been nominated, and it shows we can go all over the world."
The recognition by the Academy came as welcome news for Doueiri after he endured a troubled 2017, which saw him arrested in Lebanon because of the content of his previous movie, The Attack – scenes shot in Israel contravened Lebanese laws. The film was also the subject of a concerted boycott campaign by the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, which is aimed at ending international tolerance of Israel's oppression of Palestinians.
For Doueiri, this year’s nomination has deep personal significance. “The Oscar is a vindication of me,” he says. “It shields us against those who attack us. The BDS movement waged a very nasty battle against me for absolutely no reason and that’s unfair, because the war against us does not serve their goal.
"Boycotting my film is not going to help free the Palestinians, I guarantee you that. But still they waged this war. I wish it hadn't come to this, but this has become so politicised. We didn't wage a war on anyone. We took a Palestinian actor to the Venice Film Festival [Kamel El Basha for The Insult], where he won best actor, and that's further strength and vindication against this fascist war that's being waged."
Doueiri's passion seems set to add an extra layer of intrigue to a ceremony already set to have a deep political subtext, thanks to this year's #TimesUp movement. Politics aside, however, it appears that, win or lose, Doueiri's career and those nominees to follow are set for a major upward turn on the basis of the nomination alone.