New Oscars category excludes English-language world cinema

Fuming filmmakers say the Academy Awards have left them in limbo

Genevieve Nnaji in Lionheart. Courtesy Netflix
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It seems that, of late, rarely a year goes past these days when the Oscars aren't under fire. In 2015, it was #OscarsSoWhite, a viral social media reaction to not a single person of colour being nominated in the lead or acting categories. Two years later, it was the horrendous on-stage gaffe as La La Land was announced as the Best Picture winner, instead of the actual recipient, Moonlight. Last year, the Academy couldn't secure a host after Kevin Hart's presenting controversy. And this year? It's the turn of the foreign-language film.

Back in April, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – the governing body that organises the movie industry's prime awards, the Oscars – announced that the Foreign Language Film category was to be renamed International Feature Film, because "the reference to 'Foreign' is outdated within the global filmmaking community", said Larry Karaszewski and Diane Weyermann, co-chairs of the category's committee.

A fair point, though it's ultimately the Academy that has looked to be outdated. Last week, Lionheart, a Nigerian 95-minute comedy directed by and starring Genevieve Nnaji, was disqualified on the grounds that the film was largely shot in English. Only a short section of the movie – approximately 11 minutes – features the Igbo language, one of the many native tongues spoken in the country.

The Academy issued a statement to clarify its position. "In April 2019, we announced that the name of the Foreign ­Language Film category changed to International Feature Film. We also confirmed that the rules for the category would not change," it said. "The intent of the award remains the same – to recognise accomplishment in films created outside of the United States in languages other than English."

The backlash began on social media after people swiftly pointed out that Nigeria's official language is English – resulting from decades of British colonial rule before independence was gained in 1960.

Emotions were charged. "These people came to colonise us, changed our language & now they are rejecting us for adopting their language," wrote one angry Twitter user, Lawrence Evra Okoro, echoing the sentiments of many.

Filmmaker Ava DuVernay – who was at the centre of her own Oscars scandal when her 2014 drama, Selma, about Martin Luther King, was overlooked from the nominations for Best Director – was one of the first to react. "You disqualified Nigeria's first-ever submission for Best International Feature because it's in English," she tweeted. "But English is the official language of Nigeria. Are you barring this country from ever competing for an Oscar in its official language?"

Nnaji was quick to respond, expressing her thanks to DuVernay for her support. “This movie represents the way we speak as Nigerians. This includes English, which acts as a bridge between the 500+ languages spoken in our country; thereby making us #OneNigeria.”

In a second tweet, she added: "It's no different to how French connects communities in former French colonies. We did not choose who colonised us. As ever, this film and many like it, is proudly Nigerian."

Meanwhile, the Nigerian Oscar selection committee called the Academy's decision an "eye-opener" and stated it would urge Nigerian filmmakers to shoot films in future using "non-English" to help qualify for the Oscars. Yet this seems a backwards step. Quite apart from it being insulting to tell Nigerian filmmakers to abandon the country's primary language if that's what they want to shoot in, a film in English is always likely to travel further around the world than one that will require subtitles. It immediately begs the question: what makes and defines a foreign film? Is it the language the characters speak – a rule the Academy goes by – or is it the country of origin, where the action takes place? What about non-American films – from Britain or Australia, say – where English is also the primary language? Are they technically not "international films", too, since they don't originate from America? It's a conundrum, admittedly.

US filmmaker Ava DuVernay arrives for The SAG-AFTRA Foundation’s 4th Annual Patron of the Artists Awards at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills on November 7, 2019.
 / AFP / Jean-Baptiste LACROIX
US filmmaker Ava DuVernay. AFP

It's not that the Academy is against change. Two phases of voting for the International Film category – created to whittle the dozens of works submitted down to five eventual nominations – were recently updated. For example, Academy members are now allowed to watch the movies via streaming, rather than attending traditional screenings, allowing a greater number of people to vote – something that also gives foreign-­language films a better chance of being nominated in the main categories.

After the #OscarsSoWhite year, the former Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences president Cheryl Boone Isaacs even vowed to double the number of women and people of colour in the Academy by 2020, while also eliminating members who have not been active in the industry for more than a decade. It's a credible effort to increase the diversity of voters, thereby hopefully recognising movies written, directed by and starring so-called marginalised voices.

Yet is it enough? The Academy is too often accused of making cosmetic adjustments – this year's major upgrade is that Best Makeup and Hairstyling will now have five nominees instead of three. Unless you work in that particular field, it feels rather inconsequential. The Academy hasn't even addressed the industry's most prominent topic – whether films produced by streaming sites such as Netflix can qualify for the awards, since they're often given only a cursory theatrical release.

For an art form that should be about inclusivity, a foreign-­language category seems alienating in itself. But perhaps one compromise would be to have two categories for films made outside America – Best Foreign Film, for those in a non-English language, and Best International Film, which would include those made in English, such as Lionheart. And, of course, any film eligible for either category should also qualify for Best Picture or any of the other major awards.

In the end, the point of the Oscars for many directors and producers is not the award itself but the much-needed spotlight it brings to their film. A "foreign" film is always going to struggle, given that American cinema chains aren't exactly known for their love of programming subtitled films. The Academy needs to ensure it gives every film as much chance as possible to bask in the glory of one of those coveted golden statues.