Oscars renames its Best Foreign Language Film category – but what does that mean?

New Best International Film award seems set to confuse and convolute

Roma. Courtesy Netflix
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The Oscars has had a shake-up of its rules. While much of the attention has been focused on the welcome news that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will not exclude movies produced by streaming services from the awards, following a concerted campaign by traditionalists led by Steven Spielberg in the wake of Roma's success, another, smaller, rule change, seems to have slipped under the radar amidst all the Netflix noise.

The Academy has removed the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar category, which Netflix-produced Roma won last year despite losing out to Green Book for Best Picture amidst Spielberg's ire.

Or, more accurately, the Academy has rebranded the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar to Best International Film, and in the process it appears to have shot itself in the foot.

TOPSHOT - Best Director, Best Foreign Language Film, and Best Cinematography winner for "Roma" Alfonso Cuaron poses in the press room with his Oscars during the 91st Annual Academy Awards at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, California on February 24, 2019.  / AFP / FREDERIC J. BROWN
Best Director, Best Foreign Language Film and Best Cinematography winner for Roma', Alfonso Cuaron poses in the press room with his Oscars during the 91st Annual Academy Awards at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, California on February 24, 2019. AFP

The Academy’s reasons for the name change seem noble enough. In the statement issued about the rule changes, Larry Karaszewski and Diane Weyermann, co-chairs of the International Feature Film Committee said: “We have noted that the reference to ‘foreign’ is outdated within the global filmmaking community.”

So it seems that good old-fashioned inclusivity was the driving force behind the change, or political correctness if you like. The notion of ‘foreign’ seems outdated in the 21st century.

But this "foreign" reference isn’t about fear of “the other” or jingoism – it’s about films that are in a foreign language, literally, not as some negative abstract.

Or “films that are not in the English language” if foreign is that much of an anathema. There are plenty of faults with the system for foreign language film nomination, but the name of the award isn’t one of them.

First of all, the award excludes US-made films. At least the new title clears that up, but why? If a Hispanic American indie director makes a film in the Spanish language, or a native American does the same in his, or her indigenous tongue, should that not qualify as a foreign language film? It never did under the old name, and it still won’t under the new one. At least the exclusion makes literal sense with the new “international” epithet, but it still makes no logical sense.

This affects bigger names too – Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (in Aramaic, Latin and Hebrew) and Apocalypto (in Mayan) or Clint Eastwood's Letters From Iwo Jima should technically all have been in with a shout at the award, but under the strange rules, they weren't.

Angelina Jolie did find a way to beat the system in 2017 – Cambodia awarded her honourary citizenship as a means to nominate First They Killed My Father, but that seems a bit extreme just to get around an award with a very silly qualifying process.

Secondly, the new name is utterly misleading. If you dig deep into the Oscars rule book, specifically rule 13.B.4, you will find that the rules are still essentially the same: “The recording of the original dialogue track as well as the completed picture must be predominantly in a language or languages other than English. ACCURATE, LEGIBLE ENGLISH-LANGUAGE SUBTITLES ARE REQUIRED.”

91st Academy Awards - Oscars Backstage - Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, U.S., February 24, 2019. "Green Book" director Peter Farrelly reacts.   Matt Sayles/A.M.P.A.S./Handout via REUTERS    ATTENTION EDITORS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO MARKETING OR ADVERTISING IS PERMITTED WITHOUT THE PRIOR CONSENT OF A.M.P.A.S AND MUST BE DISTRIBUTED AS SUCH. MANDATORY CREDIT.
'Green Book' director Peter Farrelly reacts to the film's Best Picture win. Reuters

That’s not what the new name implies, however, and most Oscars viewers won't be holding a copy of the Oscars rulebook. There is no mention of language in the new award's name, just that the film must be “international.”

If we look at the success of British films at the Oscars, you have to go back to 2005 to find a year that did not have at least one film from a British director, writer, producer, or all three, nominated for Best Film.

Under the new name, surely the British 2008, 2010 and 2013 Best Picture winners – Slumdog Millionaire, The King's Speech and 12 Years a Slave should all have qualified for foreign language entry too? They're undeniably international – ie not American. Likewise British produced, written and directed nominees such as The Martian, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Gravity, Dunkirk, the list goes on.

Of course, they didn’t, and they wouldn’t under the new name either, but if the award is now for Best International Film, then surely they should?

The third major flaw in the category’s submissions procedure, which the name change again fails to address, is that the film must be nominated by a country’s official film body, and that each country may nominate only one film. This adversely affects countries at both ends of the scale of cinema industry.

Countries like France, Italy or Germany, with a burgeoning film industry, are restricted to one film per year, when they actually produce many more quality pictures. Imagine if Cannes limited the US and UK to entering one "foreign language" English film to compete in competition each year.

Countries with a smaller industry, meanwhile, may not even have an official nominating body. This means that even if Kyrgyzstan, for example, produced the greatest film ever, it probably wouldn’t be nominated. The UAE is a case in point here, as it currently has no nominating body. One was briefly convened in 2017, following years of campaigning spearheaded by the Dubai International Film Festival. With the cancellation of the festival and the departure of its staff last year, however, the nominating body also went into hibernation and a UAE film has never been nominated.

It also leaves film makers at the mercy of the whims of their local Film Commissions, or similar bodies. In 2001, for example, the Best Foreign Language Film winner, Danis Tanovic's No Man's Land was almost not submitted at all. The film was made in Slovenia, where Tanovic lives, but it was in the Bosniac language, given its setting during the break-up of Yugoslavia.

Slovenia chose not to submit it, however, preferring to stick to the Slovenian language Kruh in Mleko, which was not shortlisted. Tanovic's film only made the submissions list at all thanks to Tanovic's dual citizenship and the realisation that Bosnia had no other films to enter.

In fact, the very notion of entering a film by country seems far more outdated than the term "foreign" – that 2001 winner, for example, was a co-production of Slovenia, Italy, France, Belgium and the UK, entered under the Bosnian flag, and co-production is increasingly the norm in global cinema, and even in Hollywood. Even a huge blockbuster like Avengers: Endgame  features thanks to the British, Canadian and Quebecois film commissions among its closing credits. Is any film truly of one nationality in the modern age? The category needs a revolution, not a name change.

The Oscars has at least made one good decision today by allowing Netflix to continue competing in the awards, and the streamer seems intent on collecting plenty more. With its Foreign Language Film decision, however, it seems to have taken an already flawed category and simply muddied the waters even further.