The Great Debate: Should there be a separate Oscars ceremony just for foreign-language films?

Two film experts debate how Hollywood can become more inclusive

This Oct. 8, 2019 photo shows filmmaker Bong Joon-Ho posing for a portrait at the Whitby Hotel screening room in New York to promote his film "Parasite." On Monday, Jan. 13, Joon-Ho was nominated for an Oscar for best director for his work on the film. (Photo by Christopher Smith/Invision/AP)
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Every week, we get two people with opposing views to debate a trending topic. This week, The National's social media journalist Faisal Salah and art editor Samia Badih are discussing whether or not it would serve world cinema to create a separate Oscars ceremony just for foreign-language films.

Faisal Salah: Yes, there should be a separate awards show for films from around the world. It's 2020 and the Oscars only recognise foreign films that get traction in the US. This should change and the best way to start is to create a separate ceremony for international films only. The Booker Prize for Literature did this – a good example of how this formula can work.

Samia Badih: I think the reason why these foreign films get the recognition and international attention they do today is because they are celebrated at the Oscars, alongside their American counterparts. If another version of the Oscars were to be created just for foreign films, I'm not sure that attention would be the same. However, there is definitely room for improvement.

FS: But the number of foreign films that get flagged up every year is meager when compared with arguably mediocre western films that hog all the attention without any merit (example: Green Book).

SB: We could sit all day and argue about which films should or should not have received an Oscar or a nomination even, but, at the end of the day, the Oscars is an awards ceremony that celebrates the best in cinema in the US.

FS: Quality cinema has expanded beyond the US. Today, we can see the world's best films coming from countries like Japan, Belgium, South Korea, Senegal and many more. Most of the time, they're better and more original than anything being made in America, so they should have space to earn recognition.

SB: On this point, I completely agree with you. However, I think there is an opportunity for the Oscars to be more inclusive of more foreign films, and in more categories that go beyond the Best International Feature Film or the Best Documentary Feature categories. Why not make that move within the current Oscars?

FS: The Academy can and should do more, but for the past three years, they have always said they were doing more, and maybe they were. The system seems to be the problem, and I don't see the Hollywood system changing itself to include more international cinema.

For me, the beauty and power of foreign films is when they are explored by countries and cultures that are different to where they come from

SB: The only way that will be possible is if more foreign films get funding behind them with campaigns that work to get the Academy to take action. This kind of inclusivity needs lobbying and I think that work, although it might take a long time, is important and much more needed than a separate event for international films.

FS: I agree that there should be more money given to international films. The attitude towards films with subtitles needs to change. There's an opportunity for both cinemas and cinema-goers here to make money as well as enjoy a broad selection of films.

SB: Exactly. And so a separate awards ceremony that celebrates only foreign films will not help shift the attitude where it needs to be shifted. For me, the beauty and power of foreign films is when they are explored by countries and cultures that are different to where they come from. For instance, a film such as For Sama and the devastating story of Syria it tells. It is important that it is told everywhere, and extremely significant when it is seen by a European and North American audience who have not seen the impact of war on everyday life and at the very personal level. That exposure is particularly powerful. If we take foreign films out of the current Oscars, that kind of impact will be taken away.

The award-winning documentary 'For Sama' has had multiple awards nominations this season. Courtesy Waad al-Kateab

The same applies to other films. And we can see progress being made to some extent. Look at Roma last year, and Parasite this year – the latter has just received six nominations. That's a huge deal. If this is going to be the first South Korean film someone watches, it likely won't be their last.

FS: For now, we have to rely on the Academy and its voters to recognise the quality in these films, but not every film is able to reach them. When asked about the Oscars, the director of Parasite, Bong Joon Ho, said he doesn't care much for them because they are "local" and not international. He's precisely right, because of the parameters put in place by the Academy that allows films to qualify for a nomination. Imagine the amount of great films from around the world that do not get the recognition they deserve purely because they did not screen in Los Angeles?

The Academy must seek to change their parameters and include more films from around the world

SB: But that's how the Oscars work and the international film community can seek to change that.

FS: As the presumed gatekeepers of what makes for quality cinema, the Academy must seek to change their parameters and include more films from around the world. If we agree that the Academy can and should expand their parameters, then a more international Oscars can be achieved.

SB: It is possible and that's where I think we need the focus to be. The Academy still has a long way to go with regards to its foreign film category. We all saw what happened with Nigeria's official Oscar submission Lionheart last year. It was denied entry because the film is in English, and therefore was deemed not to be a foreign-language film, even though English is Nigeria's official language. And that's just one example.

Genevieve Nnaji in Lionheart. Courtesy Netflix

FS: The Academy must do away with archaic qualifications based on location and language, and focus more on how good a film is, regardless of where it comes from or what language it is spoken in. 
SB: 100 per cent. Joon Ho was right when he said upon receiving his Golden Globe: "Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films." I can't help but wonder what the Academy would do if a silent film becomes the biggest film of the year!