Why a shortlist of films now? The best foreign language Oscar explained

Find out how this category actually works – and what films qualify – with our handy guide

71st Cannes Film Festival - photocall for the film "Capernaum" (Capharnaum) in competition - Cannes, France May 18, 2018. Director Nadine Labaki and cast member Zain Al Rafeea. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau
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Nadine Labaki's Capernaum successfully made the shortlist for next year's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar this week – the film is Lebanon's entry and is on the list of nine films that will ultimately be cut to five nominees, which will be announced at the final Oscars nominee announcement on January 22.

Most people probably don’t know too much about the category, although for cinephiles it’s a useful guide to some of the best world cinema of the last year, and for studios and producers a useful glimpse into filmmaking talent that may have previously slipped under the radar.

Here we will attempt to explain a little more about this mysterious category, so sit back and enjoy our Foreign Language Film explainer...

Why the foreign language film shortlist?

The first question you may ask is, “why does this category have a shortlist announced in December, then a nominations list in January?” The simple answer is volume.

The Academy’s voting members are mostly English speaking, so are unlikely to have watched all the submissions in this category – this year 87 countries made a nomination, while the record stands at 92 in 2017. By having a panel cut the list down to the best nine in December, it’s more realistic to expect voters to watch them and pass an opinion in time for the awards in February.

The foreign language film isn’t alone in this – some of the other less glamorous awards also have shortlists. Best Documentary Feature was cut from 166 submissions to 15 this week, while the three shorts categories (animated, documentary and live action) were cut down to 10 each.

What is the qualifying procedure?

The Best Foreign Language Film Oscar has been presented annually since 1956, but the rules have changed periodically over that time.

The main requirement for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film is that at least half of the film's dialogue must be in a foreign language. Films that have too much English dialogue have been disqualified from consideration in the past, such as the 2007 Israeli film The Band's Visit.

The film doesn't necessarily have to be in the language of the submitting country, which means that some, primarily English-speaking, countries have submitted films in a variety of languages. The UK, for example, submitted Babak Anvari's Farsi horror Under the Shadow as its entry for 2016.

The rule doesn't only apply to English-speaking countries though. In 2001, for example, Danis Tanovic hoped to submit his Bosnian language comedy/drama No Man's Land as Slovenia's entry – he lived in Slovenia and the film was largely produced there. In the event, the Slovenians chose another film anyway, so Tanovic went instead to Bosnia and persuaded their film board to submit it.

They had produced no other films that year so they did. It won the Oscar. Oops, Slovenia.

What is the foreign requirement? 

Interestingly, the film has to be foreign (to the United States) as well as in a foreign language. So that means no Spanish-language movies that are US productions, for instance. This rule has caused confusion in the past. Some commentators were outraged that 2004's The Passion of the Christ was not nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, despite its box office success. After all, the film is entirely in Aramaic, Latin, and Hebrew and was shot in Italy. However, since it was created by Icon Productions, an American company, it was not eligible for consideration and could not even be submitted.

This differs from the rules for the Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film, which is only a language requirement. 2006's Letters from Iwo Jima was awarded the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film because even though it was directed by an American (Clint Eastwood) for an American studio, it was primarily in Japanese. However, it was ineligible to be submitted for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar (that year the Oscar went to Germany's The Lives of Others).

There's also the matter of a cinema release and one film per country

Finally, a potential Best Foreign Language Film nominee is also required to play for at least seven consecutive days in any theatre in its home country, in a similar way to how US films (or any film for the main Oscars categories) must have played in an LA cinema for seven consecutive days to qualify for the main awards.

Of course, there are a lot of films released in a year, so to narrow it down further, each country may only submit one film for consideration per year. This is usually handled by a country’s film board, film commission, or similar.

The UAE, with its two film commissions for Dubai and Abu Dhabi, did establish a committee made up of representatives from both cities' industries in 2017, however they declined to nominate a film that year, and have since been inactive following the closure of Dubai International Film Festival, which had spearheaded the Oscar nomination campaign.

Submissions must be made by October 1, the so-called longlist that Nabaki was celebrating making back in October, and then the shortlists are announced in December - which happened this week - and the winner is announced at the Awards, which will be on February 25, 2019.


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