A worldwide win for foreign language filmmakers

Academy president announces in Dubai that global votes will be cast, writes Tahira Yaqoob

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - DECEMBER 08:  President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences John Bailey during a photocall on day three of the 14th annual Dubai International Film Festival held at the Madinat Jumeriah Complex on December 8, 2017 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for DIFF)
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Next year's Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film will be voted on by countries around the world for the first time in the Academy Awards' 90-year history, the president revealed at Dubai International Film Festival (Diff). The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (Ampas) previously decided which film should get the award after voting members in the United States and the United Kingdom nominated a shortlist.

But new president John Bailey, who took over the helm at the Academy in August, overturned the process, enabling voters in multiple countries to have their say. While the first round of screenings will take place in the US and Britain, streaming will enable more Academy members in different places to participate in deciding on who the winner will be.

Bailey said the change had come about because while Hollywood had historically absorbed the best of talent from around the world, there was an increasing awareness of accomplished filmmakers around the globe and a hunger for world cinema.

The move comes after a growing number of calls for more diverse voices to be recognised and included in how the Academy functions. Movements such as #OscarsSoWhite have led to growing recognition of the need to reflect minorities both in film selections and among those in charge of the film industry’s biggest awards ceremony. “This year we are opening it up to all members. For the first time, all the members who live outside the US and the UK will be able to sign up in some way,” Bailey told a Diff audience.

“They will be able to see all nine [shortlisted] films and vote on five online. It is going to be much more expanded this year, not just in terms of American and English members but around the world.”

Deciding on the Best Foreign Language Film has always been a convoluted process and weighted in favour of the opinions of voters in the US and UK, which made little sense when the US was not eligible to enter the category. Bailey, a cinematographer who worked on The Big Chill, Groundhog Day and As Good as It Gets, has long been a fan of foreign language cinema and started pushing for long-awaited changes in the voting rules when he took up his four-year post. Under the new system, the 92 eligible foreign language films were screened in Los Angeles this week. Anyone living in Southern California was eligible to sign up to vote, as long as they committed to watching 15 of the films.

The academy has 2,000 registered members in LA, of whom up to 600 volunteers signed up to see this year's entries. The six highest-rated films from that first round will go through to the next stage, where an Academy-nominated executive committee, who have watched all the entries between them, add three more films deemed worthy to the shortlist (this phase was introduced in 2008 after Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, among others, missed out on an Oscar nomination).

In January next year, that shortlist of nine films will then be screened in San Francisco, London and New York over a three-day period and will be voted on by any of the Academy’s 8,400 members worldwide. Crucially, the shortlist will simultaneously be streamed in countries across the world. Although the membership is a closely guarded secret, the Academy has 17 branches worldwide.

 The final five will be announced on January 23. Bailey said: "It started in 1956 with Fellini's La Strada [the first time the Oscars had a foreign language category] and every year since then, the number of countries taking part increases. This year 92 countries submitted films. Even our most dedicated member did not see all 92. I certainly didn't – I was travelling, but I did see about 35 of them.

“The reality is that the entire history of filmmaking in Hollywood, right from the silent days, has devoured and absorbed the best talent from around the world. In the silent era, we saw all the great, incredibly distinguished filmmakers sucked out of the Weimar Republic and into Hollywood. There were many of them who became defined as American filmmakers but they were really from different parts of the world.”

He said historically, foreign filmmakers like François Truffaut, who tried to make English language films in Hollywood, had failed. "I hope they continue to make films in their own countries."

The Ampas president added that while it was undeniable that “American and Hollywood cinema is a colossus,” he was thrilled to see “filmmakers around the world who are achieving and maintaining a stronger identity within their own culture and starting to be recognised, just not in Hollywood”. He added they no longer needed to flock to the LA-based industry for that recognition.

Kimberly Peirce, director of Boys Don't Cry (1999) and governor of Ampas, said films like last year's Best Picture winner Moonlight showed there was growing diversity in cinema. "They are American films but they [represent] a different side of America that we have never seen," she said.


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