International Oscar field highlights humanity's darker side

Films show stories of genocide, corruption, alcoholism, refugees and bullying among entries from five countries

(FILES) In this file photo taken on February 21, 2008 Oscar statuettes are displayed at the "Meet The Oscars" exhibit before the 80th annual Academy Awards in Hollywood, California The Oscars on Sunday will mirror the movie industry they honor: transformed by the pandemic, forced to experiment with new venues and formats, and likely to be dominated by "Nomadland."
The crowning event of Hollywood's awards season was delayed by two months, and will mainly be held at Los Angeles' Union Station, chosen for the social distancing its enormity allows in the age of Covid-19.
 / AFP / Gabriel BOUYS
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Dramatic portrayals of people's cruelty towards others are a theme in this year's Best International Feature Film Oscar race, with stories of genocide, corruption and bullying among entries from five countries that include two first-time nominees.

Denmark's comedy-drama Another Round is the outlier, with its tale of teachers who agree to drink a certain amount of alcohol every day in the hope it will get them out of a middle-aged rut.

Another Round is seen as the front-runner to take the Oscar on Sunday, given that its director, Thomas Vinterberg, a co-founder of the Danish Dogme 95 movement of low-budget naturalistic filmmaking, also snagged a surprise Best Director nod.

Yet Vinterberg had his own tragedy to cope with when his teenage daughter died in a traffic accident just as filming began. Completing the movie became a way to honour her, star Mads Mikkelsen said.

"It is a film about reclaiming your life, it is never too late," Mikkelsen said.

This year's other entries are dark – but also convey a hopeful message.

Romania got its first-ever Academy Award nomination with Collective about the aftermath of a deadly nightclub fire.

Collective follows journalist Catalin Tolontan, whose investigations revealed that badly burnt victims were treated in improper hospital conditions, with inadequate cleaning products linked to many deaths.

Romanian director Alexander Nanau said the double nominations mean the 2015 fire and subsequent healthcare scandal "will not be forgotten".

Bosnian war drama Quo Vadis, Aida?, about a woman's desperate effort to save her husband and sons during the 1995 Srebrenica genocide, would be the second Bosnian film to take home an Oscar after No Man's Land in 2002. The film, directed by Jasmila Zbanic, centres on Aida, an interpreter for the UN when the Bosnian Serb Army takes over the town during the Bosnian war. "Quo Vadis" is a Latin phrase meaning "Where are you going?"

"This film was not made to divide and confront people but the opposite – to understand each other better," said Zbanic.

The Man Who Sold His Skin, the first Tunisian film to be nominated for an Academy Award, is a satirical drama about a Syrian refugee who agrees to become a living artwork in the hope of getting a European visa.

L'Homme qui avait vendu sa peau / The Man Who Sold His Skin. *NO CREDITS*
A scene from 'The Man Who Sold His Skin' 

Hong Kong's entry Better Days, about a bullied high school student facing daunting college-entry exams, was a major draw at the Chinese box office in 2019, grossing $230 million.

But Hong Kong authorities have decided not to broadcast the Oscars ceremony on television for the first time since 1969 in a move which activists have linked to the nomination of another film – the documentary Do Not Split – about the city's 2019 democracy protests.

Better Days, adapted from a popular novel, stars Zhou Dongyu as a high-school girl tormented by peers, who befriends a young criminal played by pop music star Jackson Yee.

"The film carries a very positive message and [bullying is] something that needs to be discussed," director Derek Tsang said.