The Academy Awards, Foreign Films and American Jingoism

For the third year in a row, a Canadian film is up for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards. This time it’s Kim Nguyen’s Rebelle, the story of a young girl abducted by rebels in Sub-Saharan Africa and forced to bear arms. As a fan of both Canadian and international films, one of the more frustrating aspects of watching the Oscars is the predictably absurd manner in which the Academy disregards the cinema of dem scary foreigners.

The truth is, I probably watch more films with subtitles than without — though that may say as much about my embarrassing monolingualism as it does about my film choices. When the Academy Award nominations come out every winter, I hope in vain to see the latest Almodóvar or Kaurismäki film make the cut. More often than not, they don’t — at least not in the Best Picture category. In fact, since the Oscars began in 1929, only a handful of foreign-language films have been up for Best Picture. Ingmar Bergman’s Cries & Whispers in 1974, Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2001 and this year’s Amour are a few examples.

Some will legitimately point out that British films are often nominated and have even won Best Picture. Given the common language and cultural heritage, however, this should be no surprise. British actors and directors work in American films, and vice versa. Last year, for the first time ever a non-British and non-American film – Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist — won Best Picture. The film was produced in France, so this could be seen as a break in precedent for the Academy, but, of course, the film was silent, set in America and a glorification of Hollywood. So in the one instance where the Academy has ever awarded a non-American or non-British film, it was still one in which the Academy’s diversity and ability to read text at the bottom of the screen was not significantly tested.

Three years ago, the Academy increased the number of films that could contend for Best Picture from five to potentially ten, but this did little to make the awards more inclusive — unless throwing in a bunch of even lesser quality American films into the mix is your idea of inclusiveness. Of course, being more representative of world cinema was never the intent. It’s all about marketing, and always has been. Of the 38 films up for Best Picture since they expanded the number, Michael Haneke’s Amour is the only foreign-language nominee. And despite its quality, oddsmakers are extremely doubtful it has any chance of actually winning the Academy’s top prize.

Over the years, the Foreign Language Film category has changed from allowing only non-American films to only those not in English, meaning even English-Canadian films, for example, are ineligible. Since this category operates within these boundaries, some are led to believe that foreign films are also ineligible for the Best Picture award, when in fact the opposite is true. Furthermore, the rare inclusion of a foreign film for Best Picture reinforces the myth that they stand a chance, and that any film from any place on Earth could be nominated. The idea is that this list of nine or ten films truly is the best in the world, but in practice it’s the best in America with the occasional token foreign inclusion. (Some will argue that this rare token nomination for Best Picture brings the foreign film in question so much publicity that it’s worth including one into the mix periodically. However, the general crapping on foreign films that occurs each year and the damage it does to the reputation of international cinema far outweighs the accolades received by one individual film.)

The reason foreign films don’t do well at the Oscars, then, is not because they are ineligible, nor because they are of inferior quality. The reason that more foreign films are not successful during the American awards season has a name: jingoism.

While it’s true that the Academy is known for overlooking blacks and women, the organization excludes foreigners at an even greater rate. Are we really to believe that in 85 years the best film is (almost) always made in America? Really? When significantly more films are made in India and Nigeria than the United States, and when countries like France have contributed at least as much to cinema as America ever has, why are American films routinely declared the “Best”? American film output represents about 10% of the global film industry. Statistically, then, only about one in ten Best Picture winners should come from America. Even if we concede that a higher concentration of talent and exorbitant budgets exist within the U.S., America still isn’t mathematically likely to claim more than one in five Best Picture awards. But, then again, the problem isn’t a lack of talent around the world. Many of the greatest directors of all time don’t come from America (and even many iconic Hollywood directors such as Charlie Chaplin, Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock were foreign-born). A lack of quality foreign films is not the problem. The problem is an insular American industry and their lack of accepting outsiders.

I suppose it’s natural that an industry wants to celebrate its own, and there’s nothing wrong with the American film industry giving themselves awards. Mexico does it. Canada does it. Japan does it. The difference, however, is that most countries don’t have the pretense to suggest that their awards somehow represent the world. By allowing foreign films to be eligible for Best Picture and yet at the same time routinely denying them a nomination, Hollywood is giving the impression that these films have been judged unworthy, when in fact they were not even judged at all — they were simply excluded.

Part of the problem is an unawareness of world cinema. Americans watch their own movies at a higher rate than any other country in the world. Only India comes close. I suppose that fear of reading subtitles might be another issue, though one would hope this wouldn’t deter industry professionals.

As an ultimate solution I propose that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences rename their top prize what it is: “Best American Picture.” There should be no shame in this. The British Academy of Film and Television Arts have an equivalently named award. Just get rid of the pretense that the Best Picture is the world’s best — it’s not. Not even close.

I’m rooting for Amour this year, but not simply because it’s an “international film.” In my opinion, it’s clearly of higher quality than any of the American nominations. Sadly, Amour only represents a fraction of great films that, if things were fair, would blow the Hollywood flicks out of the water at any award ceremony. The Oscars are a façade. A fun one… but one that might be just a little more enjoyable if we cleaned up our definition of Best Picture. Then we could argue about whether the right film won, knowing that at least it was nominated for the appropriate category.

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Andrew Unger lives and writes in a dystopian Mennonite town, but feels no Orwellian sense of urgency to escape. He is the author of, among other things, the novel Inches from America. He promises that the next one will be better.