- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 18, 2007

Winning a Golden Globe award is often a predictor of Academy Award success. This year, however, that won’t be true of at least one category: best foreign language film.

Clint Eastwood took home that trophy Monday night for his Japanese-language “Letters From Iwo Jima.” The American production won’t even be on the shortlist when Oscar nominations are announced Tuesday: The academy requires foreign language films to be truly foreign.

That’s one of the controversial rules surrounding the award that’s been given to “8½” and “Day for Night” — but not “Ran” or “Europa, Europa.”

Those omissions aren’t the academy’s fault, however. Their respective countries did not submit them for Oscar consideration. The behind-the-scenes process that takes place in each country can be as fraught with contention as the Oscars themselves.

This year the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences invited 83 countries to submit films for best foreign language film consideration. That includes two countries never asked before, the former Soviet republics Azerbaijan and Kyrgyzstan. In all, 102 different countries have nominated films since the award was established in 1956. A record 61 countries took the academy up on its offer this year; just five will receive nominations in advance of the Feb. 25 ceremony.

Each country can submit one film. The only academy rule is that the committee making the selection should include artists working in film.

Germany is one of only 16 countries that has had a film in competition every year for the past 15 years. The Munich-based German Films Service + Marketing GmbH organizes and coordinates the selection. German Films’ USA/East Coast and Canada Representative Oliver Mahrdt explains that the decision is made by a committee made up of representatives from nine associations: Association of New German Film Producers, German Federal Film Board, Association of German Film Exporters, Association of Film Critics, Association of Film Directors, Association of Directors of Photography, Association of Cinema Owners, Association of Film Distributors and Association of New Feature Film Producers.

Each group elects a member, who doesn’t get paid for the work of seeing all submitted films. “Each representative is not allowed to have any connection to any of the submitted films, which guarantees the representative is impartial,” Mr. Mahrdt says. “It is imperative that the selected film has at least five votes from nine possible.”

“The Lives of Others” is this year’s selection. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s powerful debut about a high-ranking Stasi officer in 1984 East Berlin who comes to doubt his work while spying on an artist couple received a Golden Globe nomination. “It was an easy pick, because the film had an impressive ‘pedigree’ with awards from international film festivals, a U.S. distributor in place, great European box office results and numerous invitations to U.S. festivals,” Mr. Mahrdt reports.

Mr. Mahrdt says there’s no dispute over Germany’s process. “There is no controversy in the procedure, since every producer can submit his film, as long as the film qualifies according to the rules of the academy,” he says.

Perhaps that’s true for Germany, but other countries have certainly courted controversy.

“There’s definite politicking going on,” reports Anthony Kaufman, a freelance writer on foreign film for Variety, indieWIRE, and the Wall Street Journal online. “There are two opposing things going on in these voting bodies. One is they want a film which represents what they like about their country, putting their best face forward. And then there’s the politics of nominating something they think Americans will like.”

Sometimes those two desires clash.

“One of the most notable examples is [Spanish filmmaker Pedro] Almodovar. He’s had his moment in the sun many times, so he’s been overlooked many years because he’s already so well known. The voting body sometimes gives another filmmaker a chance,” Mr. Kaufman says. “Almodovar is not as loved in Spain as he is in America.”

Mr. Almodovar’s 2002 film “Talk to Her” was snubbed by Spain — but went on to win the filmmaker a best screenplay Oscar and a best director nomination. His “Volver” was submitted this year.

Sometimes films are slighted for darker reasons. “You might have a film that’s counter to how that government wants to present itself,” says Mr. Kaufman. “That was the case in Venezuela last year.” The gritty “Secuestro Express” had a young couple kidnapped and held for ransom in Caracas; it wasn’t chosen.

While the top-grossing foreign films in the U.S. tend to be martial arts pics, they’re rarely submitted. “The Host,” a monster flick and the highest grossing film in South Korean history, was rejected this year in favor of “The King and the Clown,” which Mr. Kaufman says is a “melodrama that was maybe more reflective of prestige cinema.”

Snubs aren’t always the fault of those abroad. “City of God” was submitted by Brazil for the 2003 awards, but didn’t get a nomination. The next year, when a U.S. release made it eligible, the highly acclaimed film received four nominations in the general categories.

The process has improved some on this end, though. Some of this year’s films wouldn’t have been eligible in the past, when the academy required films to be in the language of the country submitting. The well-regarded “Private,” an Italian film in Arabic and Hebrew about the Israeli occupation of a Palestinian family’s house, was disqualified last year. Canada’s entry this year is “Water,” a Hindi-language film shot in Sri Lanka after fundamentalists burned down sets in Varanasi, India.

That raises the question: What makes “Water” a Canadian movie? Or “Pan’s Labyrinth” a Mexican one? The latter film also received a Golden Globe nomination. It is set in Franco’s Spain and was shot in Spain with a Spanish cast, but its director is Mexican — although Guillermo del Toro no longer lives in that country. Academy rules simply state, “The submitting country must certify that creative talent of that country exercised artistic control of the film.”

With a “globalized film industry” and “international co-productions,” Mr. Kaufman notes, “it’s hard to say which country that film belongs to. Restricting it to specific countries is kind of outdated.”

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