I’m watching a film trailer for a 2012 release longlisted for an Academy Award, and from what I can gather this is the kind of film which would ordinarily do well with those who hand out the statuettes every spring. Unusually for a film which could be sharing the stage amongst the biggest superstars in Hollywood, there’s very little coverage out there in English, although twelve people have provided ratings for it on IMDB. The trailer suggests this is classic Hollywood territory: girl goes off the rails, is knocked up, kicked about, falls pregnant and then is laughed at by a woman with large glasses and wide gums. Oh, and she speaks in Kyrgyz and the film only has Russian subtitles. That aside, it’s your typical mainstream storyline transferred to very atypical surroundings.
Whether the good folk of Kyrgyzstan had their hopes of Oscar glory with “Пустой дом” (“Pustoy Dom” or “The Empty House”) is anyone’s guess, but even if they did have their collective fingers crossed, the Academy shortlist released this week dashed those hopes in one whoosh of a fax machine. A record seventy-one submissions for “Best Film in A Foreign Langauge” were received this year of which just nine were chosen as potential winners. These nine, including some of the most well regarded critics’ favourites of the year such as the devastatingly beautiful “Amour” and lavish “A Royal Affair“, will be whittled down to five next month, a final figure which has been the only constant in the ‘Foreign Films’ category since the very first was handed out in the 1950s.
What strikes me about the class of 2013 is another common theme they have with their predecessors over the years. They are predominately European, and West European at that, and even those which don’t come from our continental neighbours fail to provide much of an exploration of world cinema. Canada’s submission this year, for example, is the sixth to make at least the shortlist in the last seven years. Whilst France, perennial nominees with this being their sixth in the last decade, is a country you’d expect to see in the mix or thereabouts, this year sees the first ever shortlist inclusion for Chile. Now I’m no expert in Chilean cinema, so maybe everything thus far submitted has been awful, but the law of averages suggests that to be unlikely. For the record, I’ve watched the trailer for their entry “No“, and whilst the deliberate use of outdated video stock is a bit glaring, it looks like an engrossing and madcap political drama, with the added bonus of a staring role for the ever dashing “Amores Perros” star Gael García Bernal.
Here’s the number crunching science part. This year seven of the 71 shortlisted entries are from Western Europe, last year it was six from 63, the year before four from 66, whilst for 2010 it was six out of 67. If I go back to the year of my birth, four of the five final nominees were Western European, with Japan making up the fifth, and there’s a country which is not a stranger to being amongst the possible winners. However you look at it, the most basic conclusion is either the basic fact that European cinema is intrinsically better than anywhere else, or the Academy has a blindspot-cum-love affair with the industry as an institution. Have they been in a spell since the days of Fellini or is there something more sinister going on? I don’t often fling around the accusation of imperialism, though when there’s an award specifically designed to celebrate non-American cinema it does strike an odd note that so much of it originates from developed, Western countries.
Another fact which strikes me as incongruous is the lack of recognition for perhaps the most prolific film producing country in the world; India. There’s been no shortlisted entry from India for twelve years, and before that it was 1988, a year when I was just about to start revising for my GCSEs. As with the Kyrgyzstan entry I checked out earlier, I’ve no doubt that the film was well regarded within its home market, so unless Bollywood is deliberately barring submissions from established directors I’ve no idea why there’s such an obvious snub. That said, I have to point this year’s Indian submission, “Barfi!“, is one of the highest-grossing Bollywood movies of all time, even though its synopsis doesn’t sound like my kind of thing – deaf and dumb man has relationship with two women, one of whom is autistic, and if you want to know if there’s a happy ending don’t scroll down too quickly on Wikipedia….
Economic power house China has yet to win an Oscar and has once again failed to be nominated this year. I found a trailer with English subtitles for “搜索“ (or “Sōusuǒ“, released with the English name “Caught in the Web”) and to be honest it seems to be part-pot boiling nonsense and part Chinese propaganda against the Internet, but that doesn’t mean every other entry they’ve tried is without greater merit. It was through Taiwan/Republic of China that the exceptional “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” was submitted in the year 2000, and of course it won, though it’s worth pointing out that even then the majority of nominees were European – and one of those was from Belgium. Belgium!
Maybe I’m being naive and a little idealistic. Looking at this from the other side, could it just be that European cinema is better, broader, more mature and accessible to the jury? Could it be that the ideal of the award is to celebrate a good film rather than opening doors to the world of developing cinema? After all this is the Academy Awards and not a Sight & Sound Festival, and since the year 2000 the winners have included Iran’s “A Separation” and South Africa’s “Tsotsi“. If there’s a undeniable bias it’s towards drama and particularly morality tale drama, rich in the kind of lessons which could be lip service to liberal critics. What it could have been is an opportunity to taste cinema from different palates and with over 70% of Oscar winners coming from Europe, I’m not getting out my best plate and cutlery yet.
Liam Pennington is at the action side of 30 years old and is the On-Line Editor for High Voltage. When not making good use of PR companies’ guff, he can be found groundhopping, writing for whoever else wants him, singing along to Eurovision records and sitting through arthouse films at Cornerhouse, Manchester.