Language Policy in the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
hfsclpp at gmail.com
Tue Oct 23 15:52:09 UTC 2007
THE BIG PICTURE: Oscars' foreign policy problem
[image: "The Band's Visit"] Sony
Israeli film "The Band's Visit" swept Israel's Ophir Awards and was honored
at festivals around the world.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences should take its 44-page rule
book and toss it out the window.
By Patrick Goldstein, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
October 23, 2007
I have a piece of advice for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and
Sciences. Take your 44-page rule book, toss it out the window and start all
over. Anyone who thinks that the rest of the world is peeved with the United
States simply because of the go-it-alone policies of the Bush administration
should spend some time at an international film festival. Whenever the
subject of the Oscars pops up, filmmakers begin to mutter all sorts of
colorful anti-American imprecations -- *badmuts*, I have learned, is Dutch
slang for "idiot" -- especially when talk turns to the bizarre, impenetrable
prohibitions involving foreign films.
In 2005, the academy refused to accept "Cache," one of the year's
best-reviewed films, because it was submitted by Austria but its dialogue
was in French. In 2004, "Maria Full of Grace," another film decorated with
rave reviews, was rejected as Colombia's submission because the film didn't
have enough Spanish in it. This year the victim is "The Band's Visit," an
Israeli film that swept Israel's Ophir Awards and was honored at festivals
around the world. Written and directed by first-timer Eran Kolirin, it has
earned critical plaudits for its story about an Egyptian police band that
finds itself stranded in a dusty Israeli desert town. The film's tone is wry
and heartwarming but without an ounce of sentiment, carried by a great
performance from Sasson Gabai, the band's conductor, who has the soulful
stoicism of Buster Keaton.
The movie, which opens in L.A. on Dec. 7, is so popular that its U.S.
distributor, Sony Pictures Classics, felt it would be a hit with Oscar
voters who love films with an optimistic view on world events. Surely it
wouldn't be lost on academy members that a movie from a country racked by
political division and despair had more uplift than any of the dreary
Iraq-war inspired Hollywood films flooding the multiplexes this fall. But
"The Band's Visit" is out of Oscar luck, at least when it comes to the
foreign-language film category. As Foreign-Language Film Selection Committee
Chairman Mark Johnson told me last week, the film was rejected because more
than 50% of its dialogue was in English. Academy rules hold that for films
to qualify, their dialogue must be "predominantly in a non-English
"You have to remember, it's called best foreign-language film, not best
foreign film," says Johnson, a respected Hollywood producer. "I'm
heartbroken, because I loved the movie. But there wasn't a single person on
our committee that disagreed with the decision. If we accepted this film
just because we liked it so much, the rules wouldn't mean anything at all."
The academy may find its rule book a sacred text, but every year it gets
them in more trouble. Johnson has worked wonders in recent years recruiting
more active industry figures for the foreign film selection process, but if
you're consistently keeping great films out of competition, then you must be
doing something wrong. Why, might you ask, does this Israeli film have so
much English in it? For the simple reason that when Egyptians and Israelis
find themselves thrown together, guess what language they use to make
themselves understood? English, the new mother tongue.
In fact, the English spoken in "The Band's Visit" is so fractured that all
the dialogue in the film, whether Arabic, Hebrew or English, is subtitled.
Having seen the film, I'd argue that it's grotesquely unfair to punish the
movie for simply showing how difficult it is for clashing cultures to
communicate. The film's producer, Ehud Bleiberg, broke down in tears when we
spoke about the academy decision. "This is a tragedy, especially for the
filmmaker, who made this film for everybody,"' he said. "We were just banned
from the film festival in Abu Dhabi simply because we were an Israeli film.
Now we've been banned from this Oscar category because they say our movie
has too much English. It's almost Kafkaesque, to have a movie judged not on
its art, but by a stopwatch."
He stopped to compose himself. "How does the academy think that Israelis and
Egyptians can talk to each other? Should they only talk with weapons?"
Bleiberg said that while the Israeli academy has submitted a backup entry,
many of its members are infuriated by the U.S. academy's decision. "They
feel as if they've been slapped in the face. It won eight of our 12 film
award prizes -- best film, director, screenplay, lead actor and actress. To
have the rest of the world only hear about our country when it comes to war
and strife, and then have this beautiful, optimistic film rejected, is a
terrible blow for everyone."
It's also a huge blow for the film's commercial reach. Eighty percent of the
box-office returns for the German film "The Lives of Others" came after it
won the Oscar for best foreign-language film this past February. But what
especially troubles me about the academy's decision is that "The Band's
Visit" didn't get a fair hearing. It's hard to believe that a selection
committee made up of such gifted filmmakers as Curtis Hanson and Caleb
Deschanel wouldn't have instinctively understood the thematic importance of
the film's use of English.
But much to my shock, Johnson told me he was the only person on the
committee who actually watched the movie. It *was* simply judged by a
stopwatch. Filmmakers often complain that conservative ideologues attack
Hollywood movies for being unpatriotic without bothering to see the films --
as has just happened with "Rendition" -- yet an august body of academy
filmmakers rejected Israel's most decorated film without bothering to see
it. I give academy executive director Bruce Davis credit for his willingness
to get on the phone and defend the decision. But he was dismissive of my
concerns. "Seeing the film really isn't essential," he said. "Out of 60 or
more foreign-language entries, there are probably a dozen that had
eligibility questions. No one has the time to watch every movie where
there's an issue. It doesn't matter whether this was a wonderful film. This
film didn't come close to meeting the criteria, so it's out."
Rules are rules, but something's wrong when an organization devoted to
celebrating the greatness of cinema is making its decisions, as Sony
Classics co-chief Michael Barker put it, "based on mathematics instead of
art." Davis, who also makes the point that the film is still eligible in
other Oscar categories including best picture, believes I'm the one being
arbitrary by putting a film's value ahead of the academy's rules. But it's
the academy that has put itself in an indefensible position by devising
rules that are needlessly arbitrary. It was only last year that it found
itself in the midst of a huge furor over its nutty decree that films only
have three eligible producers, a rule that came under attack when it turned
out that best-picture nominee "Little Miss Sunshine" had five producers all
perfectly deserving of credit.
The restriction was such a debacle that the academy promptly changed it,
allowing for more wiggle room this year. It should do the same for
foreign-language films. There will always be countries who will try to
exploit the rule book. Taiwan's submission of Ang Lee's "Lust, Caution" was
rejected when the academy discovered Lee was one of the few creative forces
on the film from Taiwan. But that's why the academy has selection
committees. When there's a judgment call, give them the flexibility to make
a decision that allows good films in instead of shutting them out.
A rule decreeing that foreign films have to be "predominantly in a
non-English language" is a rule showing its age. Already the common business
language, English is quickly becoming a common language of cinema as well,
especially as local productions try to reach a global audience. Even worse,
by overruling a selection made by a respected group of filmmakers in the
film's country of origin, the academy allows itself to be viewed as another
arrogant American institution that insists on having the rest of the world
play by its rules.
Maybe it's asking too much for the academy to embrace the future. But just
for once I wish they weren't the last people on the planet to notice how
quickly the times are a-changin'.
The Big Picture runs every Tuesday. Questions or criticism can be e-mailed
to patrick.goldstein at latimes.com.
N.b.: Listing on the lgpolicy-list is merely intended as a service to its
and implies neither approval, confirmation nor agreement by the owner or
the list as to the veracity of a message's contents. Members who disagree
message are encouraged to post a rebuttal. (H. Schiffman, Moderator)
-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
More information about the Lgpolicy-list