Parasite must surely be one of the most remarkable films of this year’s awards season. Director Bong Joon Ho’s anti-capitalist satire and thriller has raked in award after award, and deservedly so. His speech at the recent Golden Globes ceremony, as Parasite picked up yet another award for Best Foreign Language Film, demonstrated a true optimism for the future of international film, promising ‘once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films’. The Academy has also shown its appreciation, recognising Parasite with nominations across six categories, including Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and, of course, Best Picture. It is this final nomination which is truly weighty, as the film now becomes the fourth international film since 2000 to be nominated in this category. Yet of these four, none have won. It’s an astounding fact, especially when you consider the “good but not outstanding” quality of many of the biopics and regurgitated war films that are stuffed in the Oscar nomination categories. However, when it comes to the Oscars, the shock factor is limited. It’s hardly surprising foreign films are often alienated in the “Best Picture” category; it’s really just a reflection of the ceremony’s antiquity.
At least this year the Academy has shown some awareness of the dire need for it to change its outlook and treatment of international films. It’s latest quick fix for this particular issue has been a hollow PR revamp. The previous Best Foreign Language Film category has been renamed to now hold the title of Best International Feature. Larry Karaszewski and Diane Wyermann, co-chairs of the International Film Committee, issued a statement expressing their understanding of how the title of “Foreign” could create notions of othering, and saying of the new title, “We believe that International Feature Film better represents this category, and promotes a positive and inclusive view of filmmaking, and the art of film as a universal experience.”
These sentiments are all well and good, but a new title and expressions of good intentions does little to actually change the way in which international films and film-makers are represented by the Academy. The rules of Best Foreign Language Film and Best International Feature remain exactly the same. Under this new heading, Academy rules continue to dictate that in order to qualify for nomination within the category, more than fifty percent of the film must be in a non-English language. Countries may also enter only one film, which must be selected by an approved board – a regulation that prevented highly lauded films, such as South Korea’s The Handmaiden, from being nominated for an Oscar in 2016. The name change of the international film category is nothing but a lazy afterthought, and only serves to highlight the Academy’s inability to thoughtfully tackle the implicit issues of its historical treatment of foreign films.
At the current centre of the debate surrounding the Oscar’s international precedent is Lionheart, a Nigerian film that was submitted as the country’s first ever entry to the category. Yet it was disqualified by the Academy for the reason that, whilst characters in the film occasionally conversed in Igbo, the majority of the film’s dialogue took place in English (Nigeria’s official language). The notable hypocrisy in the decision and in the very rules of the Academy in its definition of “International” was pointed out by American director and film-maker Ava Du Vernay, who took to twitter to pointedly ask the committee “Are you barring this country from ever competing for an Oscar in its official language?”. She asked an important question, and one the Academy has clearly failed to consider in their empty re-evaluation of foreign films. Under the current criteria for the International Feature category, Barbados, Singapore, Ghana, Jamaica and the Solomon Islands would all be similarly disqualified from nominations if they were to submit a film in their official language. Lionheart’s own director and star, Genevive Nnaji, also spoke out against the disqualification of the film, pointing to the national unity the film embodied through its use of the English language: “This movie represents the way we speak as Nigerians. This includes English which acts as a bridge between the 500+ languages spoken in our country; thereby making us #OneNigeria.”
This year’s snubbing of Lionheart feels particularly important, especially in light of the way in which the Academy has historically tended to laud predominantly western films. This year’s nominations for the Best International Feature are no different; Poland, North Macedonia, France and Spain are all nominated to take home the trophy, with Parasite being the only non-European film to make the category this year. This highly Eurocentric list is no different to much of the award’s past. Out of the seventy foreign films that have been awarded in this category, only fourteen of them came from non-European countries. If Lionheart had been nominated by the committee, it would have faced an unwelcome precedent as historically African countries have only won the award three times in the award’s history (1969, 1976 and 2005). Evidently the Academy’s current regulations for judging international films are insufficient, and they operate in a manner which both alienates and penalises non-Western film-makers.
Amongst this controversy and blind-sightedness, there is a real sense that people are becoming irredeemably exhausted with the Oscars. Once again they have opted for ceremonious and self-serving quick fixes that do little to actually solve the issues at the heart of the organisation. Their inability to fully represent the International Film community is yet another example of the severe need for change across the Academy in general, alongside its failures to engage with gender and race diversity in its nominations. Issa Rae’s targeted quip “congratulations to all these men” upon announcing the nominations for best director embodies a collective fatigue with the continuous stagnation of the Oscars. The International film argument requires nuance and thoughtfulness, something the Academy board has shown a reluctance to do in previous years. Language and nationhood operate in complex ways, and there is a dire need to rethink the previous system of judging how “international” a film may be with such a static framework. Their current mechanism is simply not fit for purpose anymore.