▶ Fum­ing film­mak­ers say the Academy Awards have left them in limbo, writes James Mot­tram

The National - News - - ARTS & LIFESTYLE -

It seems that, of late, rarely a year goes past these days when the Os­cars aren’t un­der fire. In 2015, it was #Os­carsSoWhit­e, a vi­ral so­cial me­dia re­ac­tion to not a sin­gle per­son of colour be­ing nom­i­nated in the lead or act­ing cat­e­gories. Two years later, it was the hor­ren­dous on­stage gaffe as La La Land was an­nounced as the Best Pic­ture win­ner, in­stead of the ac­tual re­cip­i­ent, Moon­light. Last year, the Academy couldn’t se­cure a host after Kevin Hart’s pre­sent­ing con­tro­versy. And this year? It’s the turn of the for­eign-lan­guage film.

Back in April, the Academy of Mo­tion Pic­ture Arts and Sciences – the gov­ern­ing body that or­gan­ises the movie in­dus­try’s prime awards, the Os­cars – an­nounced that the For­eign Lan­guage Film cat­e­gory was to be re­named In­ter­na­tional Fea­ture Film, be­cause “the ref­er­ence to ‘For­eign’ is out­dated within the global film­mak­ing com­mu­nity”, said Larry Karaszewsk­i and Diane Wey­er­mann, co-chairs of the cat­e­gory’s com­mit­tee.

A fair point, though it’s ul­ti­mately the Academy that has looked to be out­dated. Last week, Lion­heart, a Nige­rian 95-minute com­edy di­rected by and star­ring Genevieve Nnaji, was dis­qual­i­fied on the grounds that the film was largely shot in English. Only a short sec­tion of the movie – ap­prox­i­mately 11 min­utes – fea­tures the Igbo lan­guage, one of the many na­tive tongues spo­ken in the coun­try.

The Academy is­sued a state­ment to clar­ify its po­si­tion.

“In April 2019, we an­nounced that the name of the For­eign Lan­guage Film cat­e­gory changed to In­ter­na­tional Fea­ture Film. We also con­firmed that the rules for the cat­e­gory would not change,” it said. “The in­tent of the award re­mains the same – to recog­nise ac­com­plish­ment in films cre­ated out­side of the United States in lan­guages other than English.”

The back­lash be­gan on so­cial me­dia after peo­ple swiftly pointed out that Nige­ria’s of­fi­cial lan­guage is English – re­sult­ing from decades of Bri­tish colo­nial rule be­fore in­de­pen­dence was gained in 1960.

Emo­tions were charged. “These peo­ple came to colonise us, changed our lan­guage & now they are re­ject­ing us for adopt­ing their lan­guage,” wrote one an­gry Twit­ter user, Lawrence Evra Okoro, echo­ing the sen­ti­ments of many.

Film­maker Ava Du­Ver­nay – who was at the cen­tre of her own Os­cars scan­dal when her 2014 drama, Selma, about Mar­tin Luther King, was over­looked from the nom­i­na­tions for Best Direc­tor – was one of the first to re­act. “You dis­qual­i­fied Nige­ria’s first-ever sub­mis­sion for Best In­ter­na­tional Fea­ture be­cause it’s in English,” she tweeted. “But English is the of­fi­cial lan­guage of Nige­ria. Are you bar­ring this coun­try from ever com­pet­ing for an Os­car in its of­fi­cial lan­guage?”

Nnaji was quick to re­spond, ex­press­ing her thanks to Du­Ver­nay for her sup­port. “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.”

In a second tweet, she added: “It’s no dif­fer­ent to how French con­nects com­mu­ni­ties in for­mer French colonies. We did not choose who colonised us. As ever, this film and many like it, is proudly Nige­rian.”

Mean­while, the Nige­rian Os­car se­lec­tion com­mit­tee called the Academy’s de­ci­sion an “eye-opener” and stated it would urge Nige­rian film­mak­ers to shoot films in fu­ture us­ing “non-English” to help qual­ify for the Os­cars. Yet this seems a back­wards step. Quite apart from it be­ing in­sult­ing to tell Nige­rian film­mak­ers to aban­don the coun­try’s pri­mary lan­guage if that’s what they want to shoot in, a film in English is al­ways likely to travel fur­ther around the world than one that will re­quire sub­ti­tles. It im­me­di­ately begs the ques­tion: what makes and de­fines a for­eign film? Is it the lan­guage the char­ac­ters speak – a rule the Academy goes by – or is it the coun­try of ori­gin, where the action takes place? What about non-Amer­i­can films – from Bri­tain or Aus­tralia, say – where English is also the pri­mary lan­guage? Are they tech­ni­cally not “in­ter­na­tional films”, too, since they don’t orig­i­nate from Amer­ica? It’s a co­nun­drum, ad­mit­tedly.

It’s not that the Academy is against change. Two phases of vot­ing for the In­ter­na­tional Film cat­e­gory – cre­ated to whit­tle the dozens of works sub­mit­ted down to five even­tual nom­i­na­tions – were re­cently up­dated. For ex­am­ple, Academy mem­bers are now al­lowed to watch the movies via stream­ing, rather than at­tend­ing tra­di­tional screen­ings, al­low­ing a greater num­ber of peo­ple to vote – some­thing that also gives for­eign-lan­guage films a bet­ter chance of be­ing nom­i­nated in the main cat­e­gories.

After the #Os­carsSoWhit­e year, the for­mer Academy of Mo­tion Pic­ture Arts and Sciences pres­i­dent Ch­eryl Boone Isaacs even vowed to dou­ble the num­ber of women and peo­ple of colour in the Academy by 2020, while also elim­i­nat­ing mem­bers who have not been ac­tive in the in­dus­try for more than a decade. It’s a cred­i­ble ef­fort to in­crease the di­ver­sity of vot­ers, thereby hope­fully recog­nis­ing movies writ­ten, di­rected by and star­ring so-called marginalis­ed voices.

Yet is it enough? The Academy is too of­ten ac­cused of mak­ing cos­metic ad­just­ments – this year’s ma­jor up­grade is that Best Makeup and Hairstylin­g will now have five nom­i­nees in­stead of three. Un­less you work in that par­tic­u­lar field, it feels rather in­con­se­quen­tial. The Academy hasn’t even ad­dressed the in­dus­try’s most prom­i­nent topic – whether films pro­duced by stream­ing sites such as Net­flix can qual­ify for the awards, since they’re of­ten given only a cur­sory the­atri­cal re­lease.

For an art form that should be about in­clu­siv­ity, a for­eign­lan­guage cat­e­gory seems alien­at­ing in it­self. But per­haps one com­pro­mise would be to have two cat­e­gories for films made out­side Amer­ica – Best For­eign Film, for those in a non-English lan­guage, and Best In­ter­na­tional Film, which would in­clude those made in English, such as Lion­heart. And, of course, any film el­i­gi­ble for ei­ther cat­e­gory should also qual­ify for Best Pic­ture or any of the other ma­jor awards.

In the end, the point of the Os­cars for many di­rec­tors and pro­duc­ers is not the award it­self but the much-needed spot­light it brings to their film. A “for­eign” film is al­ways go­ing to strug­gle, given that Amer­i­can cin­ema chains aren’t ex­actly known for their love of pro­gram­ming subti­tled films. The Academy needs to en­sure it gives ev­ery film as much chance as pos­si­ble to bask in the glory of one of those cov­eted golden stat­ues.

This movie rep­re­sents the way we speak as Nige­ri­ans … English is a bridge be­tween the 500+ lan­guages in our coun­try GENEVIEVE NNAJI Ac­tress and direc­tor

Genevieve Nnaji stars in ‘Lion­heart’, which she also di­rected. The Nige­rian film lost its Best In­ter­na­tional Fea­ture Film nomination be­cause most of its di­a­logue is in English – Nige­ria’s of­fi­cial lan­guage


‘Selma’ direc­tor Ava Du­Ver­nay weighed into the de­bate

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