Lost in translation?

Last year, the Foreign Language Oscar committee snubbed City of God. This year, they're the ones under fire. Geoffrey Macnab reports
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The Independent Culture

If you want to win a Foreign Language Oscar, don't make a movie which features drug-taking, violence, fast editing, or too much excitement. This was the lesson which Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles learned to his cost when his feature City of God, set in Rio's notorious favelas, was submitted last year.

The Foreign Language Oscar committee members are, as they admit themselves, "skewed elderly." They tend to be very conservative in their tastes. As one recently told Variety, they "like stories about grandfathers or little boys, or anything involving World War Two and the Holocaust." That is why Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful (the winner in 1998) was the perfect Foreign Language Oscar candidate. It's also why City Of God was roundly loathed.

"There were people leaving the screenings, especially the older voters," Meirelles recalls. His distributors, Miramax, warned him that he had no chance of a nomination, let alone of winning the Oscar itself. "They told me the screenings were not working at all and that older people really, really didn't like the film."

Meirelles was philosophical about the setback. Speaking from Berlin this week, where he was scouting out locations for his new film (an adaptation of John Le Carré's The Constant Gardener), he said that he had too many other commitments to worry about being snubbed by the Academy. Still, in a neat reversal of fortune, he is back in the Oscar spotlight this year. To his amazement, when the Academy Award nominations were announced last month, Meirelles discovered that City of God was in the running in four separate categories. While this was a triumph for him, it left the Academy's foreign-language committee looking very stupid indeed.

In recent weeks, there have been widespread calls for the committee to be overhauled. Even the committee's respected chairman, Mark Johnson (producer of Rain Man), admits that there is a problem when the main criterion for sitting in judgement on the Foreign Language Oscar is perceived to be that "you're either retired or unemployable."

Predictably, committee members take serious umbrage at the idea that they're addled old-timers with lamentably middle-brow tastes who regard the Oscar screenings as "a free meal social gathering". One (who preferred not to be named) told me that he "groaned inwardly" when he started watching City Of God. "My reaction was: 'Oh my goodness, not another one.' At that time, we on the foreign-language committee had seen a lot of movies about the slums of South America and glue-sniffing kids on the streets and that kind of thing."

He is equally bullish about the Academy's decision to ignore Siddiq Barmak's Golden Globe winner, Osama. "I don't vote on political correctness, I vote on the filmmaking," he states categorically.

That's as may be, but the committee members certainly have some strange enthusiasms. Scan the list of winners and nominees over the past decade and you could be forgiven for thinking that the Netherlands was the hub of world filmmaking. In the last nine years, the Dutch have received four nominations and won the Oscar twice, for Mike Van Diem's Character in 1997 and for Marleen Gorris's Antonia's Line in 1995. They're in the running again this year with Ben Sombogaart's Twin Sisters, a tasteful period piece set in the years leading up to the Second World War.

The Dutch clearly know their target audience. The original Dutch nominee for 1997 was a local box-office hit All-Stars, a raucous comedy-drama about the travails of a Sunday football team (currently being remade in the UK under the title You Don't Have To Say You Love Me with a cast including Billie Piper and Jimi Mistry). Realising there was too much sex, boozing and goalmouth action for the film to appeal to sedate Academy tastes, the Dutch made a last-minute switch, replacing All-Stars with the sombre costume drama, Character. Sure enough, this tale about a villainous bailiff in late-19th-century Rotterdam won the Academy Award - and then promptly vanished without trace.

So what happens now? Like the House of Lords, the foreign- language committee is one of those hoary old institutions whose shortcomings defy easy reform. On one level, the old-timers grappling with the 50 or more films under consideration are performing a heroic task. If they're brushed aside, the challenge will be to find younger Academy members with the time and inclination to watch that many movies in their stead.

Every year, more and more countries submit entries for the Foreign Language Oscar. Back in 1956, when it first became a competitive category, there were around 20 entries, but the numbers have been inching steadily upward ever since. This year's crop was 56. Even the US's ideological enemies like to take the occasional tilt at Oscar glory. Cuba first submitted a film in 1978 and has participated regularly since then. Since the break-up of the old Soviet Union, the number of Eastern European titles in contention has mushroomed.

The Academy requests that any country which enters a movie should have its own selection committee. Last year, when Palestinian director Elia Suleiman's Divine Intervention was turned down on the grounds that there was no official Palestinian film body to submit it, the committee was accused of political censorship. This year, the Palestinians re-entered the movie and the Academy accepted it, thereby recognising Palestine as a country (something the US often struggles to do.)

Come Oscar night, the world's media is unlikely to pay much attention to whether Japan's Yoji Yamada or Sweden's Mikael Hafstrom wins the foreign-language award. After all, this is a minor sideshow in the ongoing Oscar extravaganza. Dutch director Paula van der Oest (a nominee last year) learned just how little Hollywood really cares about foreign-language Oscars when she was arrested by security guards outside the Paramount Oscar party because she didn't have her invitation with her and no-one recognised her. Nonetheless, this is the one award on Academy Award night that forces Hollywood to look beyond its own boundaries. It deserves to be taken much more seriously.

Committee members insist that the criticism being levelled against them is unfair. "We see these films because we love to see foreign movies. Even the bad foreign movies are worth seeing... we're there night after night because we love what we do," one assures me. It's just a pity that, right now, they don't seem able to recognise a decent film when it pops up in front of them.

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