The award for the Best Foreign Language Film is the most interesting award given at the Oscars. Period. There are two stages in selecting the final runner-up films for the award and both are equally tense and exciting. The first stage requires all countries who want to participate in the competition to select one feature-length film which will represent their country. The second stage sees the members of the Academy to vote for the selected films, which will then narrow the list down to the top five. The winner (can you say that any more?) is revealed during the Awards Ceremony early next year.
There are few reasons why the international race for the Oscar is an event worth following very closely.
I think it was Christopher Hitchens who once said that politicising every sphere of our existence is inescapable. At least I think that was him who said that, or perhaps it is something that I concluded by myself and put his face to that phrase, as it very well might have been his opinion as well. In any case, the rather wide spread assumption that arts and politics don't mix (the Hollywood machine is the biggest advocate of such art sans politics hybrid) is nothing else than fiction. The word "representative" (as in the representative films chosen by each country) in itself suggest some kind of political activity as every nation wants to be perceived through the prism of the kind of film they submit for the competition.
I am particularly interested in seeing what films are chosen to represent countries that have recently underwent or are still undergoing socio-political turmoil, like Egypt or Iran (who won the award last year and this year thanks to Ahmadinejad's government decision to boycott American film industry, will not allow its directors to compete). It is usually hoped by the film directors who have to work under such autocratic regimes that their films will be seen by the western audiences and the stories of social instability will influence change in their countries and elsewhere. Watching these films tricks me into thinking that by enjoying myself at the cinema I participate in some form of political activism. Delusional as it may seem, I truly believe that by solely igniting an intellectual discourse with the cinema-going audience, these films turn the Plato's cave into an agora. Place as good as any for advocating social change.
For someone like myself who comes from a non-English speaking country the quarrels surrounding such distinctive honour as receiving an Oscar nomination for the country you are from is quite a funny thing to experience. There is a lot of bitching around, slamming films from other countries, propagating that the film representing your nation is superior to the ones that were sent by others. Then there is also a lot of internal fighting over why this film was chosen over another one. As an example - Agnieszka Holland's In Darkness was chosen to represent Poland in the competition last year and the moment the film ended up in the final top 5, the media propaganda machine started howling over the masterful incomparable brilliance of Holland's directorial skills and her ability to put together such monumental piece of film-making. Of course the Polish intellectuals who are very sensitive about being dictated what to think and do by media (the post-communist residue of distrust towards ruling classes I suppose), appeared to approach Holland's film with certain scepticism if not suspicion from the moment it got media's attention and international appreciation. A very similar film to Holland's flick was released almost simultaneously in Poland - it was called Rose and it was directed by another cult Polish director, Wojciech Smarzowski. It is a very interesting Polish characteristic that with international fame comes general public dislike, and quite expectedly the people complained that Rose would represent the country much better than In Darkness did. But the moment In Darkness lost its bid at the Oscars, people flocked to the cinemas in support of their almost-winner as if trying to cheer up a beaten up friend.
And that is just Poland. One could write a book about every countries' behind-the-scenes stories surrounding their Oscar nomination.
The Films Are (Usually) Bloody Superb
You should always note each film that is placed on the official list of contestants fighting for the Foreign Language Oscar because the possibility that some of them they will blow your mind is quite high. As a case study let's just look back at the nominees from years past.
2010: Dogtooth (OMG! you will never look at cats and lamps the same way ever again), Incendies (brilliant and poignant modern day Oedipus Rex), Outside the Law (meh...), Biutiful (double meh), and In a Better World (decent film) - three out of five were really good, and the remaining two were also note-worthy (sort of...)
2009: The Secret in Their Eyes (conceptual melodramatic political drama. decent choice), Ajami (Israeli-Palestinian co-production. Do I have to say anything else?), The Milk of Sorrow (sad and beautiful, retrospective look at the post-Pinochet Chile), A Prophet (who wasn't cuming over this one?), The White Ribbon (the name of Haneke says it all)
2008: Departures (a bit odd, sad, but funny film about dying), The Baader Meinhof Complex (complex socially conscious portrait of western-bred terrorism), The Class (think The Real Housewives of New Jersey - high school edition), Revanche (ok, it was the one rotten egg in this selection...), Waltz with Bashir (you will watch it, and watch it again...)
...Do I have to continue? The Academy might very often be completely out of touch with the home-grown cinema (Hurt Locker? seriously??), but the Foreign Language Film category never ceases to surprise.
The list of announced submissions is below.
Albania - Pharmakon, directed by Joni Shanaj (Albania)
Algeria - Zabana!, directed by Saïd Ould Khelifa (Arabic, French)
Australia - Lore, directed by Cate Shortland (German)
Austria - Amore, directed by Michael Haneke (French)
Azerbaijan - Buta, directed by Ilgar Najaf (Azeri)
Bangladesh - Ghetuptra Kamola, directed by Humayun Ahmed (Bengali)
Belgium - Our Children, directed by Joachim Lafosse (French)
Bosnia and Herzegovina - Children of Sarajevo, directed by Aida Begić (Bosnian)
Brazil - The Clown, directed by Selton Mello (Portuguese)
Bulgaria - Sneakers, directed by Valeri Yordanov (Bulgarian)
Cambodia - Lost Loves, directed by Chhay Bora (Khmer)
Canada - War Witch, directed by Kim Nguyen (French, Lingala)
Chile - No, directed by Pablo Larrain (Spanish)
Colombia - El Cartel de los Sapos, directed by Carlos Moreno (Spanish)
Croatia - Cannibal Vegetarian, directed by Branko Schmidt (Croatian)
Czech Republic - In The Shadows, directed by David Ondricek (Czech, German)
Denmark - A Royal Affair, directed by Nikolaj Arcel (Danish)
Dominican Republic - Check Mate, directed by José María Cabral (Spanish)
Estonia - Mushrooming, directed by Toomas Hussar (Estonian)
Finland - Purge, directed by Antti Jokinen (Finnish)
France - The Intouchables, directed by Eric Toledano & Olivier Nakache (French)
Georgia - Keep Smiling, directed by Rusudan Chkonia (Georgian)
Germany - Barbara, directed by Christian Petzold (German)
Greece - Unfair World, directed by Filippos Tsitos (Greek)
Hong Kong - Life Without Principle, directed by Johnnie To (Cantonese)
Hungary - Just The Wind, directed by Benedek Fliegauf (Hungarian)
Iceland - The Deep, directed by Baltasar Kormákur (Icelandic)
India - Barfi!, directed by Anurag Basu (Hindi)
Indonesia - Tiny Dancer, directed by Ifa Isfansyah (Indonesian, Banymasan)
Israel - Fill The Void, directed by Rama Burshtein (Hebrew)
Italy - Casear Must DIe, directed by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani (Italy)
Japan - Our Homeland, directed by Yong-hi Yang (Japanese)
Kazakhstan - Myn Bala, directed by Akan Satayev (Kazakh)
Kenya - Nairobi Half Life, directed by David 'Tosh' Gitonga (Swahili)
Macedonia -The Third Half, directed by Darko Mitrevski (Macedonian, German, Bulgarian)
Mexico - After Lucia, directed by Michel Franco (Spanish)
Morocco - Death For Sale, directed by Faouzi Bensaïdi (Arabic)
Netherlands - Kauwboy, directed by Boudewijn Koole (Dutch)
Norway - Kon-Tiki, directed by Joachim Rønning & Espen Sandberg (Norwegian)
Palestinian Territories - When I Saw You, directed by Annemarie Jacir (Arabic)
Phillippines - Bwakaw, directed by Jun Lana (Tagalog)
Poland - 80 Million, directed by Waldemar Krzystek (Polish)
Portugal - Blood of My Blood, directed by João Canijo (Portuguese)
Romania - Beyond The Hills, directed by Cristian Mungiu (Romanian)
Russia - White Tiger, directed by Karen Shakhnazarov (Russian)
Serbia - When Day Breaks, directed by Goran Paskaljević (Serbian)
Slovakia - Made in Ash, directed by Iveta Grófová (Slovak, German, Czech)
Slovenia - A Trip, directed by Nejc Gazvoda (Slovene)
South Korea - Pieta, directed by Kim Ki-duk (Korean)
Sweden - The Hypnotist, directed by Lasse Hallstrom (Swedish)
Switzerland - Sister, directed by Ursala Meier (French)
Thailand - Headshot, directed by Pen-Ek Ratanaruang (Thai)
Urkraine - Firecrosser, directed by Mykhailo Illienko (Russian, Ukranian)
Venezuela - Rock, Paper, Scissors, directed by Hernán Jabes (Spanish)
Vietnam - The Scent of Burning Glass, directed by Nguyễn Hữu Mười (Vietnamese)
The complete list of submissions will be available in the beginning of October.