Last week, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) announced that it was disqualifying the Nigerian Oscar entry for Best International Feature Film on the grounds that most of the dialog was in English. The decision was immensely controversial. Directed by actor-director Genevieve Nnaji, Lionheart is Nigeria’s first-ever submission to the Academy Awards, and has received rave reviews since it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2018. (It was subsequently acquired by Netflix and you can stream it there now, along with a whole catalog of Nigerian films.) But even more significant is that, English is Nigeria’s official language, a legacy of British colonial rule, which lasted until 1960. Barring a film that’s primarily in English from competing is effectively sending the message that Nollywood, Nigeria’s booming movie industry, isn’t welcome.
Many took to Twitter to criticize the Academy’s position, including Ava DuVernay, who wrote: “To @TheAcademy, You disqualified Nigeria’s first-ever submission for Best International Feature because its in English. But English is the official language of Nigeria. Are you barring this country from ever competing for an Oscar in its official language?”
In a statement to Deadline, the Academy’s International Feature Film executive committee co-chair Larry Karaszewski dismissed the issue as “less of a controversy, and more of a misunderstanding,” adding that, “If you’re submitting for something as important as an Academy Award, I would think you should look at the rules.”
To make matters even more fraught, The Hollywood Reporter broke the story on Monday that the Academy was disqualifying yet another international submission, also directed by a woman of color, because of its English dialogue. Austrian-Iranian director Sudabeh Mortezai’s Joy, Austria’s pick for the 92nd annual Academy Awards, centers around Nigerian sex workers in Vienna and premiered to high praise at the 2018 Venice Film Festival. (It was also acquired by Netflix, and you can stream it here.) According to THR, the Academy realized during a standard review that two thirds of the movie was in English, thereby making it ineligible for consideration.
The fact that both movies center around the Nigerian community, and are written and directed by women of color has not gone unnoticed. Why does this keep happening? And why does it demand discussion? To answer that, we have to take a look at the history of this category, and how it has evolved over the years.
What Is Best International Feature Film?
Best International Feature Film is a new name for an old category. Prior to 2020, it was known as Best Foreign-Languge Film, but the name was changed in 2019.
“We have noted that the reference to ‘Foreign’ is outdated within the global filmmaking community,” Karaszewski and Diane Weyermann, co-chairs of the International Feature Film Committee, said in a press release announcing the change in April 2019. “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.”
According to AMPAS, an international film must meet the following criteria to be considered:
1. It must be feature-length. (Translation: a running time of more than 40 minutes).
2. It must be produced outside of the United States.
3. It must have a “predominantly non-English dialogue track.”
Countries may only submit one movie per year, and yes, animated and documentary films are accepted.
Wait, Is That Different From Best Foreign-Language Film?
Not really. The biggest oversight in designing the Best International Feature Film category is that its name is now very misleading. The rules of eligibility for the category have not changed at all, but the category’s title appears to indicate that a movie merely needs to be international to be considered. That is false. The majority of the dialogue must be in a language other than English.
TL; DR: Different name, same old rules.
So, What’s The Problem If Lionheart And Joy Don’t Qualify?
As Hannah Giorgis points out over at The Atlantic, the real problem here is that the Academy is conflating “foreign-language” with “international,” a position that promotes an extremely limited understanding of linguistic and national dynamics worldwide.
She added: “It’s no different to how French connects communities in former French colonies. We did not choose who colonized us. As ever, this film and many like it, is proudly Nigerian.’
Assuming that foreign countries only speak languages other than English is to completely disregard centuries of colonization, which spread European languages and culture across the globe, often in oppressive and forceful ways.
In the case of Joy, which focuses on Nigerian immigrants to Austria, the Academy’s decision also limits filmmakers’ abilities to make movies about immigrant or refugee communities from countries with a history of British colonial rule. (For reference, at its height in the early 20th century, the British Empire ruled over 24% of the Earth’s surface and an estimated 412 million people — so, that’s a lot.) It operates under the assumption that people speak the language of the country they are currently residing in, which, given the increasingly serious refugee crisis worldwide, is definitely not the case.
What’s more, the enforcement of this rule has led to a Euro-centric crop of Best Foreign-Language Film winners in the past. According to Vulture’s Nate Jones, 83% of winners have been from European countries.
What do we do about American films that are not in English? In Lulu Wang’s highly acclaimed The Farewell for example, which stars Awkwafina as a young woman whose family is concealing her grandmother’s terminal cancer diagnosis from her, the majority of dialogue is in Mandarin. And yet, it’s not eligible for Best International Feature Film because it’s considered an American production.
Wang weighed in on the controversy last week, tweeting: “This calls attention to the delineation of ‘foreign film’ vs ‘foreign-language film’. Which makes more sense? Can a ‘foreign film’ be in OUR language (i.e. English)? Can a domestic (i.e American) film be in a foreign language? What does it mean to be foreign? And to be American?”
Why Is The Category So Important For The 2020 Oscars?
The Academy has made visible attempts to try and expand its membership and be more inclusive in recent years. In 2018, 928 new members were invited to join — the largest class in Academy history — 49% of whom were women, and 38% people of color. Partly, this is a response to #OscarsSoWhite, the hashtag-turned-social-movement launched in 2015 by April Reign in response to the lack of diversity in Oscar nominations over the years. But it’s also a marked push by the Academy to reach younger people, and make its annual telecast more appealing.
Changing the name of the Best International Feature Film category is a prime example of the kind of Band-Aid fix the Academy has been criticized for in the past. (Remember the short-lived “Best Popular Film” category? RIP.) It’s a superficial attempt to appear woke without actually doing the work required to fix a problem that is effectively excluding the very people you claim to want to include.
This year was a particularly important one for this category. A record-breaking 93 films were submitted, showcasing the breadth and complexity of worldwide cinema. Unfortunately, that number is now down to 91. The Academy will announce its shortlist of 10 finalists to compete at the 92nd Oscars on December 16. The final five nominees will be announced in January 2020.