The disqualification of Nigeria’s “Lionheart” in the Oscars’ Best International Feature Film category is not a case of the Academy being unfair to Nigeria.
Instead, it’s a case of the Nigerian committee that submitted the film not following clear rules in the category.
And the people who are now lobbying for those rules to be changed may be inadvertently advocating for a category in which a non-U.S.-produced film like “The Favourite” could have won last year and “The King’s Speech,” “Dunkirk,” “The Theory of Everything” and lots more English-language movies could have been nominees and likely winners.
That would really be a way to push out countries like Nigeria.
If the minor tempest that followed Monday’s disqualification — a tempest that included a tweet from director Ava DuVernay and expressions of support from her followers — shows anything, it’s that the Academy might have moved too hastily when it changed the name of the category earlier this year from its former name, Best Foreign Language Film.
In trying to avoid the loaded word foreign and recognize that the Academy is an international organization, it may have muddied the waters and set up an expectation that language is no longer a factor in determining eligibility for the category.
But that’s not true. The category’s rules didn’t change, and they spell it out clearly, defining an international feature film as one “produced outside the United States with a predominantly non-English dialogue track.” And the Academy’s awards administrators had communicated several times with all international committees, including Nigeria’s, to explain that the new name of the category did not change the rule that films must be in a language other than English.
“Lionheart” is partially in the Igbo language, but it is mostly in English, which is the official language of Nigeria.
Diane Weyermann, the co-chair of the International Feature Film Award Executive Committee, told TheWrap that the category name was changed because “there are now political connotations to the word foreign. These filmmakers are not foreigners — these are our peers in the international film community.”
Her co-chair, Larry Karaszewski, added that the tipping point came when Alfonso Cuarón accepted the foreign-language Oscar for “Roma” in February and talked about how he’d grown up loving foreign-language films … like “Jaws,” “Citizen Kane” and “The Godfather.”
“It was so obvious,” Karaszewski said. “I think Diane and I looked at each other and said, ‘You know, we’re supposed to be in charge here. We could actually do something about this.'”
But the name change, which was announced last April, did not change the rules for qualifying in the category. Except for the United States, countries in which English is the official language are free to submit films, provided those films are not in English.
This year, for instance, the U.K. submitted Chiwetel Ejiofor’s “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind,” which is set in Malawi and is largely in the Chicewa language (along with a fair amount of English); Ireland submitted “Gaza,” a documentary set on the Gaza Strip with predominantly Arabic dialogue; and Australia submitted “Buoyancy,” in which the main languages are Khmer and Thai.
While the disqualification of “Lionheart” was a simple case of the Academy responding to a clear rules violation, (which the Nigerian submission committee now acknowledges), there are ways in which AMPAS could have handled it better.
For one thing, it could have moved more quickly. In the past, the executive committee has often checked on the eligibility of films before the list of qualifying films is announced. But this year, even though three or four films clearly needed further vetting, with “Lionheart” at the top of that list, it did not do so until after the film had been announced as a contender and placed on the Academy’s screening schedule.
I watched it on Netflix before the announcement of eligible films had been made and turned it off after an hour because it so clearly wouldn’t qualify — and then, when it did make the list, I watched the rest of it and knew it would only be a matter of time before it was eliminated from contention.
Obviously it’s difficult to vet submissions from 93 different countries, but “Lionheart” had red flags from the start and should never have gotten as far as it did.
And then there’s the matter of that category name. Yes, Best International Feature Film is a more inclusive title, without the U.S.-centric feel of Best Foreign Language Film. But by taking the subject of a film’s language out of the title, it allows the mistaken impression that maybe language is no longer a determining factor.
The Film Independent Spirit Awards’ comparable category is called Best International Feature, but it allows English-language films to compete: “The Favourite” was a nominee last year and “Lady Macbeth” the year before, while past winners have included “The King’s Speech,” “An Education” and “Once.”
The Academy clearly doesn’t want to go down that road, which is possible at the Spirit Awards because those films aren’t eligible in the Best Feature category.
Meanwhile, the British Academy Film Awards, handed out by BAFTA, have what might be the most accurate category title, Best Film Not in the English Language.
That’s awfully clunky, but it’s an accurate description of what the BAFTA category and the Oscar category are intended to be. And it’s an accurate description of why “Lionheart” deserved to be disqualified.