Why Oscar Foreign Film Award’s One-Country Rule Is So Outdated

With international collaborations increasingly common, even the chair of the Academy’s foreign language committee admits, “It has to change”

Last Updated: December 7, 2015 @ 10:27 AM

This was originally published in TheWrap Magazine Foreign Language Issue.

National borders have always meant a lot when it comes to the Oscar foreign-language race, but those borders are getting pretty blurry these days. Take this year’s race. The Irish entry takes place in Cuba and is in Spanish. The Swiss submission is about an extended Iraqi family living in Russia, France, New Zealand and the U.S. The Australian film was made in Bhutan in the Dzongkha language. The entry from Finland is set in Estonia and doesn’t have a word of Finnish. The Israeli entry is in Farsi and is about Persian immigrants.

For an award that officially goes not to the people who made the movie but to the country of origin, this can get confusing. For instance, if the French entry “Mustang” wins, wouldn’t Turkey have as much claim to the victory as France, since the film was shot in that country by a Turkish-born director, with all its dialogue in Turkish?

And won’t Germany and Qatar have some bragging rights, too, since they’re also listed as countries of origin by the film festivals that have shown “Mustang?”

Welcome to the wild world of global moviemaking. It’s a world that is increasingly dependent on cross-country collaborations, and a world the Academy is now trying to recognize, however confusing it might be.  

“It used to be that every once in a while we’d get a movie that took place outside of the country that submitted it, but now it’s common,” said Mark Johnson, longtime chairman of the Academy’s Foreign Language Film Award Executive Committee. “That’s true in Hollywood, too, where a typical movie might be directed by an Englishman and shot by an Australian or a Mexican, with lots of British and Australian actors.”

The key to recognizing the new reality came in 2006, when the Academy dropped a longstanding rule that a country’s submission must be in an “official” language of that country. Before that change, the Italian film “Private” was ineligible because it was in Arabic and Hebrew, while Michael Haneke’s “Cache” didn’t qualify as the Austrian entry because it was in French.

“The old rule didn’t make sense, and we realized it denied the internationalism of movies these days,” Johnson said. Since then, Canada has been nominated for the Hindi-language “Water,” set in India, and Austria submitted another Haneke film, “Amour,” which was accepted (and won) as an Austrian film even though it was in French.

Now, though, the Academy might need to take things a step further. Is it realistic to identify each film in the competition with a single country, or is it time to change the rules again and do away with the cut-and-dried classification system on which this category has always been based?

“I suspect that it has to change,” Johnson admitted. “Each year we have more movies where it’s kind of hard to assign a home or a nationality, and they shouldn’t be penalized for that. I don’t know what the solution is — but if we’re really going to recognize what’s going on in film today, we kind of have to change.”

Click on the cover below for more coverage from TheWrap’s Foreign Language Issue.

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