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Speaking in tongues: entrants reflect the increasingly multicultural nature of filmmaking around the world.

The unspoken ideal behind the official submissions to the Oscar's foreign-language film category is that they reflect the world, and it can be safely said that in the 2005 field that ideal is amply fulfilled.

+ Josef Fares' Swedish film, "Zozo," a young Arabic-speaking Lebanese boy is the central character.

+ In Jamil Rostami's Iraqi film, the characters don't speak Arabic, but Kurdish.

+ In Christian Carion's French film, "Joyeux Noel," World War I soldiers from Scotland, Germany and France exchange Yuletide greetings in various languages.

+ In Gustavo Loza's Mexican film "On the Other Side," separate dramas revolve around boys in Mexico and Cuba and a girl in Morocco.

+ In Eyal Halfon's Israeli film "What a Wonderful Place," Tagalog, Thai and Russian can be heard, while some characters' lingua franca is English.

+ In Gavin Hood's South African pic "Tsotsi," a local slang dialogue known as Tsotsi-Taal (blending English, Afrikaans and southern African tribal dialects) dominates the soundtrack.

+ In Eric Khoo's film from Singapore, "Be With Me," no fewer than four languages share screen time, including Cantonese, Mandarin, English and the regional Chinese language Hokkien.

Much like the rest of international cinema these days, in which more films from more countries in more (and multiple) languages are being made and shown, the 55 entries convey a 21st century world in which globalization means far more than the unfettered trade of goods, services and ideas across borders and regions, but the blurring of borders themselves as languages refuse to be fixed to a specific nation-state.

This involves fundamental aspects of the Academy's foreign-language contest, in which the rules specify that qualifying films must have "a predominantly non-English dialogue track," and that films be submitted on a national basis, with no more than one film per country. Moreover, the film's dialogue track must be "predominantly in the official language of the (submitting) country ... except when the story mandates that an additional non-English language be predominant." (The Golden Globes' foreign film category makes no such requirements.) But as films are made increasingly in co-production arrangements with costs and risks shared among countries, and as countries' own stories, cultures and politics contain more than merely the "official" language, the multilingualism on display in world cinema and the current Oscar field suggest a more complex world where old notions may no longer easily fit.

AMPAS' foreign-language committee topper, producer Mark Johnson, ponders that "you have a lot of co-productions, and these films that cross over languages are partly the result of filmmakers' stories in an era of globalization, I think, as well as a marketplace where there's a lot of co-financing."

This means that, as in Carion's film, the U.N.-like confluence of languages organically emerges from the film's events (as in the meeting of WWI trench soldiers). In Klaus Haro's Finnish entry, "Mother of Mine" (where, as in "Zozo," the narrative involves a war refugee lad in Sweden), story and shared production duties (Finland and Sweden) make the film possible.

Michael Barker, co-head of Sony Pictures Classics, distribbing both "Cache" and "Joyeux Noel," debunks any notion that there's a trend toward films with multiple languages complicating the Acad's rulebook. "You have past nominated films like 'Four Days in September,' which had a ton of English in it, or 'No Man's Land," which won, with I don't know how many languages on the soundtrack. This is nothing new, but part of what's basic to the international nature of global cinema."

The smudging of easy boundaries of language has indeed been a fascinating aspect of non-English language films for decades. "Joyeux Noel" deliberately recalls Jean Renoir's 1937 "Grand Illusion," in which Renoir dramatizes his humanism in a WWI setting with a German commandant (Erich von Stroheim) alternating between French and German with his Gaul POWs. Marcel Camus' 1959 Portuguese-language "Black Orpheus" may have been the first South American-set film to win the foreign Oscar but, being French-produced, was the French submission. Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo's 1965 "The Battle of Algiers," meticulously depicting the Algerian revolt against French colonial occupation, is entirely in French and Arabic.

Indeed, the disqualification of Italy's initial submission this year, Saverio Costanzo's "Private" (on grounds that the film's language track of Arabic, Hebrew and English contained no Italian at all), received howls of protest from Italian film officials, who cited Pontecorvo's Oscar-nominated "Algiers" as a counter-example. But, as a simple glance at the AMPAS website shows, this merely reflects AMPAS rules, which are amended over time. The 2003 rule change that now requires that the film be considered on the basis of its original and undubbed soundtrack disqualified Michael Haneke's Austrian entry, "Cache," this year (filmed, as has been the Austrian-born Haneke's practice for several years, in French with primarily French actors), while Haneke's "The Piano Teacher" --also in French--qualified for Austria in 2002 on the basis of its German-dubbed version.
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Author:Koehler, Robert
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 19, 2005
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