Saturday, July 15, 2017


Here are my predictions for the 24 countries of Eastern Europe. With the official recognition of Kosovo by AMPAS in 2014, every country in the region has participated at least once. All countries have submitted a film at least once in the past three years, except Belarus.

1. ALBANIA- “Distant Angels” Albania’s front-runner is clearly the recently premiered “Distant Angels”, the first film by Gjergj Xhuvani (“Slogans”, “East West East”) in eight years, and the first Albanian-language film in seven years of local movie star and heartthrob Nik Xhelilaj (now based in Berlin). "Distant Angels" focuses on the war in neighboring Kosovo in the 1990s, and its effect on the ethnic Albanians making up the majority of the people there. This is an issue close to the heart of the Albanian people and it's a shoo-in to represent Albania, unless it’s claimed by neighboring Kosovo, which co-produced the film. The only films that could potentially challenge are historical drama “The Delegation” (which hasn’t premiered yet) and murder mystery “Shadows”. But “Distant Angels” should get this easily. 

2. ARMENIA- “The Last Wish” Armenia tried to rejoin the Oscar race last year with the exciting disaster movie “Earthquake”. In a bizarre decision, AMPAS determined that the film, in Armenian and Russian, which had an Armenian director, a mostly Armenian crew,  and was about one of the most important moments in Armenian history, was a majority Russian film. It certainly was a Russian co-production, but I can think of a dozen recent submissions from every region of the world that were “less” from a country than this one. This year, I was going to predict Vigen Chaldranyan’s “Alter Ego”, about a writer researching the life of a famous composer killed during the Armenian Genocide, or “The Line”, an acclaimed film about the war in Nagorno Karabakh which dominated the new Anahit Armenian Film Awards (a new rival to the Hayak Awards) in December. These two films are among the three local Armenian features at the 2017 Golden Apricot Film Festival (recently rocked by an anti-LGBT censorship scandal). However, it appears both of these front-runners were released too early (which makes it extra sad that Armenia was disqualified this year, in what may have been their best film year since independence).  So, I’m confused what they might send. Armenia likes documentaries, but even their front-runner doc- “Deadlock”- about the tribulations of a disillusioned Armenian immigrant in the USA was also released too early. It won Best Director and Best Documentary at the Anahit Awards. So, I’ve decided to predict Syrian refugee documentary ”The Last Wish” (Վերջին ցանկություն). Other possibilities include “The Last Inhabitant”, which submitted itself for consideration against “Earthquake” last year, but didn’t end up premiering in cinemas until November. It’s about a village that was all but abandoned by its inhabitants during the war against Azerbaijan. They could also send action-comedy “Bravo Virtuoso” (the third Armenian feature screened at the Golden Apricots), or new drama “Good Morning” (which lost Best Picture to “The Line”).

3. AZERBAIJAN- “The Pomegranate Orchard” Azerbaijan has been absent from the Oscar race the past two years despite a rising international profile, and some fairly strong domestic films. This year, they had a rare film at a Class-A festival- “The Pomegranate Orchard”, which was the Opening Film in the “East of the West” Section at Karlovy Vary. Director Ilgar Najaf has been nominated before (for the dull but well-meaning “Buta”) so on paper, this looks like their most likely submission. It’s a modern-day variation on Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” about an old man living peacefully with his daughter-in-law, when his estranged son arrives to bring his wife and family to Russia. However, Azerbaijan has ignored Karlovy Vary movies before (“40th Door”, “Down the River”) so it’s possible they’ll prefer to send something like “The Red Garden”, about a man whose desperate desire for a son of his own leads him to acts of cruelty against his wife and foster son, or “Üçüncü günün adamı” (Man of the Third Day) about the Karabakh War. “Garden” garnered Azerbaijan a 2017 Nika nomination for Best CIS Film. I'm also confused as to the domestic release date of “Inner City”, which has variously been reported as March 2016 or February 2017. Directed by Ilgar Safat (“The Precinct”), it’s a noirish love story about a young woman who falls for an unstable war veteran twice her age. Not eligible: UK director Asif Kapadia’s lavish romance “Ali and Nino” is set in Azerbaijan but doesn’t seem to have any major Azerbaijani crew. I’ll guess Azerbaijan sends “Orchard”.
4. BELARUS- “Red Dog” Grumpy Belarus hasn’t submitted a film in this category since 1996 (no other European country has been absent for more than a few years). The country- known as the last dictatorship in Europe- opened up a bit this year (allowing Europeans and Americans to visit the country visa-free) but I don’t see that they have any movies that would coax them back into the Oscar race. For the sake of completion, I choose “Red Dog” (aka “Dog Brown” or Пёс рыжий), the true story of an elite K-9 unit of dogs that were used by the Soviets to plant bombs and launch attacks in wartime (WWII?? Not sure...). The film was made in Russian and released in both Russian and dubbed English versions. Other eligible films that show the existence of a local film industry: “Shadow of the Enemy” (Тень врага), about Soviet spies trying to defeat the Nazis, and teen comedy “Party-zan”, which looks like a sort of Belarusian "American Pie".

5. BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA- “Men Don’t Cry” Bosnia-Herzegovina is almost certain to send “Men Don’t Cry”, a fascinating new drama that opened the Main Competition at Karlovy Vary. It’s about a talk therapy group hosted in a remote mountain location, bringing together war veterans who fought on all three sides (Bosniak, Serb and Croat) of the Bosnian Civil War of the 1990s. Few “talky” subjects have the potential  to be more tense and exciting. If “Men” doesn’t get a qualifying release, other options include “All the Cities of the North” (which may be handicapped by the fact that it’s from the renegade Bosnian Serb Republic) and “Birds Like Us”, Bosnia’s first animated film. The Sarajevo Film Festival lineup should be announced next week, which may reveal some additional contenders.  Unless Bosnia has something else new premiering in Sarajevo (i.e. Aida Begic’s “Never Leave Me”, her upcoming Arabic-language film about the war in Syria), "Men" should easily win the race to represent Bosnia-Herzegovina. 

6. BULGARIA- “Glory” Bulgaria made it to the shortlist just once with Stephan Komandarev’s “The World is Big and Salvation Lies Around the Corner” (a good movie but one that I found fairly forgettable). Komandarev’s new taxi driver movie “Directions” got good reviews at Cannes, but it will probably tour the international film festival circuit for awhile before it gets released in Bulgaria. That's what happened with “The Judgment” a few years ago, but you can pencil it in to represent Bulgaria next year.  This year is a three-way race between audience favorite “Glory”, arthouse favorite “Godless” and an obscure local B&W title- “Memories of Fear”- that swept the local Academy Awards in June. The latter film beat out the other two for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay. Set in the 1960s, it's a satirical look at censorship and misery during the Communist era. It should surprise nobody that director Ivan Pavlov is the President of the Union of Bulgarian Filmmakers, which coincidentally also manages the awards. “Godless” won the Golden Leopard at Locarno 2016- a rare (perhaps first??) Class-A festival win for a Bulgarian film, and it also won Best Bulgarian Film at both the Sofia and Varna Film Festivals. It tells the story of an amoral drug-addled nurse who sells the ID cards of her elderly patients for money, who is suddenly confronted with a serious moral dilemma. "Glory" also aims to shed a light on the negative and corrupt aspects of modern Bulgarian society, but with a slightly lighter touch. It's about an introverted railway worker who accidentally becomes a media celebrity when he returns a large sum of lost cash. It won Best Screenplay in Sofia and has played at innumerable festivals around the world (including Locarno where it lost the Grand Prize to “Godless”, but won a Special Mention). The Bulgarian Academy has a reputation for favoring senior, well-connected directors (Pavlov is 70 and has been selected before….the female helmers of “Godless” and “Glory” are thirty years younger) so I worry that “Memories” will get this. But for now I’m predicting the Bulgarians select “Glory”, with “Godless” in second, “Memories” in third and “The Singing Shoes” (Jury Prize, Moscow 2016), about a man who discovers his late wife was forcibly recruited into being a Communist informant, a distant fourth.

7. CROATIA- “The Constitution” Croatia has sent movies to the Oscars every year without luck since their independence was recognized in 1992, and all but two of these movies competed at their national Pula Film Festival (one was in 1994, when the festival was canceled due to war, and the other was a children’s cartoon in 1997). They don’t always choose the Best Picture winner at Pula (in fact, they rarely do) but with the winners scheduled to be announced on July 22nd, we should have a better idea of which new films will be competitive. For now, I’m predicting “The Constitution”, which won the Grand Prize at the Montreal Film Festival for its story of four characters- including a gay nationalist and a minority Serb- whose interpersonal relationships reflect Croatia's history, its prejudices and its future. I think most people are predicting “Quit Staring at My Plate”, a drama about a “white trash” family taking care of their overbearing father after a stroke. I know it played at the bigger Venice Film Festival, but reviews haven’t been as good as “The Constitution”.  Croatia will probably select one of these two, but three other notable contenders include “All the Best”, a family dramedy which won five awards at last year’s Pula Film Festival before opening in theatres in December 2016, “Agape” (directed by three-time Croatian rep Branko Schmidt) about a boy who accuses a priest of sexual assault when he feels he isn’t getting enough attention, and “Dead Fish Float on Their Backs”, a B&W drama about the effect of a bizarre suicide on village residents (reportedly featuring 42 characters!).  Less likely: drama “Goran”, about a taxi driver taking care of his sick wife, and romantic black comedy “Ministry of Love”. Dalibor Matanic and Arsen Anton Ostojić have been selected to represent Croatia a total of five times but I don’t think Matanic’s horror film “Exorcism” will be selected, and Ostojic’s “F20” won’t premiere until next year.
8. CZECH REPUBLIC- “Barefoot” The Czech Republic made quite a big deal of the fact that “Little Crusader” (which opens in Czech cinemas in August) was the first Czech film to win the Grand Prize at their prestigious Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in fifteen years. Based on an obscure poem, it’s an historical drama about a medieval knight searching for his missing son. Watching the film has been described by Variety as “hard work” and by Cineuropa as “an intriguing mix of symbols”. That probably makes this film it a non-starter with American audiences, but since the Czechs have proudly sent films about talking pigeons and meat puppets, it’s very possible they’ll also send “Crusader”. However, I’m going to predict they send Jan Sverak’s upcoming film “Barefoot”, about an 8-year old sent to the countryside to avoid the worst of the fighting during WWII. Sverak won an Oscar for “Kolya” two decades ago, but hasn't had a film sent to the Oscars since 2001. However, with cute children, humor and a WWII background, “Barefoot” sounds like a mix of everything that Oscar likes best. In third place is “A Prominent Patient” which both the Czechs and Slovaks consider to be a majority national production (it’s probably 50-50) and which could be submitted by either country. With a Czech director (and a super competitive year in Slovakia) and a win at this year’s Czech Lions, the film definitely seems more "Czech". It's about a Czech diplomat in London in 1938 when the Allied Powers capitulated to Hitler. In fourth place, we have Bohdan Slama’s dramedy “Ice Mother”, about a widow finding love late in life. Slama was selected in 2002 and 2005 for similar village dramedies. All three of these films (“Barefoot”, “Patient” and “Mother”) definitely stand a better chance with the American Academy than the abstract,arty “Crusader”. Rounding out the Top Five: “Garden Store: Family Friend”, a historical melodrama directed by the prolific Jan Hrebejk (who repped the Czechs in 2000, 2004 and 2010, scoring one Oscar nod) about women waiting for their POW husbands to return. It’s the first film of a trilogy, all three of which will be released in 2017.

9. ESTONIA- “November” Estonia appears to have five eligible films, although there are a few more that might be released at the end of the eligibility period. I’m predicting this will be a two-way race. On one hand, Estonia has the weird, Gothic folklore-infused “November”, which looks like a cross between a Grimm fairy tale and a David Lynch film. Filmed in black and white, it won Best Cinematography at the Tribeca Film Festival. Its fans swear that it’s more accessible than it looks from the trailer. Then there’s “A Man Who Looks Like Me”, a tragicomedy about a man and his estranged father, who end up competing for the attentions of the same girl. Estonia likes things weird (“The Temptation of St. Tony”, anyone?) but “A Man Who Looks Like Me” is more likely to find favor with the Academy. Both were at Karlovy Vary. I predict they go with “November”, which fits the pattern of their often quirky Estonian submissions. The other three released films (comedy “The Dissidents”, rom-com “When You Least Expect It” and psychological drama “Pretenders”) won’t come into play, but the upcoming “The Man Slayer. The Virgin. The Shadow” by previously submitted director Sulev Keedus could beat them all if it's released in time. According to its Facebook page, its release date has been pushed back from September to October, which is good news for "November"! 

10. GEORGIA- “Khibula” Georgia has a quintet of prospective contenders, including three by previously submitted directors- “Gogita’s New Life” (Levan Koguashvili, who directed the brilliant low-budget masterpiece “Street Days”), “Khibula” (George Ovashvili, who was shortlisted for the dreary “Corn Island”) and “My Happy Family” (Nana Ekvtimishvili, who directed the dull “In Bloom”). The other two candidates are “Dede” (the feature debut of Mariam Khatchvani) and “Hostages” (Rezo Gigineishvili). The fact that Ovashvili got Georgia to the shortlist stage for the first time in twenty years automatically makes him the frontrunner (Variety said as much in their review) for “Khibula” (Karlovy Vary), a fictional (and ultimately allegorical) account of the flight of Georgia’s controversial post-Soviet president Gamsakhurdia. Critics note it’s not necessarily an easy film to watch (neither was “Corn Island”) and some local knowledge is beneficial. Not everyone likes the film (Gamsakhurdia is a controversial figure in Georgia) so in second place I have family drama “My Happy Family” (Berlin Forum, Sundance, many others), about a 50-something woman undergoing a midlife crisis, and who feels suffocated by her marriage and her overbearing family. It’s a strong dark horse to knock “Khibula” off its pedestal. In third place is “Dede” (Karlovy Vary), a culturally rich drama in the endangered Svan language about a woman fought over by men in a very remote and traditional part of the country. Critics say it’s exotic, fascinating but maybe slightly unpolished. Rounding out the Top Five will be action-thriller “Hostages”, a real-life thriller about a 1983 air hijacking by anti-Soviet intellectuals, and documentary “Gogita’s New Life”, about an ex-con seeking to readjust to modern-day life. It’s a competitive year for the Georgians! Georgia’s Zaza Urushadze brought Estonia an Oscar nomination for “Tangerines” but his new film “The Confession” (aka “The Monk”) won’t premiere by September 30. 

11. HUNGARY- “1945” Hungary has a competitive two-way race between two titles that premiered at the Berlin Film Festival this year. The obvious Hungarian nominee is “On Body and Soul”, a weird, weird, artsy love story set in a slaughterhouse in the countryside. It won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, which is normally enough to guarantee you the right to represent your country at the Oscars (unless your film is banned at home like Jafar Panahi’s “Taxi”). However, director Ildiko Enyedi has gained just as much publicity for her scathing remarks against the Hungarian government, leading some to believe that the government-linked selection committee won’t select her film because of it. However, I just think that AMPAS will hate this quirky, arty love story and will prefer what they usually like from Eastern Europe- the Jewish experience in World War II. Therefore, I think the smart submission for Hungary (and the film they will eventually choose) is actually “1945” (Berlin Panorama), a B&W drama set in Hungary right after World War II, when a village wedding is interrupted by the return of a few Jewish residents who were presumed dead in the Holocaust (and whose homes and property have been taken by greedy but (possibly) remorseful residents). “1945” has gotten solid reviews from critics and, even if they aren’t quite as good as “On Body and Soul”, it is much more likely to appeal to Oscar voters. So I think “1945” is in. Some people are predicting Syrian refugee fantasy-drama “Jupiter’s Moon”, but I just can’t that film (or any other) competing with these two major movies.

12. KOSOVO- “Unwanted” Kosovo, Eastern Europe’s newest nation, has a very small (but growing) film industry. For the past two years, they’ve selected films that premiered in Karlovy Vary. Their highest profile film of the year- “Unwanted”- was also their representative at Karlovy Vary 2017, so it makes sense that this will be the Kosovar submission. “Unwanted” is about a Kosovar refugee woman in the Netherlands, her son, who only speaks Dutch, and his complicated relationship with a local girl and with Dutch society as a whole. A co-production with the Netherlands, the integration of refugees in Western Europe is a topical issue that should be of interest to viewers. There’s a slight possibility that Kosovo may try to claim Albania’s Kosovo war drama “Distant Angels” as their own, but I think that will be ultimately be selected by Albania.
13. LATVIA- “Chronicles of Melanie” Latvia has one potential blockbuster coming out this year- Aigars Grauba’s historical drama about the Crusades, “King’s Ring”, which is scheduled to premiere in November 2017. You can mark that one down for Latvia next year. This year, they will send “Chronicles of Melanie” a drama about the 1941 Soviet deportations of ethnic Latvians to work camps in Siberia. The film focuses on one middle-class woman and her 8-year old son, who are forcibly separated from her husband and her father. Latvia doesn’t have much else so this should be an easy decision for them.
14. LITHUANIA- “The Saint” Lithuania held their Silver Crane Awards in June and the big winner was “The Saint”, which won Best Picture, Director, Screenplay and three of the four Acting Awards. It’s a drama set during the 2008 economic crisis in which a husband and father has a difficult time adjusting to unemployment when he is laid off from his job. All those awards make it the front-runner, but Lithuania does have a few other possibilities. Nationalist drama “Emilia” is about the struggle for Lithuanian independence from the Soviet Union. It lost most of its Silver Crane nominations to “The Saint”, but it’s certainly a more stirring subject for the average Lithuanian and the film topped the local box-office for two weeks. As for Sarunas Bartas’ "Frost" (co-starring Vanessa Paradis), the film made it to Cannes but got bad reviews so I don't see it competing here. Lithuania has selected two documentary shorts in the past, which means “Woman and the Glacier” (Karlovy Vary), a 56-minute documentary about a Lithuanian scientist who has been studying climate change at a remote scientific station in Kazakhstan since the days of the USSR, a definite possibility. Last but not least is “Miracle”, which has the intriguing tagline “About pigs and miracles!” Scheduled for release this autumn, it's a comedy-drama about a woman struggling to keep a village farm company in business, who is seduced by the promises of a charismatic American investor who claims he will be bailing out the collective. All four of these have a chance, but it would be foolish to bet against “The Saint”.  

15. MACEDONIA- “When the Day Had No Name” Macedonia rarely has films at international film festivals so the fact that bleak drama “When the Day Had No Name” competed in the Panorama Section of the Berlin Film Festival means that it is automatically the front-runner for Macedonia.  The film is based on a true story in which a group of local teenagers ended up murdered due to ethnic tensions that nearly led to civil war. I'd be more interested in seeing “Golden Five”, about the investigation of a cold case series of murders that took place fifty years before. It got better reviews than "Name", but I still think the Berlinale appearance will mean that it will win out. Dark horse: the upcoming, absurdist black comedy “Year of the Monkey”, by the same team that made Macedonia’s wacky Oscar submission “Punk Is Not Dead” in 2011.
16. MOLDOVA- “Eastern Business” Moldova used to produce a single feature film every few years, but production is now up to two or three annually. This year, the two front-runners are buddy road comedy “Eastern Business” and low-budget relationship drama “Resentment”. Black comedy “Eastern Business” has played at a number of festivals (including Transylvania and Tallinn Black Nights). It's about two Moldovan guys who set off on a chaotic road trip to try and make some extra money. “Resentment" is a drama about a Moldovan mail-order bride whose husband disappears after joining the Transnistria conflict as a mercenary. That sounds like a more Oscar-appropriate film, but it hasn’t been released yet. Add to that the fact that the team behind “Eastern Business” is more professionally known (Igor Cobileanski directed Moldova’s most recent Oscar submission in 2014) and “Business” should be Moldova’s third-ever entry to the Oscar race.

17. MONTENEGRO- “Vrijeme između nas” Montenegro has a population of only 600,000 people, so most of their films are co-productions with larger ex-Yugoslav republics like Serbia and Croatia. The government established a National Film Center late last year so film is theoretically a growing priority, but they don’t have much to send this year. Two Serbian films by Montenegrin-born directors- “Diamond of Boyana” and “The Samurai in Autumn”- are the only eligible films released so far. “Diamond” is a fairly commercial romantic comedy about a man on a road trip to meet the jewel thief father he long believed to be dead, and “Samurai” is a “romantic, martial arts film”. Before September 30th,  I expect we'll also see the release of slapstick action-comedy “The Books of Books” (starring a local TV comedy troupe). But none of these films seems likely. Montenegro also has an upcoming drama “The Time Between Us” (Vrijeme između nas), which tells three different stories of fathers and sons, set at the end of WWII, the end of the Cold War and in the present-day. Serbian actor Lazar Ristovski has a small role. Obviously “Time” will get this if it’s released. If not, it's possible that Montenegro will take the year off. 

18. POLAND- “Hatred” Poland has a competitive race between Agnieszka Holland’s crime thriller/murder mystery “Spoor” and Wojciech Smarzowski’s controversial historical film “Hatred”, which dominated the 2017 Polish Eagle Awards. Within Poland itself, “Hatred” has gotten much better reviews,  and its WWII subject will be of much greater interest to the Academy. “Spoor”, which competed in Berlin, has bigger names (director Agnieszka Holland has been nominated for three Oscars- twice for Foreign Film and once for Best Screenplay) and much more festival play.  I think the weightiness of the subject of "Hatred” will lead to its selection. It’s the story of a multi-ethnic village of Poles, Ukrainians and Jews on the eve of WWII, and how the war subsequently devastates relations between the ethnic groups, personal relationships and, of course, the whole of Poland and Ukraine. Ukraine, upset by the portrayal of Ukrainians, banned the film, saying that it will “harm public security”, annoying Poland and giving them another reason to pick it. “Spoor” has gotten good reviews for its story of an older woman investigating the murders of a local hunting club, but not more than that. If it wasn’t for Holland, the film would quickly be forgotten. I really can’t see Poland selecting anything else, but the rest of the top five contenders would be “Wild Roses”, a twisty adoption drama featuring a woman who gets pregnant while her husband is working overseas, serial killer drama “I Am A Killer” and splashy musical “Bodo”.  

19. ROMANIA- “Ana, mon amour” Winner of the Silver Berlin Bear, “Ana, mon amour” follows a young couple as they fall in love and subsequently have to deal with the young woman’s worsening mental illness. It’s directed by Calin Peter Netzer, who also made “Child’s Pose”, one of the more accessible films of the Romanian New Wave. “Ana” isn’t as acclaimed as his earlier film, but the Silver Bear should boost it to the top of Romania’s list. It’s been a fairly quiet year for Romania (they were completely absent from Cannes and Venice) so “Ana” should get this, unless something new pops up at the end of the year. Two potential challengers are “Breaking News”, the only Romanian feature in competition at Karlovy Vary, and uproarious comedy “6.9 on the Richter Scale”. “Breaking News”, a Romanian New Wave film about a journalist bonding with the son of a recently deceased colleague, is said to be good, but a minor New Wave effort. “Richter Scale” has gotten great reviews, and Caranfil has been selected twice before, but the film is a comedy meant to appeal to local audiences. Cineuropa compares it to Almodovar’s “I’m So Excited”- supremely entertaining but unlikely to win awards. Less likely: “The Fixer” (Toronto) is about journalists doing a story on a recently repatriated prostitute,  “Marita” is a family drama that won the East of the West competition at Karlovy Vary 2017, “One Step Behind the Seraphim”, is a coming-of-age drama set at a conservative university and “Scarred Hearts” (Jury Prize in Locarno) is a story about an unexpected romance that develops in a hospice for dying patients in 1937 Romania.

20. RUSSIA- "Loveless" Russia is the most difficult of these countries to predict not only because they produce the largest number of films, but also also because there are conflicting stories about how influenced the Russian committee is by domestic politics. Often, the Russian Academy will select a grizzled, Soviet-style Putin supporter like Nikita Mikhalkov or Karen Shakhnazarov for a film nobody really likes. But in 2014, they showed that they were willing to consider films made by anti-Putin directors like “Leviathan” if it meant that Russia had a better chance at winning an Oscar. This year’s two most critically acclaimed movies are both by directors linked to the opposition, namely “The Student” and “Loveless”. With the director of “The Student” in jail on (possibly politically motivated) corruption charges, the most likely Russian submission this year is “Loveless”, made by Andrey Zvyagintsev, the same director as “Leviathan”. I didn’t really care for “Leviathan” but everyone else did (including Oscar) and “Loveless”, about a divorcing couple searching for their missing son, has gotten even better reviews. Bottom line: Unlike China, Russia is a confident country which does not micromanage their international image. Also, by selecting a “subversive” film to an international awards show, they can claim that, after all, there is no censorship in Russia. In a fairly weak year, odds look good for “Loveless”. However, if they decide they want to reward a more politically connected director, they could consider (1)- action drama “Viking” (Andrey Kravchuk), a hit action movie with middling reviews, but whose set was visited by President Putin and which has been successfully sold to a number of countries, (2)- sci-fi thriller "Attraction", director by Fedor Bondarchuk, who has been selected twice for action movies, or (3)-  Karen Shakhnazarov’s “Anna Karenina: Vronsky’s Story”, telling a different perspective of the famed Tolstoy novel. Russia also has other options that have gotten much better reviews than these three, including “Spacewalk”, a look at the Cold War “space race” from a Russian perspective, romantic drama “Arrhthmia” (Grand Prize in Sochi) and “Closeness” (Cannes 2017), about a family dealing with a kidnapping for ransom in the obscure Kabardino-Balkaria Republic. I’m hesitantly predicting “Loveless”, followed by “Spacewalk” and the potentially embarrassing “Viking”.

21. SERBIA- “Requiem for Mrs. J” On paper, Serbia’s most prominent film of the year is easily “On the Milky Road”, directed by Emir Kusturica, the acclaimed director whose films represented Yugoslavia four times, including Oscar nominee “When Father Was Away on Business”. It co-stars Italian actress Monica Bellucci. However, the film has gotten middling reviews and (as the review from Variety states all too clearly) Kusturica’s films over the past decade haven’t been great. Serbia changed its nomination process a few years ago, and now only films that pay a hefty entry fee will be considered by the Serbian Academy. So, a lot depends on which producers are willing to take the risk. This year, the four front-runners are a pair of dark comedies (box-office hit “Herd” and festival hit “Requiem for Mrs. J”) as well as two dramas- “Santa Maria Della Salute” and “The Return”.  The best reviews of the year have gone to "Mrs. J" (Berlin, Karlovy Vary, Sofia), about a widow planning to commit suicide to join her late husband. Festival films like this one are the ones most likely to benefit from a spot on the Oscar list, but if “Mrs. J” doesn’t pay up, “The Return”, a thriller about an immigrant who returns to Serbia after 40- years living in America, should get the nod.  Hit comedy "Herd", about life in the entertainment industry, and “Santa Maria”, a period love story made by a respected 84-year old director, will likely finish third and fourth. Unlikely: Goran Paskaljevic is a great director but his latest film “Land of the Gods” is set in India and unlikely to rep the nationalist Serbians. Upcoming dramas “About Bugs and Heroes” and cross-cultural romance “The Misunderstanding” aren’t scheduled to open until December, according to IMDB.

22. SLOVAKIA- “The Line” Slovakia deserved to win an Oscar last year for “Eva Nova”, but this terribly sad, darkly comic and ultimately hopeful (yes! All three!) drama was ignored as many of the best films often are. Slovakia produces about eight fiction features a year, hosts its own annual film awards, and regularly sees its films screen at major festivals like Cannes (“Out”) and Berlin (“A Prominent Patient” and “Little Harbour”). Variety recently wrote a cautiously optimistic article about the country’s cinematic future. This year, the Slovaks have a strong slate of eligible films- I count no less than eight real contenders. The Slovak Academy seems to be a grim bunch; over the past decade, they have selected mostly sad stories with bleak cinematography and a docudrama style of filmmaking. That would seem to bode well for “Filthy” (Rotterdam), about the traumatic aftermath of a rape, “A Hole in My Head”, a documentary about Roma Holocaust survivors, and “Little Harbour” (Dir: Iveta Grofova, selected in 2012; Berlinale KPlus) about an abused little girl who kidnaps two babies to raise as her own. These are the sort of films that Slovakia usually picks. However, Slovakia will be hard-pressed to ignore the festival attention garnered by action-thriller “The Line” (the only Slovak film in the main competition at Karlovy Vary), absurdist odyssey “Out” (Cannes, Un Certain Regard) and Czech-language historical drama “A Prominent Patient” (Berlin Special Screening) , a co-production which received Best Picture nominations at both the Czech and Slovak national film awards. In any other year, family drama “Nina” and thriller “Kidnapping” would also be competitive. It’s an embarrassment of riches. I predict Slovakia makes a surprise pick with “The Line”, about the lives of smugglers and traffickers on the Slovak-Ukrainian border when this obscure frontier suddenly became an EU border. I admit it’s definitely not what they usually go for, but it's probably their true best film of the year. Rounding out the Top Five:  the quirky “Out” and documentary “A Hole in the Head”, followed by “Little Harbour” and dysfunctional family drama “Nina".
23. SLOVENIA- “Nightlife” Slovenia has a wide-open race this year. As of July, they’ve released five eligible films ("Come Along", "A Comedy of Tears," "Nightlife", "Nika" and "Pr’Hostar") and there are another half dozen that may or may not be released in the next two months. So, what they choose depends a lot on what gets released before September 30. Out of these five, the front-runner is probably “Nightlife”, a film-noir thriller about a morally conflicted lawyer who is found murdered. It has gotten mixed-to-positive reviews but Damjan Kozole managed to win Best Director at Karlovy Vary 2016 and at the national Vesna Awards. He repped Slovenia at the Oscars in 2003 for the underrated human trafficking drama “Spare Parts”. But the year isn’t over yet, and I definitely think that several of the upcoming releases could easily beat “Nightlife” which was released last year and has lost its buzz. Family dramas “The Basics of Killing” and “Ivan” were made by Slovenian directors who have represented the country before, and “The Miner” is about a Bosnian refugee in Slovenia who discovers mass graves left over from WWII in the mines where he works.  It’s impossible to predict Slovenia without knowing which of these (if any) gets released.  In the end, I’ll predict “Nightlife” since I know it’s eligible, with “The Basics of Killing” (directed by two-time Oscar rep Jan Cvitkovic, about a marriage falling apart), “The Miner”, multi-story “Perseverance” and teen wilderness thriller “Come Along” rounding out the Top Five.

24. UKRAINE- “Falling” Ukraine is likely to send “Falling” which was the country’s sole representative at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival and one of two national representatives in the main competition of the local Odessa Film Festival. It’s an artsy love story focusing on young people growing up in today’s aimless, unstable Ukraine, specifically a young musician who goes to the countryside to live with his grandfather in lieu of "rehab", where he falls in love with a local girl who is preparing to emigrate to the West. Running a close second is “Black Level”, directed by one of the producers of the acclaimed (and famously snubbed) sign-language drama “The Tribe”. It's a slice-of-life drama about a Ukrainian photographer. Ukraine usually names a three-film shortlist, so these films will probably be joined either by village drama “The Strayed” (filmed in a local dialect), refugee drama “Autumn Memories”, war movie “The Raid”, or perhaps a documentary like “Dixie Land”, filmed by the same director as last year’s doc submission. I notice many people predicting Ukraine will send "A Gentle Creature", directed by Belarus-born, Ukraine-raised, Germany-based Sergei Loznitsa. However, Loznitsa seems to be a man without a country. He has gotten good notices for his bleak foreign-financed, Russian-language films in the past, but I don’t think Ukraine considers him to be a local director nor do they consider "Creature" a Ukrainian film. 

Saturday, July 8, 2017

FOREIGN FILM PREDICTIONS (Africa and the Middle East)

Here are my predictions for the countries from Africa and the Middle East. Fourteen African countries have entered the Oscar race, but most of them have only submitted once or twice. This year, Ghana and the United Arab Emirates have announced that they will send films for the first time, and Nigeria (which has never submitted a movie) has been invited since 2014.

ALGERIA- "Let Them Come" Algeria submits a film only if they feel they have something good to send. They’ve sent films five of the past ten years and the last four (i.e. all submissions since 2010) have focused on freedom fighters fighting for liberation from France. That being the case, it would appear the most likely submission this year would be “The Seven Ramparts of the Citadel” which focuses on the question of why the Algerians so suddenly (according to the director) rose up against French imperialism in the mid 20th century, after over a hundred years as a French colony. The problem is that, as of June, the film was still being edited so it may not premiere by the September 30 deadline. In that case, I predict they send “Let Them Come”, which won the Jury Prize at Dubai 2015 and was finally shown at home in Fall 2016. This is a more modern-day tale, centering on a man living during Algeria’s “lost decade” (the 1990s) when terrorism plagued the country. I’d prefer they sent the talky drama “I Still Hide to Smoke” with its all-female cast, led by Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass. Set amidst a crew of nine eccentric characters at a women’s hammam and featuring very, very minor nudity, the film may be too much for the stuffy Algerian Ministry of Culture. Ditto for Merzak Allouache’s documentary “Investigating Paradise”, which seeks to get in the head of suicide bombers. It was Algeria’s only film at Cannes this year. “Let Them Come” already beat “Smoke” in the Best First Film category at the 2016 Carthage Film Festival and I predict it will be the Algerian nominee.

BURKINA FASO- "Borders" Burkina Faso prides itself on being the capital of African arthouse cinema as well as the home of the world’s most important African Film Festival (FESPACO). They produce a few films annually but have only entered the Oscar race once, way back in 1989. This year, Burkina Faso had three new films competing at FESPACO, two of which won awards. If they choose to rejoin the race, an excellent candidate would be “Borders” (Frontieres), a tragicomedy about four women traders who meet along the long journey from Senegal to Nigeria, crossing four national borders. Also released this year is “La forêt du Niolo” a drama about a corrupt politician poisoning the local water supply to force a poor, local village to relocate.  “Niolo” got significant government support, but “Borders” won three awards and has greater international exposure so I give it the edge. This year also saw a Burkinabe co-production (“Wallay”) at Berlinale, but its director and crew are almost all Europeans.

CAMEROON- "Lifepoint" Cameroon reportedly tried to send a Bollywood movie to the Oscars last year just because it had a Cameroonian in the crew, or something like that. If that means that the Oscars are back on their radar (they sent a film just once in 1980), they could send “Life Point” a new drama about an elderly professor who has just lost his wife, who is planning to end his life before meeting and falling for a young, Central African refugee.  As is typical in Cameroon, the film is in a mix of French, English and “pidgin”, and may or may not  meet the language requirements.

CHAD- "Hissien Habre. A Chadian Tragedy" Chad has submitted two films by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun,  the country's only professional film director. This year, Haroun accepted a position as the country’s Minister of Culture and Tourism. Last year, he had a “Special Screening” of his new political documentary “Hissein Habré, A Chadian Tragedy” premiere at Cannes. The documentary, about the brutal dictator who ruled the country from 1982-1990 and who was convicted of crimes against humanity in 2016, could represent Chad if it managed to get a theatrical release this year.

CONGO-KINSHASA- "Congo! Le silence des crimes oubliés" Congo-Kinshasa submitted a film once in 1997 but hasn't submitted any others since, even when they have a strong contender (like “Viva Riva”). This year, their highest profile feature is “Congo! Le silence des crimes oubliés”, a documentary about the atrocities committed against civilians in eastern Congo. Although there have been a lot of strong documentaries made about Congo in recent years, this is one of the few directed by a Congolese. It won Second Prize in the documentary competition at the 2017 FESPACO film festival.

COTE D’IVOIRE- "Innocent Malgré Tout" The Cote d'Ivoire (aka Ivory Coast) took a forty-year break from the Oscars before returning in 2015. This year they had two feature films in competition at FESPACO, in addition to a number of shorts and documentaries, signaling a possible resurgence of their national film industry. If they enter the race this year, it makes sense they’d choose one of these. “The Interpreter”, a thriller about a married female interpreter who becomes involved with a visiting African-American businessman, won Best Editing at FESPACO but I think it’s more likely they’ll send “Innocent malgré tout”, about an impoverished young man falsely accused of participating in a gang rape.

EGYPT- "The Preacher" (Mawlana) Egypt has the largest film industry in the Middle East and yet I really think that their Oscar race will fall to a competition between just two acclaimed new films- “The Preacher” (Mawlana) and “The Originals”.  “The Preacher” has been a box-office hit in Egypt and has been a darling of Western film critics for its story of a moderate Islamic mullah whose devoted following leads to a lavish lifestyle, and national influence (similar to the frightening phenomenon of American televangelists). Called “witty”, “twisty” and “powerful”, this drama-cum-thriller really has the potential to go far, especially with increasing interest in cinema from the Islamic world. Egypt has repeatedly been passed up for an Oscar nomination sending numerous worthy films (“Yacoubian Building”, “Clash”) and "Preacher" would be a great choice. They could also choose Marwan Hamed’s “The Originals”, a thriller about an upper-class executive and family man who is abruptly fired from his job due to downsizing, and who is offered a shadowy new job in its place. This would be a much more populist choice, which would have a much smaller shot at a nomination. The directors of both films have been selected once before (in 2002 and 2006) and both films have gotten strong reviews. Unlike other Arab countries, the Egyptian Academy doesn’t seem to have any problem selecting films that are controversial at home. So even though many Sunni Muslim leaders have complained, and called for “Preacher” to be banned, it got released anyway and should be Egypt’s Oscar representative. Less likely:  Wedding comedy-drama “Brooks, Meadows and Lovely Faces” (Locarno) and fantasy-romantic-dramedy “Good Night” both look great, but probably aren’t serious enough to represent Egypt.

ETHIOPIA- "Fre" Ethiopia apparently has a thriving film industry but there’s virtually no evidence of it online. A quick IMDB search indicates four films were produced in the past two years but that’s simply not true. I had the pleasure of visiting Ethiopia on vacation in April and I was struck by the number of cinemas showing local films. Most of them didn’t seem to show anything else. So, movies are being made. However, I struggled to find even one movie that I thought could be sent to the Oscars this year. I just came up with “Fre”, which represented the country at FESPACO, about a widower whose life is turned upside down when his young daughter becomes the victim of a sexual assault.

GHANA- "Nakom" Ghana had its official Oscar selection committee recognized in 2017 and seems likely to send what will be the fourth-ever West African film to the Oscars (after “Yaaba”, “Run” and Oscar nominee “Timbuktu”). Their probable first-ever submission is “Nakom”, a drama about a medical student studying abroad whose entire life plans are placed in jeopardy by the death of his father in Ghana. It has appeared in a number of important global film festivals (including Berlin, Hong Kong, Seattle and Vancouver in 2016) and was the opening film at Ghana’s local Black Star festival. Despite what it says on IMDB, the film is mostly in the Kusaal language. It has gotten great reviews and will represent Ghana proudly. 
IRAN- "Ferrari" Iran is once again returning champion, thanks to Asghar Farhadi’s “The Salesman”, a good film to be sure, though probably one of his weaker efforts. Farhadi did not attend the awards because of the on-again, off-again American travel ban against Iranians, so it's possible that Iran will boycott the Oscars, as they did in 2012. With its two most famous international directors (and only Oscar nominees) working overseas (Farhadi in Spain and Majid Majidi in India), and with the director of the most acclaimed film of the year (Cannes 2017 anti-corruption drama “A Man of Integrity”) in jail, the field is wide open. It seems likely they’ll look to this year’s Fajr Film Festival for their Oscar nominee. The two big awards (Best Picture and the Audience Award) were both won by “Midday Event”, a historical thriller about the Iranian government’s struggle against a rival group trying to seize power after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Director Mahdavian also won Best Picture at Fajr last year for "Standing in the Dust", which was shortlisted against “The Salesman” to represent Iran at the Oscars. It should be noted however that the Fajr winner and the Iranian Oscar nominee has only matched up once in the past fifteen years. That's because the Iranians tend to shy away from sending their patriotic pro-revolution dramas to Hollywood (probably a smart move) so it’s perhaps more likely they send “Ferrari”, a more modern drama about an 18-year old Iranian woman who finds trouble when she comes to the big city to have her picture taken with a classic car. It won four awards at Fajr (including the Jury Prize), it's directed by a respected, senior director who has never been selected before, and it's written by Kambuzia Partovi, who has written several Iranian Oscar submissions. It seems Iran’s most likely choice at this point. Other options:  “No Date, No Signature” about a coroner who finds himself examining an old friend, and family drama “Under the Smoky Roof”, which is seeking to be the first film by a female helmer to represent the Islamic republic.

IRAQ- "The Dark Wind" Iraq has submitted films from its largely independent (and mostly peaceful) Kurdish region for the past three years, and they’ll probably do so again this year. This year, the two frontrunners  competed against each other at the Dubai Film Festival where the controversial “The Dark Wind” won Best Arab Feature Film (because Iraq is an “Arab” country, even though the director and most of the language of the film is Kurdish). “The Dark Wind” is a bold and timely drama about ISIS atrocities against Iraq's Christian Yazidi minority. The film follows a young woman who escapes from sexual slavery in the ISIS zone, only to be shunned upon her return to her village and her family. The film caused a scandal in Kurdistan as some felt the film portrayed their community in a negative light. “House Without Roof” is a bit lighter, following three Kurdish siblings raised in Germany who return to Kurdistan to bury their mother. It won the Audience Award at the inaugural Kurdish Cinema Awards (where most of the winners were films from Turkey’s Kurdish region).  Until now, Iraq’s only Arabic-language movies to go to the Oscars were both directed by Mohamed al-Daradji; he and his brother have two new films this year- Mohamed has “The Journey”, a tense thriller about a female suicide bomber, while his brother Atiya has “Path of Maryam”, which was Iraq’s submission to the Asia-Pacific Screen Awards.  Iraq will have a tough decision; frontrunner “The Dark Wind” is very controversial and Iraq’s pick may depend on the personal feelings of the committee members. My prediction: “The Dark Wind” squeaks through “Maryam” and "Roof", but it will be really close.

ISRAEL- "Longing" Thanks to “Spartak” for sending a list of this year’s 31 eligible films from Israel. Israel is unique in the world in that they automatically send the Best Picture winner from their national film awards (the Ophir Awards) to the Oscars (Greece used to have a similar system, sending the Best Greek Film winner from the Thessaloniki Film Festival).  So, to determine the Israeli submission, we have to predict which five out of the 31 films will be nominated at the Ophirs. Four previous Ophir winners- Sabi Gabizon, Eran Riklis, Dan Wolman and Dover Kosashvili- all have films in contention. Gabizon has made three features since 1990 and all three won Best Picture at the Ophirs....quite a strong record. This year, his new film “Longing” is also one of five eligible Israeli films debuting at the Jerusalem Film Festival (JIFF), another strong precursor for the Ophir nominations. "Longing" is a tragicomedy about a wealthy man in his fifties who learns from a college classmate that he has an adult son he never knew about. If it wins Best Picture at JIFF, it will be the film to beat. However, until it premieres, it's hard to say how good it is. Predicting the other four Ophir nominees is tough. Israel has no frontrunners and nearly a dozen strong contenders. I'm confident three of the slots will go to “Beneath the Silence” (Montreal 2016/Shanghai 2017), about a family dealing with a father suffering from PTSD after the Six-Day War, “An Israeli Love Story” (Wolman’s film), a romance set against the backdrop of Israeli’s declaration of independence, and “Scaffolding”, about a boy who aspires to more than just continuing the blue-collar family business. The fifth nominee is less certain. It could easily  be “Before Memory”, about corruption in the religious Hasidic community, “Land of the Little People" (Rome), produced by Oscar nominee Tony Copti (“Ajami”), a chilling, violent allegory about military-minded Israeli youth, or the buzziest Israeli film of the year- In Between”- a comedy-drama about young Israeli Arab women living in liberal Tel Aviv. But I think it’s more like to be something less daring, namely, “Past Life”, a creaky-sounding drama about two sisters growing up in the 1970s. Riklis’ new thriller “Refuge” and Kosashvili’s new relationship drama “Love Birds” probably won’t come into play, but it's all so confusing when most of these movies haven't premiered yet. I have my fingers crossed for another dark horse, and the Israeli film I most want to see this year, namely feminist cannibal comedy “Madam Yanekelova’s Fine Literature Club”, about a most unusual version of a “pig party”. In the end, I predict “Longing” represents Israel, followed by “An Israeli Love Story”. The Jerusalem Film Festival will announced its awards on July 23rd, which may clarify things somewhat.

JORDAN- "The Curve" Of course, Jordan should send “Blessed Benefit”, a well-reviewed, low-key comedy about a middle-aged construction worker sentenced to three months in a quirky Jordanian prison on a minor fraud charge. It has quietly gained a solid reputation, representing Jordan at numerous international festivals (including Toronto, Dubai, Busan and Warsaw). It was partially funded by the Royal Jordanian Film Commission and the country only produces one or two movies annually, so it should be a shoo-in, right? Unfortunately, Jordan mysteriously banned the film shortly after its February premiere screening so it did not get a local cinematic release. Apparently Jordan- considered one of the Arab world’s more easygoing countries- objected to certain scenes that implied official corruption existed in the country. I’m hoping the matter will be resolved by the September 30 deadline, but I’m not sure how likely that is. Therefore, I’m predicting they send “The Curve”, a talky, low-budget road movie about a Jordanian “share taxi” driver and his three quirky Lebanese and Palestinian passengers. 

KENYA- "Kati Kati" Kenya submitted  a film just once in 2012 when they sent the edgy “Nairobi Half Life”, which many said was the sign of a new kind of East African cinema…but then nothing much happened. Kenya didn’t have a single film nominated at the African Academy Awards and only a single short film represented the country at FESPACO. If they enter a film, I see two possibilities- fantasy drama “Kati Kati” is the story of a woman with amnesia who wakes up in a strange hotel, where she is told that she is dead and must make peace with her past along with a few other lost souls. It is produced by Tom Tykwer whose production company made “Nairobi Half Life” and it has been seen at a number of global festivals including Seattle, Toronto and Zanzibar.  It’s also roughly 50% in English (not sure exactly how much) so it may not be eligible. The second option is local film “Get Some Money”, a strange comedy-drama retelling Judas’ betrayal of Jesus Christ, but setting the story in what looks like a cross between Ancient Rome and Ancient Kenya. It’s entirely in Swahili. I predict Kenya will send “Kati Kati” if it’s eligible. If not, they won’t send anything at all. 

KUWAIT- "Ateej" Kuwait hasn’t submitted a film since 1978, the longest absence of any of the 113 competing countries. Recently there’s been an uptick of Oscar interest among the Gulf countries (since 2013, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Yemen have applied to have national committees recognized by AMPAS) so perhaps we’ll see the Kuwaitis finally return. They actually have a half dozen eligible films this year (sometimes they have zero), although production values are usually modest. Their best prospect this year would be “Ateej”, about three sets of characters linked by a set of prayer beads. It’s said to offer a peek into modern-day Kuwaiti society and got released all over the Gulf in November 2016.

LEBANON- "Solitaire" Lebanon is always one of the most fun countries on the Oscar longlist because they are willing to send films from all sorts of genres, ranging from comedies (“Caramel”, “Ghadi”) to musicals (“Bosta”) to thrillers (“A Very Big Shot”) to arthouse (“Void”, “Blind Intersections”). The Lebanese also like movies about strong women; four of their past seven nominated films have been directed or co-directed by women. Nadine Labaki alone has deserved at least two nominations in the past ten years but Lebanon has unfortunately never yet been nominated. This year, tiny Lebanon has six main contenders: (in alphabetical order) “Listen”, “Nour”, “Nut$”, “Solitaire”, “Tramontane” and “The Traveller”.   More than most countries, Lebanon shows appreciation for its commercial cinema so romantic drama “Listen” (by Philippe Aractingi who has repped Lebanon twice) and the female-helmed Tarintinoesque gambling thriller “Nut$” are both in with a chance. “Listen” won Best Picture at this year’s Lebanese Film Awards and is supposed to be charming and original…though still really just a movie romance. I visited Lebanon on holiday this year, which is where I saw one of my favorite films of the year- family comedy “Solitaire” (Dubai, Seattle), which has been charming the international film festival circuit with its story of a young Lebanese woman whose seemingly sweet mother is willing to do anything to sabotage her engagement to her handsome Syrian fiancé. The clash between two families joined by marriage has been done many times, but "Solitaire" manages to be original and still relatable.  Another comedy- “The Traveller”- (which may be too French) is about a smooth-talking travel agent who is overwhelmed when he travels abroad for the first time. On the arthouse side, we have “Nour”, a emotionally draining drama about a teenaged girl forced into a marriage to an older man, and “Tramontane” (Cannes Critics Week 2016, Dubai), which is about a young, blind musician forced to go on a journey around Lebanon to unravel the mystery of why his birth certificate is fake. Six good choices! I know I’m rooting for “Solitaire” to raise its international profile, so I'm predicting that, followed by “Nour”, “The Traveller” and “Tramontane”.

MAURITANIA is one of those countries that really only has one famous international director, in this case Oscar nominee Abderrahmane Sissako. He hasn’t made a film since his brilliant Oscar nominee “Timbuktu” and Mauritania won’t figure into the Oscar race until he does. The only film I know from the country is the 9-minute short film “The First Box”, which has represented the country at some festivals specializing in regional films or shorts.

MOROCCO- "Burnout" Morocco has three well-known international directors- Nabil Ayouch (who was invited to join AMPAS in June), Faouzi Bensaidi and Noureddine Lakhmari (some might add Laila Marrakchi, though she’s younger than the others and has never been selected). Their films have been selected five times since 1998 and all three have hotly anticipated new films this year. However, as of June, none of them has premiered and none has a local release date. So, it really depends which (if any) gets a release by September 30. Moroccan films often tour the festival circuit for awhile, so I predict only “Burnout” , by Noureddine Lakhmari, (which promises to be released “between September and November) will be eligible. It’s about a series of characters living in modern-day Casablanca, including a politician, a medical student who moonlights as a prostitute, a poor shoeshine boy, a wealthy businessman and his wife. Nabil Ayouch’s “Razzia” (also about Casablanca) and Faouzi Bensaidi’s “Volubilis” probably won’t make it in time (if all of them were, “Razzia” should win this easily despite Ayouch’s highly publicized battles with the Moroccan censors). But what if none of them are released? For the past three years, Morocco has gone with small local films that nobody has ever heard of.  At Morocco's National Film Festival in March, twelve out of fifteen competing films won awards but the big winner was “Sweat Rain” (produced by Nabil Ayouch), about an impoverished man trying to survive a drought and hold on to his meagre parcel of land in a small village.  Other possibilities include “The Tears of Satan”, a revenge thriller about a man just released from prison, “Basta”, a social drama about the problems faced by Moroccan youth or “Fadma” (aka "Julie-Aicha"), a light drama about a Moroccan mother who visits her elder son and granddaughter in France. Less likely: “Mimosas” won Best Picture in Cairo, but it’s a majority French film, “Headbang Lullaby” has appeared at several festivals but is likely too strange and arty, while B&W drama “Fidaa” covers nationalist history but doesn’t look as professional made as their other choices. I predict “Burnout” if it’s released and “Sweat Rain” if it’s not.

NIGERIA- "'76" Nigeria has one of the world’s largest film industries on paper, but it mostly produces straight-to-DVD cheapies for the local market. It had an Oscar committee officially recognized in 2014 but hasn't submitted any movies. It’s my understanding that AMPAS will invite countries that do not submit films for five years, before they fall off the invite list. Many of Nigeria's top films this year are largely in English, including comedy “Dara Ju” (SXSW), “Green White Green” (Toronto), and thriller “Kada River”. I don’t think they’ll send anything but in case they do, I’ll predict “’76”, a political thriller about a coup d’etat in the 1970s. It was one of two Nigerian movies nominated for Best Picture at the African Academy Awards and it’s split roughly evenly between the English and Ibo languages. Even that may have too much English to qualify.

PALESTINE- "Ghost Hunting" Palestine has had a slow year, and most of their movies this year have been documentaries. The most hotly awaited feature of the year is “Wajib” by two-time Palestinian Oscar representative Annemarie Jacir. It’s a family drama about an estranged father and son forced to hand-deliver wedding invitations around the West Bank as part of a local tradition. It sounds charming, and a nine-minute preview of the film was shown at the Cannes Film Festival in May. Unfortunately, it’s still in post-production and it’s unlikely to get a release in the West Bank by September 30. As for Palestine’s other two internationally recognized directors, Elia Suleiman has been inactive and Hany Abu-Assad’s latest film is in English.  So what will Palestine do? They’ll probably send a political documentary, as they did in 2015. The obvious choice would be “Ghost Hunting”, a sort of “Missing Picture” about the trauma of Palestinian political prisoners. It won the Best Documentary award at Berlinale 2017. But they could also send “Ambulance” (about ambulance drivers during the Israel-Gaza war), “Speed Sisters” (feminist race car drivers) or “Off Frame” (Palestinian cinematic history).  I predict “Ghost Hunting” unless “Wajib” is finished ahead of schedule.

SAUDI ARABIA- "Madayen" Saudi Arabia has no cinemas (they’re banned) but local filmmakers have managed to enter the Oscars twice (with two absolutely wonderful films!) by relying on foreign cultural centers and expat facilities on oil compounds. I don’t think they have anything eligible this year, but for the sake of completeness, I’ll choose “Madayen”, which appears to be a horror-documentary hybrid in the style of “Paranormal Activity” or “Blair Witch”. It's about three guys investigating a supposedly haunted site in the far north of the country. The director is Filipino/Saudi. The Saudis also have a completed feature in the can…Coming-of-age drama ”The Great Muse” could compete next year. 

SOUTH AFRICA- "Asinamali" South Africa has eleven official languages, but most films are made in English or Afrikaans, with most of the rest in Zulu or Xhosa. This year, I predict South Africa will send apartheid-era resistance musical “Asinamali”, which will premiere at the Durban International Film Festival this summer. It’s produced by Oscar nominee Darrell Roodt (“Yesterday”) and well over 50% in Zulu, and comes from the same team as hit Broadway musical Sarafina. South Africa makes some beautiful musicals (e.g. "U-Carmen") and this is clearly a stirring subject for one. At the 2017 African Academy Awards, the Zulu-language “Vaya” (Toronto 2016)- about three strangers whose lives intersect on a cross-country train ride- was the top nominee with 10 nominations. It would be an excellent choice, but IMDB says it won’t premiere at home until October, after the deadline. Two other major contenders are (1)- “Krotoa”, an Afrikaans-language drama about a 17th century Khoi (Bushman) servant girl who becomes a strategically important translator between Dutch settlers and her African tribe, and (2)- the Xhosa-language “The Wound” (Sundance/Berlin), about the traumatic coming-of-age ceremonies of the Xhosa people. My top five: “Asinamali”, “The Wound” and “Krotoa”, followed by gritty prison drama “28S” and interracial canoeing drama “Beyond the River”.

TANZANIA- "Kiumeni" Tanzania has a well-established film industry of “Bongo” movies, which are usually produced on a shoestring budget in weeks (or days) and produced solely for the home video DVD market. They’ve entered the Oscar race once with US-Tanzania co-production “Maangamizi: The Ancient One”. This year, their most likely selection would be “Kiumeni” which is trying to buck the low-quality "Bongo" trend. It’s a fairly paint-by-numbers romantic dramedy about a rich man who falls for a poor girl who has a jealous thug of an ex-boyfriend. "Kiumeni" was specifically made for a cinematic release, has been released in neighboring Kenya, and is touted as a “game-changer” for the local industry. 

TUNISIA- "Flower of Aleppo" Tunisia had perhaps the strangest journey to the Oscars last year. First they announced they were returning to the Oscars after a fifteen-year hiatus with “Flower of Aleppo”. A few weeks later, there was a separate (and more official) announcement saying they would send “As I Open My Eyes”.  As bloggers wondered which story was accurate, when the final list was announced, Tunisia wasn't on it at all! What happened? There was never any explanation. “Flower of Aleppo”, about a mother who goes into ISIS-occupied Syria to bring back her fundamentalist son, actually premiered after last year’s deadline so I predict it may be getting a second chance. That is, unless the country is reluctant to highlight the fact that the traditionally moderate country is contributing so many foot soldiers to ISIS.  Tunisia actually has a lot of good movies this year so I'm hopeful they will return. “Beauty and the Dogs”, about a conflicted young woman dealing with the aftermath of a sexual assault by Tunisian police officers, premiered at Cannes 2017 although I don’t think it will get a domestic release by September 30. “Zaineb Hates the Snow” (which is variously described as a drama or a documentary….is it both???) won Best Film at Tunisia’s Carthage International Film Festival  and probably has the strongest reviews of any Tunisian film this year. It’s an upbeat little film about a little Tunisian girl who emigrates to Canada and hates the snow and cold weather. “Foreign Body”, about an illegal immigrant fleeing an abusive marriage, is directed by provocative female helmer Raja Amari (“Satin Rouge”) and co-stars Salim Kechiouche and Hiam Abbass. “Burning Love” is about the lives of three characters and their lives after the Arab Spring. I’m probably wrong, but I’m predicting “Aleppo”, followed by “Zaineb Hates the Snow”.

THE UNITED ARAB EMIRATES- "Only Men Go to the Grave" The UAE had an Oscar selection committee approved this year but I’ve been expecting them to join for years. The UAE has tons of money, loves publicity and has seen a growing number of local films being released. Their first-ever Oscar submission will probably be family drama “Only Men Go to the Grave”, which won Best Emirati Film at the 2016 Dubai International Film Festival. It’s about an old woman who dies in an accident after promising the family that she was going to reveal a shocking secret. Screendaily notes that the film delves into some rather taboo subjects but if it was rewarded in Dubai, then that should be enough for it to succeed here. The challengers are “The Waiting List”, a romantic drama about five friends, and “The Worthy”, a post-apocalyptic action-thriller set in a world with almost no fresh water. The latter film is directed by Ali F. Mostafa, generally considered one of the country’s most promising filmmakers. 

YEMEN, amidst a devastating civil war, was a surprise first-time entry to the Oscars last year for “I Am Nojoom, Aged 10 and Divorced”. The film was produced in 2014 before the violence got really bad but I can’t imagine how they managed a seven-day screening in the country during the civil war. I’m sure they don’t have anything eligible this year. The highest-profile film about the country is “Socotra, the Land of Djinns”, a B&W documentary filmed on the remote island of Socotra in their local Soqotri language. However, the film has a Spanish director and wholly Spanish crew, and surely was never screened in Yemen.