Sunday, November 29, 2015

FOREIGN OSCAR 2016- The 20 Candidates from the Latin America, Africa and the Arab World


Here are the twenty nominees from Africa, Latin America and the Arab World:

NO CHANCE:
20. MOROCCO- "Aida"
19. SOUTH AFRICA- "Thina Sobabili: The Two Of Us"
18. LEBANON- "Void"
17. PARAGUAY- "Cloudy Times" (El tiempo nublado)
16. PALESTINE- "The Wanted 18"


With the Latin American films so strong this year, the bottom tier here includes most of the African and Arab films, plus debutante Paraguay.

For the second year in a row, the biggest long-shot comes from MOROCCO, which has selected an obscure drama out of left field that virtually nobody has seen or heard of. “Aida” is the story of a Jewish-Moroccan emigrée in France who returns to her Moroccan homeland when she learns she has terminal cancer. There, it seems, she reconnects with an old lover. There’s virtually no information on it online, but the one review I read was unkind, citing bizarre tonal shifts (focusing on cancer, then romance) and factual misrepresentations of the Jewish community. It also has the lowest rating on IMDB of this particular group (beating only Australia and Russia worldwide). It’s not a contender.


Lebanon and South Africa have selected films by up-and-coming 20-something directors just starting out their careers. The Zulu-language “The Two of Us” is a heart-wrenching drama about two siblings struggling to survive in modern-day SOUTH AFRICA. The overprotective brother resorts to petty crime; the sister to prostitution. Filmed in seven days as a master’s thesis project, “Two of Us” was made under severe budgetary constraints. A film like this won’t threaten for a nomination. Similarly, “Void” from LEBANON is a collaboration of seven young directors from the country’s Notre Dame University. The film tells six separate stories of Lebanese women suffering from the disappearances of male relatives (sons, husbands, brothers etc.) during Lebanon’s long civil war. Once again, I’m sure it’s a good film but even a Lebanese film expert I spoke to admitted that it’s not an Oscar contender. It should just be proud to represent Lebanon in the race.

Palestine and Paraguay have selected documentaries; never an easy sell in this category. “Cloudy Times” beat out the favored biopic “Mangore” to be the first-ever submission from the South American nation of PARAGUAY. It’s said to be a well-made documentary, but a claustrophobic and difficult watch. It follows director Arami Ullon’s efforts to care for her increasingly ill mother who suffers from Alzheimers. PALESTINE goes a bit lighter with animated documentary “The Wanted 18”, about Israel’s efforts to destroy a Palestinian town’s cattle herd, allegedly because the cows made the town too self-sufficient. I understand it was initially made in English but also dubbed into Arabic and Hebrew versions for theatrical release. Incorporating Claymation cows and real-life interviews, this is a quirky and well-reviewed film, but perhaps a little too “outside the box” to score here. You can see the English-language version on iTunes.  

TOO SMALL TO COMPETE
15. DOMINICAN REPUBLIC- "Sand Dollars" (Dólares de arena)
14. COSTA RICA- "Imprisoned" (Presos)
13. URUGUAY- "A Moonless Night" (Una Noche Sin Luna)
12. VENEZUELA- "Gone With the River" (Dauna, lo que lleva el río)

These four films hail from Latin America’s smaller film-making nations. Despite good reviews, I believe they are all way too "small" to seriously make the next round. As they always do, URUGUAY has submitted a low-key comedy-drama showcasing their droll national sense of humor. “A Moonless Night” follows three lonely people who find themselves in a small town on New Year’s Eve (summertime in Uruguay). Though it won the 2014 Zurich Film Festival, there wasn’t much competition and it won’t stand out here. Lesbian drama “Sand Dollars” from the DOMINICAN REPUBLIC  is also too low-key to score here. Most reviewers (including me) were wowed by the fearless performance of Geraldine Chaplin (Charlie’s daughter) as a Caucasian “sugar-mommy” who falls in love with a (straight?) local Dominican girl in a tourist town. The film is good, but it’s more notable for the lead performance than anything else. COSTA RICA has “Imprisoned” (Presos), a local box-office hit (#2 in the country’s history) about a young woman who falls in love with a prison inmate. It was also praised for its strong performances, but with little buzz, it will likely get lost in the mix of 80 foreign films. As for VENEZUELA, they’ve chosen an interesting drama in the indigenous language of Warao, spoken by just 30,000 people along the northeastern coast. It’s about a Warao woman torn between her family and the traditions of her culture on the one hand, and her desire to get a modern education and a job in the city on the other. Using four actresses, it follows the course of her life over several decades. All four: good but not good enough. 

MIDDLE OF THE PACK:

11. COTE D'IVOIRE- "Run"
10. ALGERIA- "Crepuscule des ombres" (Twilight of Shadows)
9. PERU- "NN"
8. MEXICO- "600 Miles" (600 Millas)

The COTE D’IVOIRE rejoins the Oscar race after a 40-year absence with “Run”, an exciting thriller about a young man who has just assassinated an unnamed African country’s Prime Minister-cum-dictator. As he tries to escape, he reflects on the moments in his life that brought him to this moment in time. In terms of remake potential, this film ranks near the top, but even “Run Lola Run” couldn’t score a nomination in this category and while reviews have been positive, most critics note this is definitely the work of a debutante director. It premiered at Cannes 2014 and has had a healthy run internationally since then. Welcome back, to Cote d’Ivoire! I can’t wait to see the film.

MEXICO has also chosen a thriller, albeit a slightly more cerebral one. Co-starring Tim Roth as an American ATF agent kidnapped by a Mexican gun runner working for a powerful gang, I thought the film would have too much English to qualify. In this unorthodox road movie, the two men strike up an unlikely friendship during the 600 mile-journey to the gang's headquarters. “600 Miles” sounds promising and AMPAS likes movies that espouse liberal causes (gun control) and that feature comforting amounts of English dialogue (a break from subtitles), but none of Mexico’s border dramas (“Miss Bala”, “Backyard”) have been nominated yet. Reviews for "600 Miles" haven’t been quite strong enough to make it to the next round. PERU’s “NN” has no buzz but those that have seen it say it’s quite a powerful film. It’s about forensics experts who exhume a mass grave of bodies that appear to have been killed during Peru’s military dictatorship. It’s a cold, grim film and American audiences may lack the political background to fully understand it. 

The same may prove true for ALGERIA and “Twilight of Shadows”. Director Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina won the Palme d’Or at Cannes way back in 1975 and he came out of retirement to make this film focusing on three opposing personalities during Algeria’s war of independence: a brutal French commander, an Algerian freedom fighter, and a young French soldier sympathetic to the Algerian cause. The film sounds great, but there is zero buzz and the film has failed to screen at any major film festivals despite Lakhdar-Hamina’s name and reputation. Though the desert filmmaking may impress, the anti-colonial rhetoric and Algerian politics may confuse. 




DARK HORSES:
7. GUATEMALA- "Ixcanul"
6. ETHIOPIA- "Lamb"
5. COLOMBIA- "Embrace of the Serpent"


I was lucky enough to see all three of these cultural odysseys at the Busan International Film Festival in October. All three of them are a fascinating window into cultures that we know little about in the West. All three also have a passionate fan base (especially Colombia). Ultimately, I’m not sure any of them can make it to the next round, but they could surprise. Will the elite committee decide to choose "one" or will they all cancel each other out? I’m not sure why, but these sort of cultural films seem to have lost favor in recent years. 

ETHIOPIA’s “Lamb” is easily the most entertaining film of the bunch,- a coming-of-age drama with a likable child protagonist, beautifully filmed vistas and an engaging family of interesting characters. Ephraim’s father is forced to leave his young son with distant relatives after the death of the boy’s mother. The boy brings his beloved pet lamb along, but it soon becomes clear that his pet is set to become part of an upcoming holiday feast.

COLOMBIA's "Embrace of the Serpent" is much more work. Filmed in black and white, primarily in four indigenous languages and telling two separate stories about encounters between Western explorers and indigenous people forty years apart, it poses thought-provoking questions and yet still remains accessible. It’s an impressive piece of filmmaking though I wonder if the B&W photography (which not everyone likes) and the subject matter may be too “challenging” for the Academy. It would certainly be a deserving first nominee for Colombia. I think “Serpent” has the edge over the Kakchikel-language “Ixcanul”, a drama from GUATEMALA about a bored Mayan teenager betrothed to the son of a wealthy landlord who becomes pregnant by another man. Filmed almost documentary-style, it’s a much smaller film than the other two and despite equally strong reviews and an arguably stronger character arc, it has a weaker chance than the other two.  It's Guatemala's first submission in twenty years and will likely place just outside the shortlist. 

STRONG POSSIBILITIES:
4. BRAZIL- "The Second Mother"
3. JORDAN- "Theeb"
2. CHILE- "El club"


These three films are definitely threats for the shortlist. Let’s look at the Pros and Cons:

CRITICS CHOICE: “Theeb” (JORDAN)
Summary: A 10-year old Bedouin boy is forced to fend for himself against bandits in the deserts of 1915 Arabia. Second-ever submission from the Kingdom of Jordan.
Pros: Beautifully filmed desert scenery. Was a critical success during its limited US release. Oscar loves movies about kids, and this is definitely an original take on that genre. Survival drama accessible to all. Best Director, Venice Horizons.
Cons: As a filmmaking nation, Jordan is relatively unknown. The film's ending raises questions.

AUDIENCE FAVORITE: “The Second Mother” (BRAZIL)
Summary: A hard-working Brazilian maid has a reasonably comfortable life living with a wealthy family and their 17-year old son, but things turn chaotic when her estranged daughter moves herself in. 
Pros: Audiences seem to adore the film and the performance by the lead actress. Accessible family drama. Already released in the US. Two awards at Berlinale 2015.
Cons: Though Americans can certainly understand the “class differences”, many brasileiros fear much of the nuance will be lost outside of Brazil. Some complain that the film is “good” but by no means “great”. The committee almost never chooses female-driven pics in this category.

AUTEUR CHOICE: “El club” (CHILE)
Summary: A counselor visits a group of disgraced priests and nuns sequestered in a remote location until their crimes are investigated by the church. 
Pros: Silver Bear in Berlin 2015. Director Pablo Larrain has already found favor with the Academy for “No”. Juicy subject matter, critically acclaimed.

Cons:  Some critics say the dark drama is “smart” but “not mainstream”. Catholic child abuse already covered this year with “Spotlight”

Bottom Line: Everybody's in with a chance, with CHILE an especially strong contender to get "saved", JORDAN staying strong and BRAZIL losing buzz to COLOMBIA

FRONT-RUNNER:
1. ARGENTINA- "El clan"

Once again, the clear front-runner from this region is ARGENTINA, the only Latin American country ever to win the Foreign Film Oscar (twice). “El clan” is a crime-thriller (the last time Argentina sent one of these, they won) based on a horrific true story that shocked the nation. In the early 1980s, the wealthy, upper-class Puccio family kidnapped, ransomed and murdered several of their wealthy neighbors. The film has won awards at arthouse festivals (Best Director, Venice), and yet is mainstream enough to be a box-office hit in Argentina, and though it is chilling and violent, I’ve heard it is not too much so that it will scare off conservative Oscar voters. This one is probably in. 

Now the Statistics:

Number of countries from these regions who have participated in the past: 36

Number of countries participating this year:  20, not including Panama which announced a film (Caja 25) that ultimately failed to appear on the list. 

Number of debuts: 1- Paraguay

Number of countries opting out:  Technically 16, but PUERTO RICO is no longer invited and ten (mostly African) other countries have only ever sent films once or twice.

The surprise absentees were BOLIVIA, CUBA, ECUADOR and EGYPT (who all sent films last year) plus NICARAGUA. Official selection committees from Bolivia and Cuba DID MEET but both announced that they had formally decided not to send any of the eligible films being considered. Apparently in Bolivia, the National Film Board emphasized the importance of sending a film, but the selection committee still said no. (why?!) Even more surprising was the absence of Egypt which has sent films fairly regularly as of late and which had also announced the formation of a selection committee that would choose a film after Eid....but then made no further announcement. No idea what happened there. 

Number of countries I predicted correctly:  13 out of 20! Very successful! Out of Latin America, I missed only Mexico (thinking "600 Miles" had too much English), Peru and the documentary from Paraguay. 

Already Seen: 5- Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ethiopia, Guatemala and Jordan

Film I'm most looking forward to seeing: "El club" from CHILE

Feature Debuts: Lots. In addition to the seven Lebanese student directors, ten others are making their feature film debuts- Jayro Bustamante, Mario Crespo (I think), Philippe Lacôte, Ernest Nkosie, Naji Abu Nowar, Gabriel Ripstein, Amer Shomali, Germán Tejeira, Arami Ullon and Yared Zeleke.

Number of Female Directors: Four of the films are directed or co-directed by women, including three from Latin America: Anna Muylaert (Brazil), Laura Amelia Guzman (Dominican Republic) and Arami Ullón (Paraguay). The Lebanese submission, "Void" is an omnibus co-directed by three women (Christelle Ighniades, Maria Abdl Karim and Zeina Makki) and four men. The disqualified Panamian film was also co-directed by two women.

Oldest and Youngest Directors:  85-year old Mohammed Lakhdar Hamina of ALGERIA came out of retirement to make "Crespuscule des ombres". The youngest directors are the seven co-directors of LEBANON's "Void", who range in age from 23 to 28. 

Number of Foreign Languages Represented:  Obviously, eight of the films are mostly in Spanish but what's interesting is that three of the Spanish-speaking countries chose films that are mostly in indigenous languages- Kaqchikel (Guatemala), Warao (Venezuela) and Cuveo (alongside a number of indigenous Amazon languages, in the Colombian film). This is great news for indigenous communities.

We also have two films made in Arabic (Lebanon and Jordan), plus one each in Amharic, French, Portuguese and Zulu. The Algerian and Moroccan films seem to be roughly 50-50 Arabic/French. The animated Palestinian film seems to have been made in English but dubbed into several world languages, including an Arabic version screened by AMPAS and Hebrew.

Number of Comedies:  The closest thing to a comedy is Uruguay's dramedy "A Moonless Night"

Number of Animated Films and Documentaries:  One animated documentary (Palestine) plus two standard documentaries from Panama (disqualified) and Paraguay. 

Number of countries with a realistic chance at making the shortlist: Quite a few. Definitely seven.

Highest profile film: Probably Brazil's "The Second Mother", though Argentina might disagree. 

Oscar History:  Five of the directors have been here before, including Pablo Larrain (Chile) who got an Oscar nomination for "No" and also competed with "Tony Manero". The others are Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina (Algeria) who competed in 1975, 1982 and 1987, Ciro Guerra (Colombia), who competed in 2005 and 2009 ("Wandering Shadows" and "The Wind Journeys"), Esteban Ramírez (Costa Rica) in 2005 ("Caribe") and Pablo Trapero (Argentina) in 2008 and 2010 ("Leonera" and "Carancho"),

Four countries (Algeria, Argentina, South Africa and, bizarrely, Cote d'Ivoire) have won the Oscar, while five more (Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Palestine and Peru) have racked up nominations. 

Best & Worst Decisions: All the Latin Americans chose well, except for the aforementioned Bolivians and Cubans who snubbed all their submitted films. MOROCCO and SOUTH AFRICA probably made the worst choices. 

Controversies and Changes:  Documentary "Caja 25" was announced as the official selection of PANAMA, beating out one other film (a surfing documentary). However, the film was mysteriously absent from the final list, and (unlike "Wolf Totem" and "Utopia") I haven't been able to find any official explanation online.

Omissions:   It's a bad year for black comedies. Like with Hungary's "Liza the Fox Fairy", I was really hoping we'd see the uproarious, violent beauty pageant satire "3 Beauties" in the race, especially after it won Best Venezuelan Film at their national film festival. But it lost to more serious fare. Also omitted: "Paulina" (La patota) from Argentina, "Land and Shade" from Colombia, "The Vanished Elephant" from Peru, "Treurgrond" from South Africa and "The Thin Yellow Line" (Mexico). 


Familiar Faces:  Clearly the biggest name is Oscar nominee Tim Roth, who co-stars in “600 Miles” as an American DEA agent, though 71-year old Geraldine Chaplin (“Dr. Zhivago”) is arguably equally accomplished. I’m also a fan of Belgium’s Jan Bijvoet (“Borgman”) who co-stars in Colombia’s “Embrace of the Serpent”. Other than these three gringos, the stars of the Argentine (Guillermo Francella, “The Secret in Their Eyes”) and Chilean films (Alfredo Castro, “Tony Manero”) may be familiar to fans of Latin American cinema.

Last year's race:  Last year, these countries sent a total of 21 films. I saw the two Oscar nominees, which were definitely deserving- ARGENTINA's "Wild Tales" (A) and MAURITANIA's "Timbuktu" (A)- as well as the much maligned "Cantinflas" (B+) from MEXICO which I thought was quite good. Less interesting were BRAZIL's "The Way He Looks" (B) and URUGUAY's disappointing "Mr. Kaplan" (B-).


1 comment:

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