Here's the third group...the films from The Middle East, Africa and Oceania.
14. LEBANON- "Very Big Shot"
13. NEW ZEALAND- "A Flickering Truth"
12. IRAQ- "El Clasico"
It’s an honor to be nominated! These five underdogs won’t be able to advance but they are all worthy of a watch and of attention. I’ve seen the films from New Zealand and Lebanon…LEBANON has selected fun action-dramedy “Very Big Shot”, a “Wag the Dog”-esque satire about a small-time drug pusher who comes up with an increasingly complicated plan to smuggle drugs to the West by way of an increasingly real film production. It’s a good debut but a bit uneven and clearly at its best with the comic aspects of the story. NEW ZEALAND has selected an informative documentary about Afghanistan’s film heritage. I’ve already mentioned that documentaries are at a disadvantage here and while “Truth” starts and finishes strong, it sags a little in the middle and may be confusing for those who don’t know about Afghanistan’s tragic recent history. From IRAQI KURDISTAN (but representing the whole nation of Iraq), we have comic road movie “El Clasico”, about two little people on a quixotic journey to Spain to deliver a gift to a prospective father-in-law’s favorite footballer. This Norwegian co-production is said to be fun and heartfelt but a bit light-weight. SAUDI ARABIA has sent a film for the second time and it’s probably the most interesting film on the whole list. Romantic comedy “Barakah Meets Barakah” is a romantic comedy from a country where dating and movie theatres are both banned. Much of the comedy comes from how the title couple try to have a date without breaking the law. By Saudi standards, the film is actually quite daring and it's amazed it was able to made at all. The film has been well-received everywhere for its spirit, but most think it's a work-in-progress from a promising new director and not an Oscar nominee. I loved it but I'll admit that eviews aren’t as strong as the unfairly snubbed “Wadjda”. As for MOROCCO, they have once again chosen a social drama that nobody in the world has seen or heard of. “A Mile in My Shoes” is about a small-time hood who finds it impossible to live a straight and narrow life amidst the corruption and violence of his Casablanca neighborhood. Zero buzz, zero chance.
10. JORDAN- "3000 Nights"
8. SOUTH AFRICA- "Call Me Thief"
7. TURKEY- "Cold of Kalandar"
6. PALESTINE- "The Idol"
Hany Abu-Assad has had both his earlier films submitted and nominated to represent his native PALESTINE but "The Idol" has not gotten the same level of praise as the controversial "Paradise Now" or more mainstream "Omar" (which I preferred). "The Idol" is the feel-good true story of Gazan singer Mohammed Assaf who overcame poverty and Israeli blockades to win the Arab Idol television singing content. The film is perfectly acceptable and has beautiful music to boot, but it's also predictable and largely forgettable.
I would love to predict a nomination for war-torn YEMEN, which is submitting for the first time with the female-helmed "I Am Nojoom". It's about a ten-year old girl who is married off by her family to an old man to solve a family dispute. This really happens in Yemen (the director herself was a child bride) and the film has been warmly received at international festivals since it's premiere two years ago in Dubai. It took that long to get a domestic release. Variety calls the film important but "clumsy" and a nomination looks unlikely.
TURKEY's arthouse "Cold of Kalandar" was the surprise Best Picture winner at the Asia-Pacific Screen Awards and also won the Tokyo International Film Festival last year, but this slow tale of an impoverished Turkish family eking out a living in the countryside is probably too slow and arty to make an impact in Los Angeles. It's done better with international critics. SOUTH AFRICA and "Call Me Thief" has the opposite problem. They've chosen a very "local" Afrikaner tale about a local man who becomes a storyteller to stay alive in a South African prison. It's been a big hit at home and popular with local audiences, but it's a mainstream sort of film that I don't see resonating with international audiences as much.
JORDAN has also selected a prison drama- Palestinian film "3000 Nights", about a pregnant Arab woman whose good deed ends up with her unjustly imprisoned in an Israeli jail, and her attempts to survive her "3000 Night" sentence raising her baby in jail. Reviews have been good-to-mixed but not good enough to make the next round.
5. ALGERIA- “The Well” (Le puits)
4. AUSTRALIA- “Tanna”
3. ISRAEL- “Sandstorm”
These three films are all realistic dark horses. It’s never wise to count out ISRAEL and their Arabic-language Bedouin drama “Sandstorm” already achieved a surprise victory at the Israel Ophir Awards (which received more press this year for a live onstage temper tantrum from the Culture Minister rather than for the nominated films) and now aims to do the same in Hollywood. “Sandstorm” is about a mother and daughter fighting against male-dominated traditions that are driving the girl into an unwanted marriage. Reviews have been positive but not universally so and this category rarely rewards films about women…but reviews in the US seem to be better than with European critics and Israel has quite a good record in this category. Another drama about Arab women is “Le puits”, a baity film from ALGERIA that nobody is talking about….The film concerns an Algerian town besieged by French forces during the war for independence. With the men at war, the town is populated almost entirely by women and children who, facing a drought, are forced to choose between being shot by French soldiers or dying of thirst. It beat out the latest film from three-time Oscar nominee Rachid Bouchareb to represent Algeria. AUSTRALIA has chosen a Romeo & Juliet story made entirely in the neighboring island nation of Vanuatu. It’s a slow film but it rewards the patient viewer with a memorable story shot in an alien environment as far removed from our daily lives as any other on earth….but one that is also universal and instantly relatable. Oscar seems to have lost its taste for the exotic cultural stories it used to favor, but “Tanna” is beautifully filmed and will impress the technical members of the committee (a bigger group of voters than most think).
2. IRAN- "The Salesman"
1. EGYPT- "Clash"
Egypt has been sending films to the Oscars for over 50 years (including some excellent ones) without any luck (though they got a Best Documentary Feature nod a few years ago for The Square). Will that change this year? I think maybe it will. “Clash” (Cannes 2016) has gotten excellent reviews for its story of a group of Egyptian protesters of all political persuasions who are locked together in a police van. Described as powerful, important and insightful (and promoted by self-described fan Tom Hanks) the film has an excellent chance of making the 9-film shortlist if the Academy doesn’t get confused by the politics. The Academy has recently shown a great deal of interest in Middle Eastern stories (as Algeria, Iran, Israel, Jordan and Palestine can attest). Speaking of IRAN, “The Salesman” by Oscar winner Asghar Farhadi should also be considered a front-runner. The film won Best Actor and Screenplay at Cannes 2016 and although it’s not considering Farhadi’s best, reviews have overall been positive and a lot of a high average score is all you need with the large committee. The film itself is a revenge thriller revolving around the cast of an Iranian production of American play “Death of a Salesman”. Farhadi’s “About Elly” and “The Past” were all considered frontrunner so Farhadi is not guaranteed a spot, but this should be considered a serious threat.
And here at the statistics:
Number of countries from these regions who have participated in the past: 9 from the Middle
East, 14 from Africa and 3 from Oceania
Number of countries participating this year: 9 from the Middle East (including debutante Yemen), 4 from Africa and 2 from Oceania.
Number of debuts: One: YEMEN
Number of countries opting out: The major absences are TUNISIA and ETHIOPIA. The Ethiopians submitted films the past two years, and probably did quite well on both occasions. Tunisia hadn’t submitted a film since 2002 but on September 2nd, they announced they were returning to the competition with the exciting new drama “Flower of Aleppo”….but then announced “As I Open My Eyes” on September 21. Both stories seemed official (although the later story actually included the names of the committee members). Some have speculated that two rival committees sent two rival films. Tunisian newspapers said “Flower of Aleppo” wasn’t eligible because it hadn’t been released in Tunisia but that the two films were disqualified because of “confusion” (that isnot a reason AMPAS would disqualify a film). Nobody seems to know what really happened but neither of these critically acclaimed Tunisian films appeared on the final list. Hopefully we'll see "Aleppo" on the list next year.
Also, Chad, Cote d’Ivoire, Fiji, Kuwait and a bunch of other “one-time only” African countries bowed out, but that didn’t surprise anyone.
Already Seen: 5- The films from Australia, Lebanon, New Zealand, Palestine and Saudi Arabia are all legally available via VOD.
Film I'm most looking forward to seeing: I’m a big Farhadi fan so definitely "The Salesman" from IRAN.
Feature Debuts: SIX. Lotfi Bouchouchi (Algeria), Martin Butler (Australia), Mir-Jean Bou Chaaya (Lebanon), Daryne Joshua (South Africa), Said Khallaf (Morocco) and Mahmoud Sabbagh (Saudi Arabia)
Number of Female Directors: FOUR. Pietra Brettkelly (New Zealand), Mai Masri (Jordan), Khadija al-Salami (Yemen) and Elite Zexer (Israel)
Oldest and Youngest Directors: The oldest is probably Australia's Martin Butler, while the youngest is surely 27-year old Mir-Jean Bou Chaaya from Lebanon.
Number of Foreign Languages Represented: 9 of the films are chiefly in Arabic (including Israel), while two others (Iran and New Zealand) are in Persian. The other four are in Afrikaans, Kurdish, Turkish and Nauvhal, a language spoken by around 5000 people in Vanuatu, and possibly the most obscure language ever represented in the history of the Foreign Language competition.
Number of Animated Films and Documentaries: One documentary from New Zealand
Number of comedies: 3- Iraq, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia although all of them are kind of dramedies.
Number of countries with a realistic chance at making the shortlist: Five or six?
Highest profile film: Definitely Asghar Farhadi’s “The Salesman”, although buzz for Egyptian drama “Clash” has been topping that.
Oscar History: We have two Oscar nominees in play. Asghar Farhadi is representing Iran for the fourth time- he won on his second try for “The Past” in 2012. Hany Abu-Assad is representing Palestine for the third time- he got Oscar nominations on both previous occasions for “Paradise Now” and “Omar”.
Algeria, Iran and South Africa have all won the award once while Israel holds the record for the most nominations (10) without a win. Palestine and Jordan have also made the nomination stage, while Australia, Morocco and Turkey have made it to the shortlist.
Best & Worst Decisions: Definitely YEMEN and SAUDI ARABIA, which made the decision to enter the race at all. Also, EGYPT whose Academy is surprisingly courageous in choosing controversial submissions and ALGERIA which went on quality rather than connections..... SOUTH AFRICA probably chose the wrong film.
Controversies and Changes: I've already outlined the Tunisian problems above. CAMEROON also tried to submit a film for the first time since 1980 with Bollywood drama "Yahan Ameena Bikti Hai", but the film was 100% Indian and the Cameroonian was so laughably minimal that the film was deservedly disqualified.
With Afghanistan and Armenia disqualified for nationality issues, I'm surprised nobody bothered to ask about JORDAN which submitted a Palestinian film.
Most Notable Omissions: South Africa had quite a few films to choose from, including Darrell Roodt's biopic "Shooting Star" and "Dis ek Anna"....Algeria dumped Rachid Bouchareb's "Road to Istanbul" (which didn't have great reveiws) and Iran didn't have enough room for local production "Life+1 Day".
Familiar Faces: No household names, though you'll probably recognize Shahab Hosseini ("A Separation") and Taraneh Alidoosti ("About Elly") from "The Salesman" and Lebanon's Nadine Labaki ("Caramel") who has a small role in "The Idol".
Last year's race: These countries submitted 13 films last year, obtaining a single nomination for JORDAN's "Theeb". I saw "Theeb" along with the livestock-themed "Wanted 18" from Palestine" and "Lamb" from Ethiopia. My favorite was "Lamb" (A-), though I also liked "Theeb" (B+) but was left a bit indifferent to "The Wanted 18" (C+).
The first-round screenings finish on December 12.....
Next: GROUP IV: The 18 films of Asia