Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Foreign Oscar Predictions- the Submissions from Africa, the Middle East and Oceania (17 films)

I'm publishing this last group even though it's not finished, since the shortlist may be announced tomorrow....

Congrats to Africa for submitting a record eight films! Ironically, three of the "African" directors were born in France, one in Brazil and a fifth is an Afrikaner. 

14. TUNISIA- “The Last of Us”
15. SYRIA- “Little Gandhi”
16. AUSTRALIA- “The Space Between”
17. KENYA- “Kati Kati”

Wartorn SYRIA is in the race for the first time with documentary "Little Gandhi", about a Syrian peace activist. I have no idea how the film managed to get a qualifying seven-day release in the country (which is nearly destroyed) but the selection committee was apparently formed with exiles and the Syrian government had no idea the film was chosen. The director is a Syrian based in the United States and he made part of the documentary remotely since he couldn't get to the filming locations. However, this is a very small film that was made under very basic and very difficult conditions. Its backstory is more engaging than the film. AUSTRALIA selected romantic comedy "The Space Between", a co-production with Italy, but English-speaking Australia is just here to participate and the film hasn't gotten great reviews. Kenya and Tunisia return to the competition after long absences. KENYA chose "Kati Kati", a cute little movie from German director Tom Tykwer's production house, about a woman who wakes up in purgatory with no memory of her previous life. It's an interesting film, but it's quite short (maybe 70 minutes?) and low-budget. TUNISIA has chosen "The Last of Us", an odd little film with no dialogue about an African immigrant trying to get to Europe. It's gotten notices for its cinematography but nothing more. Both are interesting curiosities from Africa, but won't compete here. 


10. IRAN- “Breathe”
11. EGYPT- “Sheikh Jackson”
12 IRAQ- “The Dark Wind”
13. SENEGAL- “Félicité”

These four films are probably all good (I haven't seen any) but they don't have strong enough notices to be nominated. "Félicité" is the first film ever to represent SENEGAL but is set in Congo, premiered at Cannes with its story of about a local singer trying to save the life of her son when he is injured in an accident. It's filled with beautiful music and local flavor, but Variety notes it fails to "build a narrative" story. EGYPT selected "Sheikh Jackson" (Toronto) over the more buzzy "The Preacher", which wasn't necessary a bad decision. "Sheikh Jackson", a comedy-drama about a conservative mullah with a penchant for Michael Jackson music resonated with American viewers enough to get a US distributor, but reviews have been positive but unenthusiastic and Egypt has been ignored for better films ("Destiny", "Yacoubian Building").

Returning champion IRAN has selected "Breathe", the first film ever directed by a woman to represent the Islamic Republic. It's a film about how children dealt with the devastating Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. Neighboring IRAQ has selected the controversial "The Dark Wind", about the prejudice faced by Yazidi/Kurdish women who try to reintegrate into society after being sexually abused by ISIS forces. Both are relevant, stirring films about the problems faced by women and girls, but I think both are too small to compete here.

6. MOZAMBIQUE- “Train of Salt and Sugar”
7. PALESTINE- “Wajib”
8. MOROCCO- “Razzia”
9. NEW ZEALAND- “One Thousand Ropes”

These films may have some fans, but will face too much competition. Let's take a look:

MOROCCO- "Razzia"
IN BRIEF: "Crash" set in Morocco, with a number of  intersecting stories on the streets of Casablanca.
PROS: A politically correct message of tolerance in an intolerant society. Ayouch is a respected director who just joined the Academy.
CONS: Reviews have been decidedly mixed. The five stories apparently are of uneven quality, with some saying the film almost "collapses". No awards.
BOTTOM LINE: Not this year.

MOZAMBIQUE- "Train of Salt and Sugar"
IN BRIEF: A diverse cast of characters deal with violence and personal conflicts while aboard a train travelling through rebel-held territory during Mozambique's civil war.
PROS: Surprisingly strong reviews.
CONS: No buzz.
BOTTOM LINE: No nomination, but a surprisingly strong first showing for Mozambique.

NEW ZEALAND- "One Thousand Ropes"
IN BRIEF: A Samoan father in New Zealand tries to make amends with his daughter
PROS: Good, overall reviews
CONS: Nobody is excited about the film. Oscar doesn't like the supernatural.
BOTTOM LINE: No chance.

IN BRIEF: Following local tradition, a father and son hand-deliver invitations to a family wedding, even though they hate each other.
PROS: A comedic drama that is exotic yet relatable. Real-life father and son Mohamed and Saleh Bakri are excellent.
CONS: The film "breaks no new ground". Reviews are positive but unenthusiastic.
BOTTOM LINE: Unlikely unless it can charm the larger committee.

3. ALGERIA- “Road to Istanbul”
4. TURKEY- “Ayla: Daughter of War”
5. SOUTH AFRICA- “The Wound"

One of these dark horses could surprise. "The Wound" from SOUTH AFRICA (Sundance) is supposed to be a truly remarkable film. Set in the country's Xhosa community (famous for their clicking languages), it's caused controversy at home for raising awareness of some sadistic cultural initiation practices, and for setting an LGBT story in their traditional society. The film is likely very deserving, and could be saved.....but I worry this won't do too well with the large committee. I was really rooting for "The Wound" but I was angry with director John Trengrove's attempt to withdraw his film at the very last minute from the (quite progressive!) Tel Aviv LGBT Film Festival (reportedly after he had already arrived in the country!) for political reasons.

ALGERIA's Rachid Bouchareb has gotten nominated in this category three times- which is think is more than any other non-European director. "Road to Istanbul" is a topical drama about a Belgian woman whose daughter converts to Islam and travels to Syria to join ISIS. The Belgian wom-an sets off on a journey to find out what has happened to her daughter,. As unrealistic as this may sound, recent news stories have shown that the daughter's story is not so far-fetched. Nobody is talking about "Road to Istanbul", but Bouchareb has surprised before. TURKEY arranged a qualifying release in the hopes of a first-ever Oscar nomination for "Ayla: Daughter of War", which is total Oscar bait. During the Korean War, a Turkish soldier finds and saves a pitifully adorable Korean war orphan. It's a tearjerker, it's got a cute kid in distress, it's got a war.....However, there are so few reviews online that I haven't been able to get a sense of whether it's any good. If this was the 1980s or 1990s it would be nominated. Now, the committee has gotten a little more edgy. I'm not sure if these sentimental films work anymore, but they could make the Top Nine and get cut when they reveal the Top Five. 

1. ISRAEL- “Foxtrot”
2. LEBANON- “The Insult”

I haven't seen either of these films yet, but I've heard from many different sources that they are among the best of the year, in any language. ISRAEL is probably the hands-down favorite to win the Oscar and I'm pretty sure it will be nominated (although missed the Golden Globes will hurt). It won the NBR Best Foreign Film award (France's "BPM" won most regional critics awards) and the Silver Lion in Venice for its family drama about a couple dealing with devastating news about their son. Israel got four nominations in the five years between 2007-2011 (the best film of the five- "Human Resources Manager"- didn't get nominated) and this should bring Israel their first nod in six years. LEBANON won Best Actor in Venice for its courtroom drama about an insult between a Christian and Muslim in Lebanon that goes out of control has gotten equally good reviews (with far less attention). I've predicted Lebanon several times over the years, but they've never been nominated despite some great films. I think this will be their year.  

Now the statistics:

Number of countries from these regions who have participated in the past
: 27

Number of countries participating this year:  17

Number of debuts: THREE: Mozambique, Senegal and- most surprisingly- war-torn Syria, which was submitted by a committee of exiles.

Number of countries opting out: Well, technically sixteen but most of those have only sent a film once or twice. The only notable absences really are ETHIOPIA and JORDAN, which have both sent films two of the past three years. More surprising however were the absences of GHANA and the UNITED ARAB EMIRATES which both announced with great fanfare that they had selection committees approved by AMPAS for the first time, and that they would send their first films to the Oscars. Both countries opted not to enter. Ghana said publicly that they were disappointed with the small number of entries, and that ultimately none of them met all the Oscar requirements. Nigeria had a similar issue a few years ago. The UAE said that their committee could not agree on which film to send, and that they did not “want to send a subpar film” and that they wanted to “set the bar high” for their first Oscar entry. I’m disappointed with the Emiratis, as their expected entry “Only Men Go To The Grave” sounded really intriguing.

Number I predicted correctly: Iraq, Kenya and New Zealand, and I specifically predicted the films from Morocco, Palestine and Turkey would be selected if they were released in time.

Already Seen: Just “Kati Kati”, the entry from KENYA. Although I’ve got plans to see Iraq, Palestine, Senegal and Tunisia before the end of the year.

Film I'm most looking forward to seeing
: Definitely “Wajib” from PALESTINE.  

Feature Debuts: FIVE. Ruth Borgobello (Australia), Mbithi Masya (Kenya), Ala Eddine Slim (Tunisia), John Trengrove (South Africa) and Can Ulkay (Turkey).

Number of Female DirectorsTHREE- Ruth Borgobello (Australia) and Annemarie Jacir (Palestine) are joined by the Narges Abyar, the first woman ever to represent the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Oldest and Youngest Directors: The oldest is Brazilian born Licinio Azevedo, 66, who is representing Mozambique. It’s unclear who the youngest is, though it’s probably Mbithi Masya from Kenya.

Number of Foreign Languages Represented:  Lots of these films are multi-lingual, but five are mostly in Arabic (Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Syria) plus one each in French, Hebrew, Italian, Kurdish, Lingala, Persian, Portuguese, Samoan, Swahili, Turkish and Xhosa, plus the film from Tunisia which reportedly has virtually no dialogue. Nice to see the Africans making films in indigenous languages like Lingala and Xhosa.

Number of DocumentariesONE, “Little Gandhi” from Syria.

Number of countries with a realistic chance at making the shortlist: Exactly FIVE. 

Highest profile film:  Definitely Israel’s “Foxtrot”

Oscar History: Algeria’s Rachid Bouchareb is the only director who has been nominated in this category. He has a surprising three Oscar nominations for “Dust of Life” (terrible!), “Days of Glory” and “Outside the Law”.

Many of the other directors have also been here before. Ziad Doueiri represented Lebanon in 1998 with the deserving “West Beirut”, while Nabil Ayouch has represented Morocco three times in 1998, 2000 and 2013 for “Mektoub”, “Ali Zaoua” and “Horses of God” respectively. Annemarie Jacir represented Palestine in 2008 (“Salt of This Sea”) and 2012 (“When I Saw You”).  Tusi Tamasese represented New Zealand in 2011 with “The Orator”. Doueiri, Ayouch and Tamasese of them began their country’s regular participation at the Oscars.

Controversies and Changes: Ziad Doueiri (who made his last film in Israel) and the subject matter of South Africa’s “The Wound” have been controversial….but no controversies or changes in the selections this year. Jordan banned their front-running film "Blessed Benefit", preventing it from getting a domestic release despite being partially funded by the Jordanian government. 

Most Notable Omissions: "The Preacher" from Egypt, "Midday Event" from Iran and "Solitaire" from Lebanon, plus a slew of South African films that now probably feel like idiots for opening in one theatre, including "Vaya", Five Fingers for Marseilles" and "Krotoa". 

Familiar Faces: No internationally famous faces, though Lion Ashkenazi ("Foxtrot") is a big star at home in Israel.

Last year's race:   Last year, these countries had 15 films on the official list. I managed to see six: the two eventual Oscar nominees (“The Salesman” and “Tanna”) plus the films from Lebanon, New Zealand, Palestine and Saudi Arabia. Honestly, my favorite was “Barakah Meets Barakah”, the surprisingly subversive romantic comedy from Saudi Arabia (A) which seems to be silly and playful through most of its running time before you get a dose of reality in the end. I’d rank Australia’s “Tanna” (A-) next, followed by fascinating documentary “Flickering Truth” (B+), Oscar winner “The Salesman” (B), Palestine (B-) and Lebanon (B-). 

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