From ‘Foreign Language’ To ‘International Feature’: Why A Change In Name Isn’t Enough

This article was written exclusively for The Film Magazine by The CineBlog’s Sophie Butcher.

The countdown is on – the 92nd Academy Awards are days away, and the seemingly endless awards season discourse will soon be at an end for another year.

It’s almost a century since the Oscars began. Despite its best efforts to diversify, including inviting swathes of new members to join the Academy, the biggest awards ceremony in the cinematic calendar still can’t seem to get it right. One of the most notable changes for the 2020 awards is the renaming of the category previously known as ‘Best Foreign Language Film’ to ‘Best International Feature Film’.

So – why the change?

As reported in this Screen Daily article, co-chairs Larry Karaszewski and Diane Weyermann have said that calling the films in this category ‘foreign’ is ‘outdated’ and ‘can be taken as alienating’, and that the name was changed so as to ‘reflect the inclusive and universal nature of cinema’. The intention is applaudable and the decision to remove the word ‘foreign’ is certainly a good one, given that its application depends on your perspective – as Alfonso Cuaron reminded us during one of his acceptance speeches last year. But, whether the change actually moves the dial on inclusivity is still up for debate.

The title of ‘Best International Feature Film’ may be new, but the criteria for the category isn’t changing; according to the rules for this year’s awards, ‘An international feature film is defined as a feature-length motion picture produced outside the United States of America with a predominantly non-English dialogue track’. What’s confusing is, those are really two separate things, and it means films from underrepresented countries and communities are falling through the cracks.

This year saw the submission of Lionheart, the first ever from Nigeria, in the new International Feature category. The film was disqualified on the grounds of being ineligible, with only eleven minutes of its runtime being spoken in non-English dialogue. This caused a fair amount of backlash – director Genevieve Nnaji spoke about how the use of English in the film acted as a way of connecting the 500+ dialects of her country, and that the film is still ‘proudly Nigerian’. She had support from prestigious filmmaker Ava DuVernay, who tweeted the Academy asking why they had punished Lionheart when English is actually Nigeria’s official language. 

This is a case in which the two-pronged nature of the International Feature criteria is working against a film, and limiting the inclusion that the Academy are purportedly aiming for. 

Nnaji, when talking about the context of the use of English in the film, also stated that ‘We did not choose who colonised us’. This speaks to the political core of this issue, and what the Academy really mean when they decide which films qualify for Best Picture versus Best International Feature Film. The lack of clarity in the awards criteria leads to an unavoidable double standard, and when it comes to the rule around being produced outside of the US, we never see British films like The King’s Speech, Atonement, or this year’s 1917 moved into the International category – though, by the Academy’s own logic, that’s exactly where they should be. 

Is it a bias in favour of the Western world that means British films get to compete with the big boys when others don’t have the chance? Or is it just a preference for movies that are largely White? Defining the International Feature category by these two very different elements inevitably results in judgements made against some films, and allowances made for others. The playing field isn’t clear, and is nowhere near level. 

Bong Joon Ho Parasite

Judging from its hype, critical acclaim and awards success so far, it looks like Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite will become the first to win this newly titled award. The South Korean masterpiece is also one of the very few films to have been nominated in both this category and for overall Best Picture since the birth of the Oscars in the late 1920s, and the introduction of the Foreign Language award two decades later. 

Parasite aside, only five others have managed this – the Algerian-French epic Z (nominated in 1970); the Italian film Life Is Beautiful (nominated in 1999); Chinese martial arts masterpiece Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (nominated in 2001); French romance Amour (nominated in 2013); and last year’s Roma, from Mexico. All five have something else in common – they all won in the Foreign Language category, but none ultimately took the Best Picture crown.

Somewhat of an outlier in this conversation, but also worth considering, is The Artist. It wasn’t nominated in the Foreign Language category, and was a surprise Best Picture win. Ostensibly a French film, but also a silent one (without any dialogue), it seems to have dodged the double-nomination bullet thanks to its lack of any audible language at all.

The fact that so few films have been able to bridge both categories, and that they are never able to take home the biggest Oscar of all when they do, begs the question – how do the two categories relate to each other in terms of quality? Is only one Foreign Language film able to break into the Best Picture list at a time? It’s surely extremely short-sighted to suggest that only one non-American film has ever been good enough to be shortlisted each year – and yet, there seems to only ever be a single spot for their recognition, on the rare occasion it happens at all. 

It would almost make more sense for the two categories to be completely separate, with no crossover possible; instead, we have the potential for international films to be ‘good enough’ to work their way into Best Picture nominations, implying that the American films taking up most of the space in that category are inherently ‘better’. If winning both categories is possible and we simply haven’t seen a film yet that is worthy of both honours (though that seems unlikely), then surely Parasite is the one to break the mould?

Perhaps we should accept that the Oscars are an American institution, and, just like the BAFTAs (supposedly) prioritise British filmmaking, the Academy may do the same for movies made in the US. But, with no divide between international and American talent for any other award than Best Picture, this discretionary separation of films between these categories looks to be a way of keeping non-White, non-Western, ‘foreign’ work on the periphery of success. 

Here’s hoping Parasite wins on Sunday night; that it sweeps the board. Here’s hoping we see Bong Joon Ho collect those little statues for International Feature, Directing, Best Picture and more. This debate only serves to remind us how little awards really matter in the grand scheme of great cinema, but victory for this weird and wonderful film would be as sweet as the peaches that make it so iconic. 

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