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Renewed hope for international acceptance as the Academy embraces two Nigerian filmmakers

By Gregory Austin Nwakunor
27 August 2020   |   4:20 am
For Nigerian filmmakers, the year began with news from the 2020 Oscars that shook the industry. The country’s Academy Award entry, Lionheart, was controversially disqualified...

Genevieve Nnaji (left), Pete Edochie and Nkem Owoh on set of the movie Lionheart

For Nigerian filmmakers, the year began with news from the 2020 Oscars that shook the industry. The country’s Academy Award entry, Lionheart, was controversially disqualified for the ‘Best International Feature Film’ category on the grounds that most of the dialogue was in English.

Fast-forward to last month and Nigerian filmmakers have reason to celebrate as two of their peers, Akin Omotoso and Genevieve Nnaji, were selected as members of the 2020 class of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS). Their inclusion is very hopeful news for the country, and a sweet reprise for Genevieve who wrote, directed and starred in Lionheart.

If we begin to breakdown the challenge our country faces in its bid for acceptance on the world’s biggest film stage, The Oscars, and to partake in its international competition, ‘Best International Feature Film’, the answer is very simple: language. The language of our filmmakers is our official language, which is English. They make films to be enjoyed by their fellow compatriots and which appeal to the entire country, as opposed to filming in any of the three major ethnic languages namely Yoruba, Igbo or Hausa.

Nigeria’s position was aptly summarised by renowned American filmmaker Ava DuVernay when she wrote on Twitter:

“To @TheAcademy, You disqualified Nigeria’s first-ever submission for Best International Feature because it’s in English. But English is the official language of Nigeria. Are you barring this country from ever competing for an Oscar in its official language?”

American filmmaker Ava DuVernay

On the other side of the debate, the Academy’s International Feature Film executive committee co-chair Larry Karaszewski dismissed the issue as “less of a controversy, and more of a misunderstanding,” adding that, “If you’re submitting for something as important as an Academy Award, I would think you should look at the rules.”

Mr. Karaszewski is correct, but this needs some context. The Academy had faced issues several years ago with the #OscarsSoWhite movement that called out the lack of diversity among nominees. The Academy responded in several ways, including changing the name of ‘Best Foreign-Language Film’ category to ‘Best International Feature Film.’

“We have noted that the reference to ‘Foreign’ is outdated within the global filmmaking community,” Larry Karaszewski and Diane Weyermann, co-chairs of the International Feature Film Committee, had said in a statement announcing the change. “We believe that International Feature Film better represents this category, and promotes a positive and inclusive view of filmmaking, and the art of film as a universal experience.”

So, for the 2020 Oscars, only the name of the category changed – not its rules.

Before the change in nomenclature, 83 percent of winners were from European countries. To date, only four films produced in Africa south of the Sahara have been nominated for the award formerly known as Best Foreign Language Film. The first film was in 1976 in French-language titled: Black and White in Colour. It was directed by the white Frenchman Jean-Jacques Annaud. The second and third — Darrell James Roodt’s Yesterday (2004) and Gavin Hood’s Tsotsi (2005) — were made by white South Africans. Only the fourth, Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu (2014), was made by a black African.

Mauritanian filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako

In the past, a movie was allowed to compete only if it primarily contained non-English dialogue and if that dialogue was an official language of its country. This meant the exclusion of films like the British-made but Hindi-language The Warrior (2001) because it was not shot in a language ‘indigenous’ to England; and the Austrian entry Cache, a 2005 French-language film directed by an Austrian. The rule was then changed in 2006 so that films no longer had to be in an official language of the submitting country. This meant that a film like Water (2005) was allowed to be submitted by Canada in 2007 even though it was shot in Hindi. Although this all took place over ten years ago, this rule change gives hope that the Academy is capable of evolving its rules to become more inclusive.

Speaking more broadly about the entire international film category, Alissa Wilkinson, a US based film critic, believes the rules have to change to make the category more impactful. In her piece, The Oscars’ international film category is broken: Here’s how its rules need to change, she noted that the academy “hasn’t quite figured out what to do with the category.”

While saying the title change marked a step forward and signaled a willingness to reorient the way the academy thinks about world cinema — not as being ‘foreign’ or ‘other’, but part of the broader movie landscape, Wilkinson noted the rule for that category “still embodies an outmoded way of thinking about ‘foreign’ films — and the notion of ‘foreignness’ itself — as well as decades-old presumptions about what might qualify a movie made abroad for recognition in Hollywood.

She observed that, “The Lionheart situation underscores how much the practice of equating ‘non-English’ with ‘foreign’ or ‘international’ status stems from an archaic understanding of what makes something or someone ‘international.’ By my lights, the Academy’s shift from ‘foreign,’ which carries connotations of being ‘other,’ to ‘international,’ which suggests a more inclusive view of the world, was an attempt to acknowledge that, while language is an important part of culture, in today’s globalised filmmaking landscape, movies that bring a new perspective to stories from around the world deserve to be highlighted, no matter what language they’re told in. Yet excluding movies told in English suggests that if you speak English, you’re part of ‘our’ culture — American culture — and if you don’t, then you’re ‘the other.’ That seems dangerously close to the same mindset that drives some American nationalists to demand that their fellow Americans “speak English” because they’re in America.”

Nigerian filmmaker Akin Omotoso

She further argued that, “The truth is that in the 21st century, language is often just one of the factors that make up a person’s culture. It should only be one of the factors used to determine whether a movie is international.”
(Go to www.vox.com/culture and search for Alissa Wilkinson’s full story)

For the record: The British colonised Nigeria; Nigeria’s official language is English. Nigeria cannot submit an Oscars entry to the ‘Best International Feature Film’ category in its official language. On the other hand, the French colonised Senegal; Senegal’s official language is French. Senegal can submit an Oscars entry to the ‘Best International Feature Film’ category in its official language.

Perhaps, for the 2021 Oscars, we can become hopeful that the Academy’s rules will evolve to accept Nigeria, Ghana and the rest of us burdened by language into its International film community.