Feb 21, 2012

Foreign Policy and The Oscars

Few categories are more infuriating than the Best Foreign Film category in the Oscars. The films are submitted by their countries (a bureaucratic choice), so many times there are ridiculous omissions in the category. Sometimes great movies happen to make it to the list, only to be voted down by either feel-good movies, foreign movies that are Hollywood wannabes, or Holocaust movies.
The Holocaust movie/documentary winner has become like a bad recurring joke. I've no doubt that some of them are worthy films, but I think this is a case in which the good intentions of an insular industry end up creating animosity. Most people just roll their eyes every time yet another documentary or foreign film on the subject wins, particularly when the competing subjects are other equally egregious human injustices, whose loss seems guaranteed at the mere inclusion of a Holocaust themed competitor. There is Holocaust fatigue. And worse, the very disturbing fact that among some non-Jews this is seen as some sort of irrational, obnoxious Jewish obsession with the topic. 
This year, there is a true contender in the Foreign Film category that is almost the sure bet to win the statuette. Iran's official entry, A Separation, is, in my view, the best movie of the year. But it cannot compete in that category, so it has been nominated, not only for foreign film but surprisingly for best original screenplay as well. Truly deserved on both counts.
Its win could be a fait accompli if it weren't for two movies that may prove tough contenders. Poland's In Darkness, about, guess what, the Holocaust, and an Israeli movie called Footnote, which won best screenplay at Cannes last year.
Indeed, Footnote boasts a great screenplay, but its execution is deeply flawed. In Darkness is a good, but uneven movie. And it's about the Holocaust. About the other contenders I know little and I don't expect the members of the Academy to know much more (a movie from Belgium, and a movie from Canada). The only one that truly made a splash internationally, and with good reason, is A Separation.
The problem is that it is from Iran, a country that seems to be our current foreign policy bogeyman. This may put the voters in a conundrum. Do they want to reward a movie sent by a regime they probably hate? If they are smart, I think they should. The right thing is to award it the prize on its outstanding artistic merit. At the same time, this would also be a very meaningful symbolic statement. It would extend a hand to the people of Iran, who are brilliantly, humanely represented in the movie, amidst the worrisome cacophony of bellicose intentions among certain hawks in the US and Israel. And this could perhaps even elegantly flip the anti-American and anti-Semitic propaganda of Iran. But if instead of giving the award to A Separation, it goes to In Darkness (massive roll of the eyes) or to Footnote, Iran and all the Jew haters can go back to saying that the Jews run everything anyway, etc. If Belgium or Canada win, it's a cop out and nobody cares.
This is the most important prize of the evening, people. The smart thing to do is to vote for A Separation. It is, after all the much superior film.
On the surface, A Separation does not seem like an overtly political film. But it is a very shrewd film which depicts a society that is deeply divided along class lines (The educated, more secular middle class, and the poor and pious), who, thanks to their particular kind of regime, are incapable of coming to terms with one another. The movie shows how a simple decision by an unhappy wife who wants to leave the country and a husband who cannot, snowballs into a drama that involves almost all segments of Iranian society. It is not a particularly rosy picture of life in Tehran, but it feels true.

I remember my shock when The Secret In Their Eyes, a Hollywoodish Argentinian potboiler took the prize from the magnificent French film A Prophet, in a year where both were competing against Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon. The winner was a perfectly entertaining movie, but A Prophet and The White Ribbon are masterpieces, too gloomy and realistic for the feel good schmaltz of the Academy.
A Separation is a masterpiece. Vote smart.

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