THE POPCORN REEL EDITOR'S DESK - a not-so weekly word about the movies                      

Friday, December 14, 2007



"The language of cinema is universal," goes the refrain in the pre-feature presentation promo that can be seen and heard at some Landmark Theaters screens in the United States.  The quote has not been an unpopular nor an unoriginal sentiment.  And in light of that statement, and in light of awards season being in full flow with yesterday's announcement of the 65th Golden Globe Nominations, why not eliminate the "foreign language" film label, and integrate it into all picture consideration?
While it is true that film awards bodies and associations principally honor films made from within the country in which the association resides, it is becoming increasingly clear (and even more so in the past ten years) that films are being made, financed and produced in multiple countries, so much so that the nomination tag of foreign language film seems irrelevant if not nonsensical. 
Perhaps the analysis of this question turns upon the definition of the word "foreign" -- is it in the language spoken, the film's origin, the film's setting?  Films like "The Diving Bell and The Butterfly", made by American director Julian Schnabel, and centered entirely in France, with a cast and crew, but the experiences of Jean-Dominque Bauby, while not universal, is something that can be marveled at and understood.  (The film's campaign has wisely advocated not to be considered for the foreign language category.  See the ad at the top of this page for confirmation.)  Similarly, in films like "Persepolis", a smart, charming and eye-catching film from France and Iran, there is a universal commonality expressed -- specifically political strife, immigration, assimilation to a new culture, the despair of a wife neglected by her husband, etc -- are subtitles needed to convey the feeling?  Feelings don't need subtitles.
Are films like "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" "foreign language" films?  Obviously, the language spoken is a different one from the English language, but then English, despite its ubiquity, is a "Foreign" language The film opens across America in January, and opens for one-week in L.A. on December 21 to qualify for January's Academy Awards nominations.  (It was nominated yesterday in the Golden Globes "best foreign language" category.)  The film is about a woman's desperate attempt to get a back-alley abortion for her close friend in the waning days of dictator Ceaucescu's rule in Romania, and it has been getting outstanding reviews from critics who have seen it.  This year's Cannes Film Festival awarded it the Palm D'Or.  "4 Weeks" is directed by Cristian Mingiu, who in recent interviews has talked about distributing the film himself Is "Lake of Fire", Tony Kaye's epic documentary about abortion and anti-abortion activists, a foreign movie.  Both films are about the same thing, and both assumingly speak the same, distinct language, regardless of subtitles.
Experiences transcend language by itself, and it appears to be nothing less than trivial for films like those mentioned, and last year's excellent "The Lives of Others" from Germany to be labeled an Oscar-winning "foreign language" film.  Sure, it is obvious that such films contain a language that most audiences from other countries do not understand, but it is the subtitles as well as the human experience that defies convenient categorization.
The easy argument to postulate in advocating a continuance of the foreign language category is that without the tag most films that are from other countries will not see the light of a film honor's day in the Academy Awards or any other American film ceremonies.  Even so, the delineation between countries' films only encourages further stratification.  It would almost be better to hold a separate awards show solely for films made, produced or financed in other countries -- but then this would encourage the same type of film segregation that this piece advocates resistance to. 
The world of feature film in the awards sweepstakes is not unlike that of the world of football (or soccer to the 300 million in the United States).  In that sport -- especially in Europe, there are managers of teams from other countries that are managing sides that were once mostly from the country of the city the team plays in, but that is no longer the case.  Fans are getting used to it, and it is no longer the ordeal it once was.   So with the onset of films released in America that have featured actors like Russell Crowe (New Zealand), Cate Blanchett (Australia), Ken Watanabe (Japan), Chow Yun Fat (Hong Kong), Gong Li (Hong Kong), Joan Chen (Taiwan), Max Von Sydow (Germany), Lupe Ontiveros (Mexico), Fernanda Montenegro (Spain), Penelope Cruz (Spain), Djimon Hounsou (Gabon) -- just a partial list, how "foreign" are films released in America? 
Would it be better to create a category that instead recognizes the best international film?  Perhaps one would have to put American films under that banner as well -- and since American-made films as well as films from other countries are distributed around the world, it would seem to make a lot of sense.  Certainly the debate about whether there is such a thing as a foreign film, or whether the need for such a category arises has been held before, and it is worth weighing in on again, particularly in an Internet age where you can see films from anywhere on the globe within literally a few seconds on your PC.
"Foreign" is just another means to separate "our" films from "theirs".  Get rid of the tag now.  It has long since outlived its usefulness.


Omar P.L. Moore
The Popcorn Reel

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