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The films that bring an international flavor to the Oscars

  • Story Highlights
  • Best Foreign Language Oscar can introduce non-English films to the mainstream
  • In 2007 "The Lives of Others" made $8.2 million box office in 10 weeks after winning
  • Controversy this year over omission of Cannes winner, "4 months, 3 weeks, 2 days"
  • There are questions about validity of "foreign language" prize in global film industry
  • Next Article in Entertainment »
By Mairi Mackay
CNN
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- In 2007, a low-budget feature by a first-time German director, "Das Leben der Anderen" won Best Foreign Language film at the Oscars. Over the next 10 weeks, the film better known to English-speaking audiences as "The Lives of Others" brought in $8.2m at the US box office.

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Austrian film "The Counterfeiters" by Stefan Ruzowitzky won the Best Foreign Language Oscar

The film's star, the late Ulrich Mühe, became hot property in tinseltown but sadly died before he could translate the interest of Hollywood agents into international stardom. The film's director, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, now lives in LA and is currently considering his next project. If the experiences of his fellow countryman Oliver Hirschbiegel are anything to go by, it could be a big budget Hollywood movie. Hirschbiegel was nominated in 2004 for "Downfall" and recently directed "The Invasion" starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig.

The stories of former winners and nominees offer a window into the power of the Best Foreign Language film award. It can transform careers and at its best it can act as a conduit, helping subtitled films out of the foreign-language, arthouse ghetto into the mainstream.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of this phenomenon is Taiwanese director Ang Lee's Mandarin martial arts blockbuster, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." It won the award in 2000 and a further three Oscars including Best Director for Lee. The film went on to take more than $128m at the box office and left Lee with the world at his feet.

The global film community was buzzing with the film's extraordinary success. Could it be the vanguard for a new wave of foreign films? Were English-language audiences finally ready for subtitled features? The predicted influx of world cinema never materialized, and -- in the U.S. at least -- the "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" phenomenon fizzled. In 2005, just 10 foreign-language films had ticket sales of more than $1m.

These days, Oscars cannot be seen as indicative of foreign language films' success. Festivals abroad like Venice, Cannes, Berlin, Toronto and Pusan mean that the golden statuette no longer holds the monopoly on quality non-English language films. But, even if it doesn't directly translate into big box office, the exposure of a nomination on the shiniest night in Hollywood's calendar is still a huge pull for global filmmakers.

Since 1956 when the category was first recognized, 102 countries have submitted films to compete for the Academy's Best Foreign Language film award. And the nominations process is one of the quirkiest aspects of the award. Each year, only one film is allowed per country. According to Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences rules, to qualify for the 2008 awards, a film must be released in the submitting country between October 1, 2006 and September 30, 2007 and be publicly screened in 35mm or 70mm for at least seven days in a commercial motion picture cinema.

Apart from following the entry qualifications, each nation is free to choose the film that will go forward as they please. Although the one-film-per-country rule fails to reward countries with flourishing film industries, it does guarantee diversity. No less than 63 countries from Azerbaijan to Vietnam submitted films this year.

The final shortlist of five films is decided, after screenings over a period of two months, by a 30-strong nominating panel headed by chairman Mark Johnson. This year's shortlist included the first ever nomination for Kazakhstan - "Mongol," the tale of Ghengis Khan's early life directed by Sergei Bodrov and the chance of a second Oscar for veteran Polish director Andrzej Wajda for "Katyn", his account of the 1940 massacre of Polish soldiers by the Soviet secret police. Read our roundup of the nominations

The word on everyone's lips this year has been "4 months, 3 weeks, 2 days." Not how good the harrowing tale of illegal abortion by Romanian director, Cristian Mungiu undoubtedly is, but instead shock and consternation that it hasn't made the shortlist -- particularly after it took the top award at Cannes. The other conspicuous omission was animated film "Persepolis" which beat out strong contenders "La Vie en Rose" and "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" to go forward as France's nomination -- only to be rejected by the Oscars committee. Read more about the politics of the Oscars

The outcry over the omission of "4 months, 3 weeks, 2 days" was forceful and immediate. The day the nominations were announced by the Academy, respected LA Weekly critic, Scott Foundas wrote a blistering condemnation on his blog, Foundas & Taylor on Film. He called the omission of the film by the selection committee "as embarrassing a blunder as any in the Academy's history."

The perennial argument that the retired Academy members who make up the judging panel are too conservative to appreciate the most exciting, edgy examples of world cinema is rearing its head once more. Unfortunately, because of the significant time commitment required to watch 14 or 15 films over two months at Academy-sanctioned screenings, the demographic of committee members is skewed towards those with time on their hands.

The Academy's complicated and, it seems, constantly shifting rules of what constitutes a film's nationality have rendered other quality foreign language films inadmissible. Ang Lee's exquisite Second World War espionage film, "Lust, Caution" was not allowed as Taiwan's entry because -- having American and Chinese crew - it was not Taiwanese enough. In 2004, "The Motorcycle Diaries" by Brazilian Walter Salles, suffered from the same problem.

This year, Israeli Eran Kolirin's film "The Band's Visit" was disqualified by the Academy because it contained more English language than the Academy allows. In 2005 Michael Haneke's film "Hidden" -- winner at Cannes and one of the most successful foreign language films of the decade -- was struck off the Academy's nomination list for not being shot in the language of the country being represented -- Austria. The film was shot in Paris and is entirely in French.

In response to this year's outcry and the more general criticisms of the award, Johnson has vowed to change the nominations procedure for this problematic category. But this doesn't stop the question being asked: is the notion of "foreign language film" obsolete in an increasingly cosmopolitan and global film culture?

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"Perhaps we should say nationality doesn't count very much anymore," Hans Georg Roedech, film journalist and critic for German daily newspaper, Die Welt told CNN at the Berlin International Film Festival last week, "But," he continues, "show me a better definition. I don't think we will find one so we will have to live with unclear categories." Roedech was, on the whole positive about this year's nominations which had a strong political vein running through them. "[They] reflected quite well what is happening in the world today," he said, "Four out of the five films nominated reflect the upheaval which is going on in the world."

Whatever the politics of the choices, when American output dominates so much of world cinema it is vital to remind audiences that the quality of films coming out of the rest of the world is at least as good as those produced in Hollywood. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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