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2017 AFI FEST Special Preview: 3 Foreign Language Film Underdogs You Shouldn’t Miss

The 2017 AFI FEST kicks off tomorrow and promises a wide range of American and international films with fascinating stories, characters and themes. And since the festival has lined up an impressive roster of 14 Foreign Language Oscar contenders this year, we’re taking a break this week from our weekly FLF analysis articles to offer you a special preview of some Foreign Language Film underdogs that are showing at the festival and should surely be on your watchlist whether you’re an Oscar voter, film lover or critic.

With everyone (and most of the buzz) focusing on the biggies in the race (namely France’s BPM, Russia’s Loveless, Israel’s Foxtrot and Chile’s A Fantastic Woman, the latter 3 being distributed by Sony Pictures Classics), there are some underdogs that will show up at the festival and stand really strong chances of hitting the 9-film shortlist next month despite having less buzz than these big 4.

2018 Oscar Predictions: FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM (November)

When the shortlist shows up every December, there are always surprises – not only due to the snubs which occur every year but also because the nominating committee loves to include several under-the-radar films every year. So consider some of the following films among that group of films that may not have many talking about at the moment – but can certainly impress voters.

If you’ve been reading our Foreign Language Film series ever since September, you’ll notice that we have seen 12 of the 14 contenders that the festival is showing (we’re yet to see India’s Newton and Canada’s Land Of Souls). Here are the 3 films that few are including in their predictions but that we’re closely paying attention to and highly recommend:

From Spain: SUMMER 1993

  • What’s it about: When her parents die due to a fatal disease, a young girl has to move with her uncle and try to cope with her new life – a life without her parents.
  • Why we love it: Many foreign films this year have children at their center – I Am Not A Witch, A Ciambra, Birdshot, First They Killed My Father to name a few – but none of them are able to offer such a thorough psychological case study of how children deal with grief as well as this one. Angelina Jolie’s First They Killed My Father comes close and is more of an extrovert showcase of how children view and deal with war, but Summer 1993 is able to let us inside the mind and heart of a child who protests her reality and struggles to come to terms with it. She never cries – and the film never falls into sentimentality – but we get to see the many ways children react to sudden shifts in their realities.
  • Why we believe in its Oscar chances: It’s emotional, fresh and beautifully made. It will resonate with voters who are parents, and voters who prefer immersive emotional experiences that stay with them long enough after viewing. But most importantly, it’s a film we believe voters may want to reward (with a nod) because it’s a strong and fresh addition to kid-centric cinema. Spain has produced some of the world’s best films with kid protagonists in previous decades – and this film is a welcome return to a narrative style the country has excelled in. Oscilloscope Labs will release Summer 1993 in the US.
  • See it because…it’s fresh, emotional and will resonate with you if you work with or have children.

From Italy: A CIAMBRA

  • What’s it about: Members of the Romani (gypsy) community in Southern Italy have always been marginalized. This film gives them a rare cinematic opportunity to have their stories told.
  • Why we love it: Like Summer 1993, this is a film that has a young boy at its center – but he has to quickly grow up and leave childhood behind, and become a man that helps his family make a living. Watching this film, we were amazed at how raw it is – the actors are not actually ‘acting’ (they are unprofessional actors and this really shows on screen) and it’s such a brutally honest reflection on manhood in an area of Italy we never get to see and among a community who never get their own share of focus on the big screen. And it’s a heartbreaking experience – as you get to see how the boy gradually delves into manhood leaving all his innocence behind.
  • Why we believe in its Oscar chances: It’s executive produced by Martin Scorsese so it may gain some visibility, but that’s not why we see it making the shortlist – it’s because the film is a very powerful – and sometimes harrowing – experience that stays with you. It has important themes, raw execution and fantastic performances that make it really gripping. It’s also very accessible in a sense that the narrative is really simple and straightforward but it also takes you to uncharted territories in Italy, far away from the glamourous beaches and fancy houses – it’s like a total opposite to The Great Beauty. AMPAS loves these type of coming-of-age stories, and 2015’s Theeb is a good reminder that films that offer them a sense of ‘adventure’ to worlds unknown usually get appreciated by them. Sundance Selects will release A Ciambra in the US.
  • See it because…it’s a singular, raw viewing experience with a strong narrative and gripping performances in a world rarely seen on screen.

From Lebanon: THE INSULT

  • What’s it about: In one of Lebanon’s villages, a fight between a local mechanic and a Palestinian worker spirals into a political crisis and a staggering reminder of the animosities between the Lebanese residents of the village and Palestinians living and working – mostly illegally – on their soil.
  • Why we love it: As an Arab film, this is a very bold film that sort of breaks a major taboo. Palestinians are mostly dealt with extra care and delicacy whenever portrayed in Arab films – due to the overall positive sentiment towards them and the overwhelming opposition to Israel among Arab nations. To get an Arab film that highlights how Palestinians took part of major crimes and killings on Lebanese is quite a surprise. True, the film tries to balance both sides of the argument, but never has an Arab film presented Palestinians as imperfect and at fault as this one.
  • Why we believe in its Oscar chances: Courtroom dramas do well in this category especially if they have the “important” or “timely” tag. And this film checks off both. It’s incredibly timely and will resonate with Western voters (interestingly, it’s been a huge hit among Arab viewers in Lebanon, almost breaking box office records there). The drama here is quite showy and straight forward and the film has the dramatic moments and enough fireworks to make it standout while also being seen as gutsy, fresh and important. Cohen Media Group will release The Insult in the US.
  • See it because…it’s a very bold Arab film that breaks taboos, opens up new conversations and manages to be entertaining and gripping.

Next week, we return to our Foreign Language Film analysis pieces and look at 3 new contenders from Asia, Africa and Europe. Stay tuned.

Mina Takla

Mina Takla is a foreign correspondent for AwardsWatch and the co-founder of The Syndicate, an online news agency that offers original content services to several film brands including Empire Magazine’s Middle East edition and the Dubai Film Festival. Takla has attended, covered and written from over 10 film festivals online including the Dubai International Film Festival, Abu Dhabi Film Festival, Cannes, Venice and Annecy Film Festivals. He has been following the Oscar race since 2000 with accurate, office-pool winning predictions year after year. He writes monthly in Empire Arabia, the Arabic version of the world’s top cinema magazine and conducts press junkets with Hollywood stars in the UK and the US. He holds a Master’s degree in Strategic Marketing from Australia’s Wollongong University and is currently based in Dubai, UAE.

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