Our weekly Foreign Language Oscar race analysis pieces continue after a short hiatus. This week, we take a look at a region that rarely gets represented in the FLF race: the Middle East and Africa. Even though this region is usually a no-show in this category, things have been slightly improving in the past few years. Just last year we saw THE WOUND get a well-deserved shortlist mention as well as THE INSULT offering Lebanon its first ever nod, and a few years before that Mauritania’s TIMBUKTU earned the country its first ever Oscar nomination. Will we see a film from the region this year?
It’s important to remember that African and Middle Eastern films that do make it in this category are typically:
- Exotic:films that deliver an exploration of worlds mostly unseen to voters. TIMBUKTU (Mauritania) and THEEB (Jordan) are perfect examples of this. Not only did they offer a picturesque panorama on the societies their characters live and breathe in, but they also offered great social critiques in illuminating ways.
- Timely:many of these films also had an urgent, timely message to them. TIMBUKTU reflected on terrorism and the roots of extremism. THE INSULT presented a compelling case of an always burning Middle East. OMAR marvelously re-depicted the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in fresh ways disguises as a thriller.
Let’s take a look at the African and Middle Eastern films with the best chances this year:
- From Lebanon – CAPERNAUM
Logline: A young boy decides to sue his parents because they gave him life.
Pros: Capernaum just scored a major accomplishment for Lebanese and Middle Eastern cinema this week. It officially became the first Lebanese and second ever Middle Eastern film to be nominated at the Golden Globes for Best Foreign Language Film. This is significant because the Globes usually skew European with these nominations, so it looks like the film has a strong path ahead of it. Add to that that Sony Pictures Classics is handling the film’s campaign, and the fact that the film has been on voters’ radars ever since it won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, and it’s safe to say this is one of the strongest players in the race.The film itself is totally AMPAS-friendly, with a resonating story that has an urgent, important feel to it, and stunning performances from a non-professional cast that had audiences tearing up across major international film – and this emotional component is very important when it comes to the non-committee FLF voters who usually love to vote for films that are important or emotionally sweeping. Capernaum is both.
Cons: When the film premiered in Cannes, it didn’t earn unanimous raves, there were some voices accusing it of overplaying the misery of its kid protagonist. Ultimately, these voices didn’t impact the film’s awards paths afterwards, but they could be a signal that the film is a bit more divisive than other contenders in the race.
Committee save or popular vote? This is one of the best bets for a popular vote. In fact, if the film fails to score a popular vote (just like Lebanon’s THE INSULT did last year), chances are low that it gets in by a committee save. It will need the support of the general voters because the smaller elite committee will possibly prefer to select otherlower-profile, or less accessible works. With a film as accessible and showy as Capernaum, a popular vote is its only – and most likely – path.
- From Egypt – YOMEDDINE
Logline: A Coptic Egyptian leper decides to go on a journey into the South of Egypt to locate his father who abandoned him when he was a child.
Pros: When the Cannes Film Festival announced its official competition selection, Yomeddine soon became the first Middle Eastern and African debut feature to be selected for such a prestigious slot. Reviews were mixed, but the film is also one of the most accessible and emotional films in the race. It speaks about issues that American voters can identify with – and has a ‘feel-good’ vibe to it that may help it. Its international film festival circuit performance has been good– but this seems to be another popular vote bet that suits the sensibilities of the general voters more than the elite committee. In previous years we’ve been seeing countries making their debut in this category – and Egypt has never been nominated in this category despite over 30 submissions (tying with South Korea). Will this finally be their year?
Cons: In addition to the mixed reviews, the film did not maintain its entire buzz after Cannes. It was acquired by Strand Releasing later on, but its campaign was not as strong as major contenders from Sony Pictures Classics or Magnolia (who seem to be upping their game considerably this year). Voters have always ignored Egyptian films, does Yomeddine have enough to buck the trend? With no wins in Cannes, and a relatively quiet profile since then, will voters really take notice?
Committee save or popular vote? It will have to be a popular vote because, again, the elite committee will be willing to champion more challenging, artsy or inaccessible work here. Yomeddine is pretty accessible, straightforward and emotional, so its chances are with a popular vote not a save.
MIDDLE EASTERN/AFRICAN FILMS AT THE 2019 FLF RACE
- Lebanon – Capernaum (Sony Classics)
- Egypt – Yomeddine (Strand Releasing)
- Kenya – Supa Modo (this emotional film about a girl diagnosed with a terminal illness and sent to her village to die is a rewarding viewing experience that speaks to the power of movies in healing us and giving us a more optimistic perspective about the world. It’s a longshot but could surprise on December 17).