A Look at Some of this Year’s Foreign-Language Oscar Submissions


Academy isset to announce the shortlist for Best Foreign Language Film on December 17.For me, personally, this has always been the most exciting category, where Ican find some of the best films of the year. However, we should understand thatto win on Oscar or even get a nomination, a film needs a powerful USdistributor with the will, money, and connections to get the Academy members’attention and draw them to vote for the film. So, while films like Roma,Girl, Cold War, and Shoplifters are consideredfrontrunners, I would like to take the chance here to discuss and possiblycelebrate some films submitted to Academy that might get overlooked.

Kenya’s Supa Modo is a simple and modest film about a little village girl, Jo,who has only two months to live. She constantly dreams about having superpowers. While she is kept in a hospital with other kids, her mother decides to take her home, so she can have better “last days.” Jo’s sister decides to make Jo’s dreams true with the help of the other villagers. The film’s style emulates its story. As the story avoids becoming too dramatic, the cinematography,editing, and performances are unpretentious as well. The film is mostly shot outdoors using available lights. It is obviously low-budget, and knowing that,it tells its story in a fitting way.

WhileSupa Modo tells a tragic story, Likarion Wainaina, the director, and hisco-writers have succeeded in approaching it humorously. In the end, the filmbecomes not only a celebration of life, but also a celebration of cinema, acelebration of storytelling, and how this medium can help human beings suffer abit less in this world. This refreshing film deserves more attention, and Ican’t wait to see what Wainaina has for us next.

            Pakistan’s Cake is also about a family, but this time a wealthy family living in Karachi. When the family’s father has a heart stroke and right after that, the mother has a stroke, the whole family gets together after a long time. One of the children (Zara) lives in England and another (Zain) in the US and the middle child (Zareen) has stayed in Pakistan, with the parents. The family reunion becomes a journey of revelation, especially with the return of Zara. Gradually, as the film goes on, we learn that there are dark secrets in the family’s past.

The film is well-shot (with one well-choreographed long take) and includes sophisticated interior lightings. Cake has an energetic second half, but the first half lacks the same energy. The story’s setup takes too long and can be boiled down to half hour at most, so we get to the core of the drama faster. Furthermore, there are many missed opportunities in this film when it comes to its dramatic structure. There are abundant moments when the film holds back from keeping the suspense for long, and every time there is a conflict between characters, it gets solved shortly and the characters become nice to each other again. It feels like the filmmaker is shy to create uncomfortable moments for the viewers, where they must sit at the edge of their seats for long, not knowing what is happening or what is going to happen for long, or observe the characters in tension with each other for long.

Theending is emblematic of this issue, where the filmmaker feels the need toconclude everything and make everything feel hopeful even after such darkrevelations. It feels forced and insensitive to the story’s victims. The filmdoesn’t take advantage of the energy hidden in its core idea, and that’sdisappointing. This might be because Asim Abbasi, the writer and director, wasstill looking for drawing the mass audience to his film. Whatever the reason is,while the film suffers from screenplay issues, it’s still a nice surprise tosee such a well-performed, well-shot, and almost well-directed film thatintroduces a filmmaker with high potentials from Pakistan.

Thesame theme of secrets and lies takes place in Bulgaria’s Omnipresent aswell. Emil is a writer and commercial artist. After using surveillance camerasto catch the thief of his father’s place, he becomes obsessed with thosecameras and with spying on his friends and relatives. This tragicomedy is acomment on receding private spaces in the modern society, where we are all constantlyobserved, not only by the government, but also by friends and even strangersthrough social media. Emil, who spies on everyone around him, himself is beingspied on by the government. If Supa Modo was a celebration of motionpictures as healing, Omnipresent provides a dystopian picture of theomnipresent video recorders. If Supa Modo is a celebration of digitaltechnologies that have helped amateurs in a small village in Kenya make a superhero movie, Omnipresent portrays the dangerous environment thosetechnologies have created. Ilian Djevelekov, the filmmaker, punctuates whetherwe’re seeing a spied-on image or not by using different resolutions, aspectratios, or camerawork. However, sometimes the scene goes on for a while beforewe realize Emil is secretly watching it. This editing strategy makes the viewersrealize “they would never know.” With its dark ending, the film doesn’t holdback and makes a big warning to all of us: “Look at this tragedy. That’s you.That’s us.”

Finally, one of the biggest gems of this year: Indonesia’s Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts. Marlina is reminiscent of lonely yet powerful and charismatic Western heroes. The film opens in a breathtaking way, where a skinny old man enters Marlina’s house and tells her she’s going to be a “lucky woman,” because she gets to be raped by him and six other men tonight. The suspense throughout that sequence is unbelievably high. This is the beginning of Marlina’s journey to seek justice in a corrupt society. From this heroine’s journey to the widescreen portrayals of desert landscapes to the score that reminds us of Morricone’s music for Spaghetti Westerns, this is a pleasant surprise from Mouly Surya and what I can call a female Indonesian Western. I don’t like to limit the scope of this film to Western movies, as this is a close character study not only on Marlina, but on all the women around the world still suffering from patriarchy.

The film is beautifully shot, and besides the landscapes, the interior shots have sophisticated warm lighting designs with an effective use of lighting through dust. Every frame is a painting! The static camera stays outside the actions and observes them in long takes. This works hand in hand with the deep staging to create suspense and induce the feeling of unease in viewers through mise-en-scene and composition instead of shaky cameras or fast cutting.

While most probably all of these films will be ignored by the Academy, they provide a great reminder for us: that cinema is a global phenomenon and it has always been. Wonderful works are made all around the world, and some of the best cinematic works are made in the regions traditionally overlooked by the majority of cinemagoers. In the year that many people say A Star is Born is a total masterpiece and one of the year’s best films, we need to remember that there are so many gems made in different countries that, mostly due to power structures, don’t get the attention they deserve. But what a joy to discover them!


About Author

Hamidreza Nassiri

Nassiri started filmmaking when he was 19 with a short film called, White Black. Before getting his bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of Tehran, he made his second film, An Unforgettable Poem. After graduation, he entered the University of Tehran’s master’s program in Cinema and made several short films, including his master’s thesis film, Daylight News, which premiered in the US in May 2014. He then left Iran to continue his education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he has also taught film production, film studies, and public speaking courses. The winner of several scholarship and teaching awards, he’s currently a PhD candidate in Film Studies. He has presented several papers at prestigious conferences such as SCMS, SCSMI, and MaMI and has been invited to several events to give lectures and Q&As. He received the Public Humanities’ HEX Award in 2018. He has just finished the post-production of his new English-language short film, Immortal. Hamidreza founded the Wisconsin Iranian Film Festival in 2017 and has directed and programmed the festival for the past two years.

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