Foreign Language Oscar Contenders Share Insights at Palm Springs International Film Festival

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PALM SPRINGS, CA - JANUARY 07: Directors Hirokazu Kore-eda, Sergey Dvortsevoy, Cristina Gallego, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, Nadine Labaki, Lee Chang-dong and Gustav Moller attend the 30th Annual Palm Springs International Film Festival on January 7, 2019 in Palm Springs, California. (Photo by Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for Palm Springs International Film Festival )

As is tradition, the Palm Springs International Film Festival hosted the Eyes on the Prize: Foreign Language Oscar Directors Discussion with the filmmakers behind the shortlisted films in the category. The festival also screens over 40 of the long list of submissions for attendees to get a broader sample of what the contenders were.

Moderated by Variety’s Features Editor Malina Saval , the panel included the directors of 7 of the 9 films, with Alfonso Cuarón (“Roma) and Paweł Pawlikowski (“Cold War”) being the notable absentees. Both artists were in the East Coast receiving awards. Still, directors Hirokazu Kore-eda (“Shoplifters), Lee Chang-dong (“Burning”), Nadine Labaki (“Capernaum”), Cristina Gallego (“Birds of Passage”), Sergey Dvortsevoy (“Ayka”), Gustav Möller (“The Guilty), and Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (“Never Look Away”), flew in from around the world to be present and partake in the conversation.

In such a standout year for international cinema, the competition was arduous. The 9 shortlisted entries represented some of the finest works to hit screens in 2018 with six of them having premiered at Cannes, two at Venice, and one at Sundance. Each of the directors in attendance at PSIFF’s staple event shared insights into the origins of their films in contention and the processes to get to where they are today.

Highlights from the discussion are below.

Nadine Labaki, “Capernaum” (Lebanon)

PALM SPRINGS, CA – JANUARY 07: Director Nadine Labaki attends the 30th Annual Palm Springs International Film Festival on January 7, 2019 in Palm Springs, California. (Photo by Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for Palm Springs International Film Festival )

For her third feature behind the camera, Nadine Labaki was propelled by the images she’d witnessed of children suffering in war zones abroad and at home in Lebanon. “I started this research, because I understood that I wasn’t entitled to just imagine this story,” she said. Because she hadn’t personally been affected by their struggled, the filmmaker felt it would only be appropriate to base her project on facts, and that included the people and places that would appear on screen.

“I wanted to become a vehicle for these children to express what they go through.” The story of “Capernaum,” about a young boy living in precarious conditions and who sues his parents for their inability to provide affection and basic necessities, comes from Labaki’s visits to detention centers for minors and disadvantaged neighborhoods. Her interactions with families and children are the basis for the plot.

Knowing that it would be difficult to explain to a child what hunger, depravation, and neglect are if he or she hadn’t experienced them first-hand, it was important for the director to work with children who were in similar circumstances. To that end, Zain al Rafeea, the star and beating heart of “Capernaum,” was found on the streets living a life not unalike the Zain in the film, with the distinction that in real life the magnetic boy is a Syrian refugee.

“There is no difference between the actor and the real person,” said Labaki. “He became part of that mission for the film to become the voice of those voiceless kids that he used to live with and be with, and become a witness to that. He’s just magic.”

Hirokazu Kore-eda, “Shoplifters” (Japan) 

PALM SPRINGS, CA – JANUARY 07: Director Hirokazu Kore-eda attends the 30th Annual Palm Springs International Film Festival on January 7, 2019 in Palm Springs, California. (Photo by Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for Palm Springs International Film Festival )

Japanese master Hirokazu Kore-eda on has crafted plenty of narratives centered of family dynamics, and in particular the relationship between fathers and son. However, it was an article about a family that would repeatedly shoplift together and were eventually caught ignited his idea for the Palme d’Or winner, “Shoplifters.” What he found most curious about the case was that they would always sell the stolen goods, but decided to keep two fishing rods. It was because of these rods that they were apprehended.

“I thought, ‘Why would they not sell those two rods?’ Suddenly the image came to me of a father and son taking those rods and going out for a stroll and going fishing together, and that image started the whole process,” he explained.

Though he never connected the themes in his movie with the perception of shame in Japan, Kore-eda is aware that shoplifting has been on the rise in his country. “As poverty issues have become more and more prevalent in Japan, it’s now changed to whole families being caught shoplifting, as well as younger people. This is a new trend in Japanese society,” added the director.

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, “Never Look Away” (Germany) 

PALM SPRINGS, CA – JANUARY 07: Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck attends the 30th Annual Palm Springs International Film Festival on January 7, 2019 in Palm Springs, California. (Photo by Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for Palm Springs International Film Festival )

Previous winner for his 2006 drama “The Lives of Others,” Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck is back in the race for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar with a new period piece examining Germany’s turbulent past. In “Never Look Away” he follows an artist whose life was directly impacted by the Nazis’ horrific practice. This historical romance is as expansive as it’s intricate.

“The script wasn’t incredibly long, but it was clear that it was going to be longer than 90 minutes or so, but I didn’t know that it would be three hours,” said the director. His German distributor was worried about their ability to market the film, but was firm in his conviction that if a story is well told it doesn’t matter how long it is. “I’ve never seen a film that I liked that I felt was too long, and I’ve never seen a film that I didn’t like that was short enough. It’s almost a definition of a film that you don’t like, if you feel it’s too long,” he noted.

Although he had another of footage that could have helped developed some of the characters to a greater extent, but he eventually decided to focus on what really mattered, “I actually boiled it down to what was really necessary to understand the story.” He believes that if they’d cut more out, the project would actually seem longer” because you didn’t have enough things that hooked you into the story.”

Once the German distributor tested movie with audiences, the feedback was so positive—even more than for his Oscar-winning debut—that the company was satisfied and moved on with the release. Sony Pictures Classics in the US felt the same way, but his potential British partner was too intimated by the running time, claimed Henckel von Donnersmarck.

Gustav Möller, “The Guilty”(Denmark) 

PALM SPRINGS, CA – JANUARY 07: Director Gustav Moller attends the 30th Annual Palm Springs International Film Festival on January 7, 2019 in Palm Springs, California. (Photo by Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for Palm Springs International Film Festival ) 

First-time feature director Gustav Möller, the youngest of the pack, found the idea for his one-man thriller when he fell into a YouTube rabbit hole watching random videos. He came across a real sound clip of an American woman calling 911, which lasted 20 minutes.

“[It was] an abducted woman sitting next to a man in a car on the highway, and she was calling 911, but he thought she was calling her sister, so she had to speak in code to the operator in order not to reveal herself,” said the helmer.

The audio triggered specific visuals for Möller. He was gripped and new that if he was going to make a movie about it, he couldn’t show the actual woman in distress. ““It felt like I’d seen this woman, and it felt like I’d seen the car and the road they were driving on,” he said. “And I that everybody who went on YouTube and listened to that call would see a different woman, a different car, and a different road.”

The goal for him was to make a film that would play out in the viewers’ minds, so each experience is unique. “Everybody creates their own film while watching the film,” he continued. To capture the tension required in an authentic manner, Möller and his co-writer Emil Nygaard Albertsen visited Danish dispatch centers and spoke to the police officers working there about the conflicts they face every day.

Sergey Dvortsevoy, “Ayka” (Kazakhstan) 

PALM SPRINGS, CA – JANUARY 07: Director Sergey Dvortsevoy attends the 30th Annual Palm Springs International Film Festival on January 7, 2019 in Palm Springs, California. (Photo by Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for Palm Springs International Film Festival )

Kazakhstani director Sergey Dvortsevoy made the shortlist despite his film, “Ayka,” not having US distribution yet. Though it stars Kazakhstani actress Samal Yeslyamova and it’s representing their country at the Academy Awards, the story is actually about an undocumented Kyrgyz immigrant in Moscow. According to Dvortsevoy, Kazakhstani people rarely migrate to Russia because their country has a stronger economy than some of the other Central Asian republics.

This grueling tale follows the title character, a migrant woman, trying to find work and survive the inhospitable Russian winter. Yeslyamova, who won the Best Actress Award at Cannes for her performance, interacts with real-life migrants throughout the narrative, giving the drama powerful rawness.

“Because in the past I was a documentary filmmaker, I only trust a story when I feel truth, when I feel fake elements I can’t be into the story and I can’t exchange my emotions with the characters,” said the filmmaker. It took Dvortsevoy six years to complete the film given that they only shot when it was snowing in Moscow and the fact that members of the cast would migrate and disappear during production.

When asked why he decided to approach the project with such strict parameters in service of realism, the director confessed that when he talked to the migrants he truly understood how difficult their lives are. “I said, ‘I need to talk about this seriously, or not talk about it at all.’ It’s too serious to just make entertainment out of this.” For him the biggest praise is when people wonder whether Yeslyamova is a professional actress or someone who actually experienced that life because her portrayal is so powerful.

Lee Chang-dong, “Burning” (South Korea) 

PALM SPRINGS, CA – JANUARY 07: Director Lee Chang-dong attends the 30th Annual Palm Springs International Film Festival on January 7, 2019 in Palm Springs, California. (Photo by Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for Palm Springs International Film Festival )

When NHK, Japan’s largest broadcast organization, offered South Korean director Lee Chang-dong to select a Haruki Murakami short story and turn it into a film, the master storyteller gravitated towards “Barn Burning.” Like in the original, Chang-dong’s take revolved around a love triangle and the mysterious hobby of an inexplicably wealthy young man.

“The story does not really have a resolution at the end, and I thought it could be cinematically extended into something very interesting,” said Chang-dong. “That story deals with the world we are living in, and the mystery of life we are engaged in, and the bigger mystery outside that.”

Later, the director discovered that American writer William Faulkner had once written a novel with the same title where rage was a key point. “I wanted to describe this anger that is prevalent in our world, especially among the young generations,” he added.

For Chang-dong, his “Burning” shows two types of young Koreans. “One is very poor and has a fear of the future. The other person, we don’t know what exactly his job is, but he’s something like the Great Gatsby character, very affluent, very young and refined.” This class divided is not exclusive to South Korea, he believes, and is a latent issue today creating uncertainty.

“The world we are living in right now, on the surface it looks very refined and very convenient and it looks beautiful, but under the surface, there is latent ugliness, which has to do with class, and social and also political problems,” Chang-dong concluded.

Cristina Gallego, “Birds of Passage” (Colombia) 

PALM SPRINGS, CA – JANUARY 07: Director Cristina Gallego attends the 30th Annual Palm Springs International Film Festival on January 7, 2019 in Palm Springs, California. (Photo by Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for Palm Springs International Film Festival )

Representing the Colombian entry, “Birds of Passage,” Cristina Gallego, who co-directed the picture with Ciro Guerra, spoke about delving into the indigenous cultures of their country once again. Guerra’s previous effort “Embrace of the Serpent,” which Gallego produced, was Colombia’s first-ever Oscar-nominated film for Best Foreign Language Film and also dealt with ancient traditions and modem vices.

The initial interest in telling the story of “Birds of Passage” came 10 years ago when Guerra and Gallego were making another film in the region where the Wayuu indigenous people live: La Guajira” There, they heard stories about how the Colombia drug trade got its start within their community back in the 60s before the war on drugs was declared. “Most of this history is history that we as Colombians didn’t know,” said Gallego.

“Something that was very impressive for us was how people there told us about this part of history very openly,” she continued. The epic saga on screen follows a Wayuu family caught up in the greed and violence of the illegal marihuana business during those chaotic decades, and how these corroded their values and loyalties.

Gallego also noted they used supernatural elements to tell their story as she believes these are integral in the pay people all across Latin America see the world. “We took many elements from things that happened in reality, but also from the way in which the Wayuu people see reality.”

What is your favorite Foreign Language Oscar contender this year? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section!

Oscar nominations in all 24 categories will be announced on Tuesday, January 22. 

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