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2014 Foreign Oscar Guide: Africa

Producers Zeresenay Berhane Mehari and Mehret Mandefro with Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt

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The Best Foreign Language Film category at the Academy Awards has been experiencing tremendous growth over the past few years, once again breaking the submissions record with 83 films in 2014. It’s an encouraging sign of a more globalized film market but there is still one continent that remains underrepresented – Africa. History shows that submissions have been scarce outside of South Africa and the Arab-influenced Northern countries, most likely due to underdeveloped film industries and lack of resources to go through the submissions process. There have been some improvements however, with three countries making first-time submissions in the past five years. This year’s crop of African films include one such debut from Mauritania, along with films from Egypt, Ethiopia, Morroco and South Africa. Together, they showcase the continent’s extensive cultural diversity.

Coincidentally, issues surrounding women’s rights were a key concern for three of the films. In South Africa’s submission Elelwani, a young woman fights against tradition as she seeks to follow her dreams of traveling, higher education and embracing true love. Her ambitions conflict with her society’s customs however, as her parents have already promised her to the local king. Directed by Ntshaveni Wa Luruli, Elelwani is noteworthy as the first ever Venda language film (one of South Africa’s 11 official languages). It is based on Titus Ntsiene Maumela’s novel of the same name, written with the intent of expressing how education can promote better treatment of women in the Venda community.

Producers Zeresenay Berhane Mehari and Mehret Mandefro with Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt
‘Difret’ producers Zeresenay Berhane Mehari and Mehret Mandefro with Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt

Ethiopia’s pick Difret deals similarly with the issue of marriage rights for women. It tells the harrowing story of a 14-year old girl named Hirut who is kidnapped on her way home from school as part of an old Ethiopian tradition of abduction into marriage. While in captivity, she manages to kill her would-be husband. The story then follows the legal battle to bring justice for Hirut in the face of an oppressive patriarchal society. Difret has captivated audiences at various festivals, winning the audience awards at both Sundance and Berlin. The film was written, directed and produced by Zeresenay Berhane Mehari, with his wife Mehret Mandefro also acting as producer. Perhaps the most intriguing credit however, is that of the one and only Angelina Jolie. Inspired by its empowering story and creativity, she joined the film as an executive producer prior to its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.

The third of these women-centric films is Egypt’s Factory Girl, directed by Mohamed Khan. In this film, our titular character Hiyam struggles to overcome class differences in her pursuit of love. The object of her affection is her own supervisor. One day a pregnancy test is found on the factory premises and she is accused of being a sinful woman. What unfolds is something akin to an Easy A/The Scarlet Letter scenario as she refuses to defend herself against her society’s scorn. Factory Girl is Khan’s 2nd film to be submitted by Egypt for Oscar consideration (after 2007’s In the Heliopolis Flat.

Abderrahmane Sissako at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival
Abderrahmane Sissako at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival

Mauritania’s selection Timbuktu addresses human rights issues from a broader perspective, exploring the effects of stifling Islamist military rule in Timbuktu. It was directed by the highly regarded Abderrahmane Sissako, whose films have won numerous prizes at various international film festivals. By all accounts, Timbuktu lived up to his reputation as it has played to high praise on the festival circuit (including its premiere at Cannes, where it was perceived as a major contender for the Palme d’Or).

Fattah Ngadi as Abdessalam Amer
Fattah Ngadi as Abdessalam Amer

The final film for this group of submissions is Morocco’s The Red Moon by Hassan Benjelloun. Though he’s also known for making socially conscious films, Benjelloun decided to go the biopic route this time around with this film about the life of Abdessalam Amer (a famous Moroccan composer). As expected, his story is one of extraordinary triumph – overcoming poverty, orphaning and blindness to achieve success in the 1960s.

Among these submitted countries, only South Africa has been nominated before (including a win for Tsotsi in 2005). However, this year’s batch seems to have a higher profile than usual. In particular, Difret and Timbuktu should be serious contenders for the shortlist at least.