Culture Circuit: Historical Hidden Bias in the Foreign Language Film Oscar?

LATINO CIRCUIT: As we near an Oscars with a historic slate of Best Foreign Language Film nominees, we take a quick look at the history of the award. Analysis of past outcomes in this race may contain valuable information about why Latino (and other) representation at the Oscars has, until very recently, been so low. Indeed, our look back reveals a still-disproportionally Euro-centric outlook from the Academy when it comes to rewarding film. Some are the numbers are more startling than we expected.

The bottom line is that, unsurprisingly, voters tend to reward stories and styles of storytelling they identify with. For a historically white male institution, this means they identify with stories from European male-centric civilizations. There is not, necessarily, insidiousness at play. It is human nature to reward what you feel personally connected to—we would lie if we did not admit we all do this to some degree. This just shows why we need to continue to press the pedal on diversifying the life outlooks of Academy members. So that all voices are heard and rewarded.

You may dismiss the importance of the Best Foreign Language Film award. But, let me remind you of the 2010 ceremony. Films by directors Yorgos Lanthimos, Alejandro Gonzalez-Inarritu, and Denis Villeneuve all lost to Denmark’s stunning “In a Better World.” Guillermo del Toro, for example, directed Mexico’s submission way back in 1993 (“Chronos”) as well as in 2006 (“Pan’s Labyrinth”). The point is that this category can be and often is a launching pad for a filmmaker’s career. Other times, it is simply a vehicle to honor greats from other cultures. It is vitally important.

Best Foreign Language Film – Abbreviated History

The first honorary Oscar to a film not in the English language appeared during the 1947 awards (to Italy’s “Shoe Shine”). Seven more such honorary awards were doled out between then and 1955, all to Italy, Japan, and France. Then, in 1956, a competitive Award of Merit appeared and remained for good. The first prize was given—you guessed it—to Italy, for Federico Fellini’s masterpiece “La Strada.”

Since that Oscar ceremony, the 29th, through last year’s, the 90th, there have been a consistent five nominees each year. In total, 71 trophies have been given out—nine in honorary fashion (one year, France and Italy both received an Oscar for co-producing the movie “The Walls of Malapaga”)—and 62 competitively. A total of about 300 films have received nominations, and approximately 2,400 have been submitted.

Oscar followers are also familiar with the tortured history of the nomination process for this award. Each year the rules seem to change, with bake-offs, buy-ins, committees, supra-committees, etc., littering the landscape. The background of such machinations is beyond this article.

Unequivocal Statistical Trend – Latin America Struggles To Get In

If you look at some quick and dirty numbers, a stark picture emerges. Films from European countries account for about 53% of all submissions to this race. But, European countries have received a whopping 72% of the nominations (about 220 out of the 300) and won an even more disproportionate 80% of the awards, for a total of 57.

Latin American countries, by contrast, have fared very poorly. Latin American countries have only won three Oscars—two for Argentina and one for Chile just last year. That is about 4% of total Oscars, despite having submitted about 14% of the films. Latin American countries have also netted only about 9% of the nominations (28). So, the trend is the mirror opposite of how European countries have done. For Europe, the ratios go up as we move from submissions to nominations to wins. For Latin America, it is the opposite.

It is true that the number of countries submitting to the Oscars has exploded in recent decades. If you go back to the 1960s, it was common to have years with only a dozen or so submissions, mostly from Europe. But, Mexico and Brazil, Latin America’s two largest countries, have been submitting from the get-go. Mexico has submitted 51 films, tied for the most without a win, with Israel. As you likely know by now, a win by “Roma” in the Best Foreign Language Film race would be historic for Mexico. Brazil has submitted 46 movies and has done even worse than Mexico, netting only four nominations.

Indeed, Latin American countries did not receive their first Oscar until Argentina did it in 1985 (“The Official Story”). We had to wait over twenty years for that feat to repeat when Argentina did it again in 2009 (“The Secret In Their Eyes”). And, of course, Sebastian Leilo’s “A Fantastic Woman” emerged victorious last year for Chile—which has been submitting entries since 1990.

Other Regions Have Not Done Any Better with Best Foreign Language Film

To be sure, other regions have done just as poorly. Asian countries (defined to include the Middle East) have only seven total Oscars—though three were the honorary ones given to the Japan in the 1950s. All four of Asia’s competitive victories came since 2000, including two for Iran. In other words, until “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” won in 2000, no film from Asia had won a competitive Oscar. (True, Akira Kurosawa’s “Dersu Uzala” won in 1975, though it was an Oscar for the Soviet Union, where the film was produced.)

And, again, you cannot really argue that the problem is lack of submission. Asian countries have tendered over 600 films for consideration over the years, about 26% of all submissions. Much like for Latin American countries, however, this has converted to disproportionately fewer nominations—40 by my estimate, or about 13% of the total. Again, while Europe’s numbers go up from submission to nominations, Asia’s goes down.

Africa’s Oscar track record is pretty dismal as well. That continent, like Latin America, only has three total Oscars. Most interestingly, all three come from white and/or European directors. Algeria became the first non-European country to win a competitive Oscar in this race, doing so in 1969 (fourteen years into the award). That win, however, came for Costa-Gavras’s “Z” (also a Best Picture nominee that year). Then, in 1976, Ivory Coast’s “Black and White in Color,” won the Oscar, directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud. And, much like Z, the tale in that film, about colonialism in Africa, is distinctly Europe-centric. Finally, in 2006, South Africa’s “Tsotsi” netted that country an Oscar, directed by Gavin Hood, a white South African.

Africa’s three Oscars are at least a bit more in line with their submissions totals than are Asia’s or Latin America’s. African nations have submitted about 105 films to the Academy Awards, approximately 4% of the total, and their three wins are similarly around 4% of total Oscars given out here.

Latin American perspectives have received short thrift by the Academy over the years. Other countries, other than perhaps Japan, have plenty of reason to complain, as well.

Limits to Looking at Raw Numbers?

There are limits to what the above analysis reveals, naturally. Doing rough numerical calculations cannot account for quality. Who can argue against Oscars for European films like “Cinema Paradiso” (Italy, 1989), “Babette’s Feast” (Denmark, 1987), “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” (France, 1972), and so many others? In other words, the numbers do not mean that worthy films did not win.

But, the contrary is also true. Europe’s domination of the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar does not mean that there was no merit to the movies from other regions. It would be futile to argue year by year, but the example that always comes to mind is Germany’s win for “The Lives of Others” over Del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth.” There is nothing wrong with Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s film. But the rewarding of that tale—of a creepy, grumpy, aging, anxious middle-aged white guy—over the fantastical, female-driven dark tale of Del Toro’s imagination seems revealing. Do we not imagine many Academy voters, certainly in 2006, as precisely that seething, creepy old dude they saw in that film? It seems reasonable to assume that they would identify easier with that story than with Pan, thus seeking to reward it.

The demographics of the voting blocks may also explain it. “Pan’s Labyrinth” won three total Academy Awards, the most of any film that year other than “The Departed,” and had a total of six nominations. Clearly, there was some discrepancy between the Academy-wide voting for the tech awards that “Pan’s” won, over the self-selecting and thus likely older group that voted for the award. Back then, only those who saw all nominees could vote. That only further the point, however, if one assumes that the voters were even older Academy members.

Change Ahead for Best Foreign Language Film?

Anecdotally, it seems as if Europe has at the very least two, maybe three of the five slots reserved. This year will be the first since 2009-2011 when Europe only has two of the nominees. In two of those years, however, a Canadian film took the third slot from other regions. Before that, you have to go back to 1993 to find a year with only two European nominees (Ang Lee’sThe Wedding Banquet” lost to Spain’s “La Belle Epoque”).

A similar trend emerges from eyeballing the shortlists in the last few years. In 2015, for example, all four films that did not convert a shortlist citation to a nod were European. In 2016, three of the four were. The fourth was Canadian. The committees making these selections are clearly still very Europe-focused.

It will be interesting to see where this trend goes in the coming years, particularly with the changing Academy membership. Will the history of 2006 repeat, and the European-centered story of the brooding man (“Cold War”) upset Mexico’s female-driven film? More broadly, will the numbers change going forward?

Already there is an encouraging trend since non-European countries have won the award seven out of eighteen times since 2000. That means that Europe is now winning at a slightly lower clip—62% or so—than it had been historically. This is still way higher than Europe’s submission totals, which have dipped from the historic 55%. Still, these are signs that the trend is starting to reverse.

On Sunday, we will find out by how much.

What do you think? Is there Euro-centric bias in the Best Foreign Language Film race at the Oscars? Discuss below!


What do you think?

Written by J. Don Birnam

J. Don Birnam is a New York-based film critic and journalist. He is a member of the New York Film Critics Online, the Gay & Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and an inaugural member of the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association.


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