The Academy disqualifies another international entry in ‘foreign language’ debate

What is up with the Oscars this past year? First, we had the whole “Best Popular Film” disaster, which was announced and then quickly removed from existence after widespread incredulity. Same deal with host Kevin Hart, who was canned in favour of a hostless ceremony after criticism arose over homophobic jokes in his stand-up specials.

Now, it seems the Academy can’t decide on what makes a film “foreign” or “international,” and it’s raising questions about the very definition of world cinema.

Last week, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences caused controversy by nixing the Nigerian Netflix film Lionheart’s eligibility to compete in the newly titled Best International Feature Film category. Previously called Best Foreign Language Film, the category has been renamed, supposedly since “the term ‘foreign’ felt outdated within the global filmmaking community,” as the Academy stated in a press release.

But a set of confusing new standards for the category has already meant that two seemingly worthy films have been removed from the running – all because they feature too much of the English language.

Lionheart, a drama starring and directed by Genevieve Nnaji, was disqualified for its predominantly English dialogue, with only a small amount of the native Igbo language thrown in for good measure. But here’s the thing; English is recognized as the official language of Nigeria. American director Ava DuVernay questioned the Academy on Twitter, asking if this means the body is “barring this country from ever competing for an Oscar in its official language?”

Weirdly enough, the second film drawn into this bureaucratic debate also revolves around Nigerian language – Joy, Austria’s entry to the category, is about Nigerian sex workers living in Vienna. The film was considered to have “two thirds of its dialogue” in English, and so, despite being directed, produced, and acted by non-Americans, cannot be considered “international” in the Academy’s eyes.

Critic Guy Lodge pointed out the misleading nature of the category’s name change, stating that “Best International Feature” suggests that the Oscars are otherwise solely for American film – Best Picture winners such as the British The King’s Speech would beg to differ. If the category is forced to allow films from predominantly English-speaking countries in, as long as they follow the Academy’s nitpicky percentage guidelines, “the category’s purpose in giving a platform to under-represented cinema is effectively compromised.”

The Academy seems to stand pretty firmly behind their decision, noting specifically that “only 33% of the dialogue is non-English,” but that the category’s changed rules are also a “new process.” What this means for next year’s ceremony – for Lionheart and Joy, who gets nominated, who wins – remains to be seen.