The History of the Foreign Film Oscar: Keep Your Friends Close…

How is Japan different from all other countries in Asia? If you answered, it was the only one to invade the United States, that is correct! And if you answered, it has won more than one Academy Award in the Foreign Picture category, that is also correct!

The Foreign Language Oscar was instituted in 1947, and for the first several years was a non-competitive award, similar to the honorary oscars, given out to whichever film the Academy decided most deserved it. Starting in 1955, it became a competitive category with rules and restrictions. Some of the biggest of these were: the film must be in a language other than English; that language must be a native language of the country from which it came; and only one film per country, selected by a committee of members of the film fraternity of that country, could be part of competition. Some of these rules have changed, any non-English language is now allowed (this is why the Hindi language film Water (2005), for instance, was able to be submitted by Canada).

John Abraham in the film Water

Water (2005) was submitted by to the Academy by Canada despite being a Hindi language film.

Ultimately, however, it comes down to which films the Academy likes most, and those are the ones allowed in competition. And certain countries, the Academy obviously likes more than others. And those countries are still primarily defined as “countries that used to be at war with the United States.”

When the foreign film Oscars started, America was in the throes of a dramatic shift in post-war policy. The previous standard was to punish the losing country as much as they could take. For instance, after WWI Germany was asked to give up all the territories it had gained, and also foot the bill for the war effort. This did not work out very well (that’s why it’s called “World War I” instead of “World War Only”), so post-WWII the United States decided to try the carrot instead of the stick. The idea was, if we assist our former enemies, help them to regain their self-respect, we can train them to be better, more peaceful, countries. Through out the late forties and into the 1950s, thousands of American GIs, civilian contractors, diplomats, and businessmen lived in Italy, Germany, Japan, and other locations we had just finished bombing into oblivion, in order to help rebuild them.


Logo placed on products sold through out Europe during the post-war period.

The “country we just finished invading” trend is still prevalent in film selections today. Of course, there are some other elements that go into this. The most Award heavy countries of all time (Italy, France, Spain, and Japan) are also the ones who have submitted the most. They also (excepting Japan) have languages, people, and locations that sound, look, and feel similar to American languages, people, and locations.

But these elements can’t really be separated, can they? The locations in Japan now look more and more like American locations, because after we destroyed their cities, we rebuilt them in our own image. Italy has submitted the most films and won the most times, and post-WWII it was the only country in the perfect position to be in bad enough shape to deserve assistance, but in good enough shape to be able to pull together a film industry. No coincidence that France and Spain, similarly familiar and yet not catastrophically damaged, were the next most common.

Poster of Shoeshine

Shoeshine (1946) by De Sica was the first Foreign Language Oscar winnter

Looking at more recent times, this year we have a film from Cambodia and another from Palestine. 2011’s winner was Iranian. Bosnia & Herzegovinia won in 2004. Cuba was nominated in 1994, which was also the first year the Cuban government allowed aid from the United States into the country. So perhaps the best strategy for countries like Mexico and India (submitted almost every year, thriving film industries, have never won a Foreign Film Oscar) is to start a war with the United States; apparently it’s a good way to get noticed.

File:Fresa y Chocolate (US cover).jpg

Strawberry and Chocolate (1994) was the first Cuban film to be nominated for an Academy Award.

The “love your enemy” trend may not be the best or most egalitarian tactic for choosing a good international film, but it is one of the best lessons in forgiveness and compassion I have ever seen. The American film industry, and the American audience, responds to hearing about war, violence, and misery by saying “How can I learn more about this country? Let me watch their movies.” And the country of our “enemies” is happy to provide us with their side of the story. Iran has submitted a film almost every year since 1994. China has as well since 1979. The Russians actually submitted more regularly during the Cold War than in the years since. Even Cuba has submitted 17 times.

If you remember, one of the rules from the Academy committee is that a film be selected by a committee of filmmakers. Not diplomats or government officials, but filmmakers. And consistently, the artists of countries which have every reason to hate America, countries we have invaded, bombed, destroyed economically and vilified in the international community, send us as a gift the most heartfelt, the most beautiful, the most touching work they have to offer.

Blog by Margaret Redlich

Margaret Redlich is a Masters student in Media and Cinema Studies at DePaul University with a focus on Indian films.  She has been published on the website and is the Midwest Popular Culture Association’s Area Chair for Indian films

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