Nationality and language are such blurred elements in international film-making today that the Academy's foreign-language film category is always likely to attract controversy.

  • For this year's foreign language submissions - click here
  • The most nominated countries - click here

    Take The Band's Visit - Israeli director Eran Kolirin's charming story of an Egyptian army band stranded one night in a sleepy town in Israel - which was submitted as the country's entry to the category this year.

    It was immediately considered a favourite, especially since it had been one of the hits of Cannes, where Sony Pictures Classics, among many other territorial distributors, snapped it up.

    But the film hit a snag. In order to understand each other, the Arabic-speaking Egyptian characters and the Hebrew-speaking Israeli characters speak English, or at least a pidgin version of English. The Academy disqualified the film, judging that more than half of its dialogue is English.

    Likewise, the Academy rejected Taiwanese submission Lust, Caution as the film did not have enough Taiwanese elements to meet the review committee's criteria. Although directed by Taiwanese emigre Ang Lee, it is set and filmed in mainland China and Malaysia and features actors from the mainland.

    Financed by Focus Features, the film is likely to be pushed in other categories and can certainly qualify for the foreign-language film category in other awards such as the Golden Globes and Baftas.

    Members of the Academy will see several films in a foreign language or partially in a foreign language coming their way this year that are not eligible for the foreign-language film prize.

    Julian Schnabel's The Diving Bell And The Butterfly, which won the directing prize at Cannes, Marc Forster's Paramount-backed The Kite Runner and Olivier Dahan's La Vie En Rose, the popular biopic of Edith Piaf, will all be joining Lust, Caution in all-category pushes.

    For its special foreign-language feature, Screen highlights some of the directors whose work has been submitted for the foreign-language Oscar this year and lists the full line-up of submissions that will be whittled down to nine (announced in mid-January), then five (announced with the other nominations on January 22).


    A sensitive coming-of-age story with political undertones, Cao Hamburger's The Year My Parents Went On Vacation is one of the few Brazilian films that has been able to travel without relying on exposing the country's exotic aspects or social differences.

    'International audiences may have the false idea that Brazil is all about forests and favelas,' Hamburger tells Screen. 'This movie shows a facet that most foreigners don't know; the Brazil of the immigrants and how they are blended together, respecting each other's differences.'

    In the film he revisits some of his own childhood through his protagonist Mauro (Michel Joelsas), a 12-year-old boy who is sent to live with his grandfather when his parents suddenly leave on 'vacation' (they are actually being persecuted by the military dictatorship).

    While waiting for them to return, the boy dreams of soccer, enjoying the 1970 World Cup - when Brazil's victory helped to overshadow the jailings, tortures and killings of political prisoners in the country. 'My parents were also left-wing militants,' says Hamburger, who puts the success of the film down to its universal subject matter.

    'The story takes place in Sao Paulo, but makes sense for an audience from anywhere, any time. The film deals with deep feelings of the human soul.'

    Produced by Gullane Filmes, The Year premiered at Berlin and has since picked up close to 30 prizes. It has sold well internationally and was picked up for the US by City Lights Pictures, where it will be released in January.

    Elaine Guerini

    VIDHU VINOD CHOPRA - EKLAVYA (The Royal Guard) (India)

    When Vidhu Vinod Chopra's now classic gangster movie Parinda was submitted as the Indian entry for the foreign-language Oscar in 1989, Chopra recalls that 'nobody really knew anything about the Oscars. There was no money to go to LA and hardly enough to send the print.'

    Now he is representing India again with Eklavya, The Royal Guard, an elegant piece starring acting legend Amitabh Bachchan as a faithful guard to a contemporary royal family who finds himself at the centre of a violent power struggle when the queen dies. Saif Ali Khan, Sanjay Dutt and Jackie Shroff co-star in the film that marks Chopra's first film as a director since Mission Kashmir in 2000.

    'Now it's different,' says Chopra, talking about the Oscars. 'Thanks to the controversy, most people know about the film,' he says, referring to a well-publicised court case brought against the film's selection by another film-maker and quickly dismissed by a Mumbai court. 'I think it should appeal to people. It's only 102 minutes long and there is no song and dance. It's also the first time in years that actors have performed in a non-melodramatic way in an Indian film. That was the biggest challenge: to get the actors to tone down the melodrama to a more Shakespearean level. The performances had to be pitched just right.'

    Chopra was previously nominated for an Academy Award in 1978 for his first film, An Encounter With Faces, a documentary short about the plight of India's destitute children.

    Mike Goodridge


    Baltasar Kormakur chose to have a special premiere of his acclaimed fourth feature Jar City in autumn 2006 in a tiny cinema in northern Iceland, where he has a horse farm.

    'It was full of farmers sitting on old crates. The sound wasn't quite synced and I helped change the reels, but it was perfect,' the director remembers.

    The film went on to a gala in Reykjavik and became a huge local box-office hit before hitting the festival circuit in Karlovy Vary (where it won the Crystal Globe) and Telluride and Toronto (where IFC announced its North American deal - Trust has world sales).

    The story, based on the bestselling book Myrin by Arnaldur Indridason, attracted Kormakur for both its Icelandic quirks and as the kind of film that is not typical from the island nation. 'It is kind of a mystery thriller and we don't do a lot of films like that.'

    Jar City follows Reykjavik policemen (including standout Ingvar Sigurdsson as Inspector Erlendur) trying to solve a murder linked to decades-old crimes which are being re-investigated due to new genetic evidence.

    The film eschews the formula of most thrillers. 'It wasn't made that commercially, it was more arthouse and people are kept in the dark about some plot lines for a long time,' the director says.

    Kormakur, also an actor and theatre director, is hoping that the film will bring more attention to Iceland's burgeoning film scene.

    Wendy Mitchell


    Jiri Menzel picked up the best foreign-language film Oscar in 1968 for his first feature, Closely Watched Trains. Four decades on and Menzel's 19th film as director, I Served The King Of England, is this year's Czech selection for the prize.

    As with Trains, the film is based on a novel by Bohumil Hrabal and tells the story of Jan Dite, an ambitious waiter whose dreams of becoming a millionaire are frustrated first by World War II and then by communism. Menzel had tried to set the project up since the collapse of communism but disputes over story rights delayed the project.

    I Served premiered at the 2007 Berlinale, where it won the Fipresci award. Although critical response has been mixed, the film has been sold widely by Bavaria Film International and was a hit in the Czech Republic - where it has been seen by more than 800,000 people.

    'Considering that I Served is not a suspense thriller or light comedy, I am glad that it has attracted the attention of quite a large audience,' the director says.

    Menzel views his prospects for the Oscar and other awards with characteristic humility. 'I remain sober-minded,' he says. 'There are so many really very good films this year.'

    At a time when many nominated directors are campaigning for their film and promoting themselves, Menzel has opted for a trip with his wife to Thailand. The director says he does not plan to be involved in the tubthumping side of awards season. 'All promotion is in the hands of those people who produced (and are selling) the film,' he says. 'My task was to make the film in the best way I could.'

    Theodore Schwinke


    Adapted from her own graphic novels and directed with the help of comic artist Vincent Paronnaud, Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis picked up the Jury Prize at Cannes this year and is proving a major critical hit.

    The timely subject of Persepolis - about an Iranian girl growing up in Tehran - was chance, says Satrapi. 'We started the film three years ago when Iran wasn't a big subject.' She says the film is not a tract or manifesto. 'It's great if we can make people ask questions such as: 'Are others so different from us'' I have no greater pretension.'

    The film recently premiered in the US, where it closed the New York Film Festival. 'People told us the New York audiences were snobs but it went very well,' says the director, who initially thought doing the film was the worst idea in the world. 'Just because you know how to do a good comic strip doesn't necessarily mean it would be the same for film.' Satrapi returns to the US on December 3 to promote the film in advance of Sony Pictures Classics' limited release on December 25.

    In Cannes, she recalls, 'I was there but didn't see the film. I never sit next to someone if they are reading my books as I'll know their reaction.' Satrapi says she plans to direct more films but no more animation. 'I'm sick of it,' she laughs.

    Nancy Tartaglione-Vialatte


    Giuseppe Tornatore won the 1990 foreign-language Oscar for Cinema Paradiso. He was nominated in 1995 for The Starmaker and returns to the foreign Oscar race with The Unknown, a noir thriller set in Italy.

    'The idea for the film came from reading a news article 20 years ago about a woman in the south of Italy who, with the complicity of her husband, gave birth to children on order,' says Sicilian-born Tornatore.

    'It isn't the first time that I've changed directions,' he explains. 'I am curious about everything ... I like to change genre. It's like returning to the fear of the first film. And fear is an excellent workmate.'

    As with other projects, The Unknown includes a close creative collaboration with Ennio Morricone who provides the moody score appropriate for the story.

    'Ennio is involved from the moment the idea is born or during the script-writing process. We have a profound professional understanding,' Tornatore says.

    Since The Unknown's launch at the Rome Film Fest in 2006, the film has been sold to 80 territories, won five David di Donatello awards (best film, best director, best actress, best cinematography and best score), Italian critics awarded it best film and the Moscow International Film Festival gave him the best director award this year.

    He adds: 'Winning an award like the Oscar goes beyond joy and gratification. It strengthened my faith in the career of film-making.'

    Sheri Jennings