On Oscar diversity: The Big Shortcoming

With rampant talk of the Oscars being too pale and too male, people forget another overwhelming bias: too jingoistic.

Though its headquarters are smack-dab in Beverly Hills, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was first pitched by MGM’s Louis Mayer in 1927, he intended for it to be the International Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. But within four months of its founding, “International” was dropped from the name.

Sure, foreign films are honored in their own category, and foreign actors/creatives regularly creep in across the board. (Among thioscardirectors year’s best director pool, in fact, only two contenders are American, and the smart money is on Mexican director Alejandro G. Iñárritu.) But a separate, mystery panel is required to adjudicate the foreign film categories, an upfront admission the AMPAS membership lacks a worldview.

Most films worldwide are produced in India — in 2014, it certified about three times the number of movies than were made in the USA, 1,966 vs. 707 — but only three Indian movies have ever been nominated for Academy Awards in the foreign-film category: Mother India (1957), Salaam Bombay! (1988) and Lagaan (2001). None was awarded the Oscar. Granted, awards are based on quality not quantity, but how many films aren’t considered because they are beyond the AMPAS panels’ comfort zones or ken?

America holds a movie monopoly.

For roughly a decade, I’ve tracked nominees and winners in the 24 top categories and noticed a serious U.S. bias in an area that should scream inclusiveness: the wonderful world of shorts.

AMPAS’ creed is to advance moviemaking, and this is where it happens. Shorts are the gateway for the have-nots to gain notice, funding and skill. So how’s that working out for foreigners hoping to network?

ANIMATED SHORTS

Sixty-four percent of all Oscar winners have been U.S. entries, including last year’s 3-D Feast, a Disney/Pixar production. Even the non-American animated shorts bow in some way to the States, such as France’s Logorama (2009), which pokes fun of U.S. culture — or lack thereof. The most recent ‘toon winner in a language other than English was 1999’s The Old Man and the Sea — a Russia-Canada-Japan collaboration based on an American classic novel — still in the America-centric judges’ wheelhouse. Another 17% of the winners hail from Canada or the United Kingdom or a collaboration between the two. It’s a filter that doesn’t make us look good.

(You can read about my prediction/pick for this year’s animated shorts here.)

But enough about politics. This is art, not politics. *skeptically cocked eyebrow

LIVE-ACTION SHORTS

My Prediction: “Day One” (USA)

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This follows the first day on the job for a female Muslim interpreter joining U.S. soldiers on a mission to interview a bombmaker in a remote Afghan village. Despite slick production and fine acting, it offends. Opening with the fetching Layla Alizada nude in the camp’s makeshift shower — realizing she has also gotten her period, what a bummer!— suddenly a buff soldier is undressing outside to use it next, unaware there’s a woman in there. Oooooh, titillation. Later, of course, on the 6-mile trek she has to pee, while men stand guard, and she can’t keep up with the boys and nearly passes out. What, is this Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom? Oh, and of course the crisis involves a complicated pregnancy. While dramatic and gripping, it’s billed as challenging gender and cultural norms but plays right into them. U-S-A! U-S-A! zzzzzzzzzzzz.

ITS EDGE: Heavy industry backing in the way of George Lucas, AFI and marketing up the wazoo. Not to mention the whole military industrial complex. AND it’s slick, did I say? Then there’s the issue that its unoriginal title could easily be confused on the ballot with a popular iPad journaling app, a domestic abuse non-profit or any number of previous TV movies or low-budget films, something porn-ish. Capitalize on name recognition much? Plus they save it until last in the cinema bundle. Who decides the order? It’s like So You Think You Can Dance, the contestant with the most votes or best routine finishes the night.

My Pick: “Stutterer” (Ireland)

Stutterer+Oscars+2016+Benjamin+Cleary_1.1.7Enchanting, beautiful film that shows the comfort and value of online relationships. Matthew Needham plays an earnest loner who would be a hipster if not for his debilitating stutter. He is dependent on his dad to navigate the day, while narrating a lovely alternate universe in his head. When the woman he has been Facebook-chatting up for six months suddenly arrives in town and requests a meeting, he finds himself at a crossroads. With all the heavy topics this year in every category, this film is a breath of fresh air. And, of course, the litmus test: This is the one I would share with my adult daughters.

Also-rans:

  • “Ave Maria” (France/Germany/Palestine) — A Jewish family has an implausible accident at a nunnery in Palestine. They beseech the coven of virgin Marys to help them get back to the settlement. A bit goofy, soap opera-ish and tinged with anti-Semitism, it’s my least favorite of the bunch, even though there were several good laughs (the pickle! the phone!). Refreshing treatment of the Middle East conflict, but felt as if it was shot in just one day.
  • “Shok” (Kosovo/United Kingdom) — Kite Runner in Kosovo. Told mostly in flashback, this is a horrific, powerful story of the death of a friendship amid war (“shok” means friend), and how two adolescent boys are forced to face evil head-on. A true shock awaits that will lurch you in your seat. The only downside is it relies on structural clichés.
  • “Everything Will Be Okay (Alles Wird Gut)” (Germany/Austria) — Love, love, love this one. Simon Schwarz is brilliant as a father who decides he wants custody of his daughter. He’s like a Louis C.K. without the humor. The way the plot unfolds is like a master class in acting. So tense and suspenseful. Such complicated emotions, and the little girl is fabulous, too. I would have chosen this one, if Stutterer hadn’t charmed the pants off me. Something about the order in which the shorts are bundled is extremely manipulative. I’d be thrilled, though, if this won.

DOCUMENTARY SHORTS

Prediction & Pick: Last Day of Freedom

Because my favorite D.C. venue to watch the documentary shorts has permanently closed, I could find only two of the nominees On Demand. Sorta like flipping a coin, but this one stood out. It’s topical, about our broken justice system, but is a blend of documentary and animated short. An interview with the brother of a death row inmate is illustrated in lovely pencil drawings. Its novelty alone should carry it to gold. I wanted to watch it again as soon as I was done.

Also-ran:

chau-beyond-the-lines

  • Chau, beyond the Lines — [Ed: That lowercase “b” is cq.] A guilt trip to Vietnam. Chau is an institutionalized teen boy afflicted with deformities caused by American use of Agent Orange. He also happens to dream of being an artist and fashion designer, even though he must draw with his foot or mouth. Stirring, but it feels a little like a 60 Minutes segment and reminded me of Inocente, the winner a few years back about the homeless girl who also wanted to become an artist.

Oscar picks: Animated Shorts

Are those animated shorts, or are you just happy to see me?

What I look for in artful animated shorts is something that appeals to both children and adults — as well as that combined entity: the kid in each of us.

The nominees

Feral (USA). The most abstract / avant-garde of the bunch. With broad brushstrokes, wild boys Daniel Sousa and Dan Golden introduce us to a silvery lad raised among wolves. He gets “rescued” by a shadowy hunter on horseback, who tries to civilize him, sending him to school in laced shoes and cravat tie. We witness that you can take the boy out of the woods but can’t take the woods out of the boy. Not much of a chuckler, but artsy.

Get a Horse! (USA) Get a life, Disney animators! That’s what we need: another homage to Mickey Mouse and the history of Disney animation.  Lauren MacMullan and Dorothy McKim start with a vintage-style black-and-white cartoon reel, and when the villain Peg-Leg Pete knocks our hero “into next week,” out from the screen pops Mickey in full-blown, 3-D color. I’ll admit I found the flipbook section kinda cool (reminded me of “Ragtime”), but I wasn’t enthralled as the characters continued to cross the barriers of time and technology, using a full arsenal of cartoon gags. Gag me.

GAH0

Mr. Hublot (Luxembourg / France). Seems that every year a few “boy and his dog” shorts creep into the list. I thought “Feral” might satisfy that requirement, but had no idea this stop-motion, computerized hybrid by Laurent Witz and Alexandre Espigares would handsomely fill the bill. In a non-organic world of gizmos and gears, the OCD Mr. Hublot repeats the mechanized motions of his day … then spies a stray robotic dog from his industrial perch, which he invites to disrupt his ordered world. Their eventual bonding and “flowering” make the meat of the story. Beautiful.

Possessions (Japan). Although the two-dimensional, painted animation (not quite anime) is a bit off and the vocalizations are gruff (in Japanese, with subtitles), this folk story adapted by Shuhei Morita stuck with me like a nightmare. A Mr. Fix-It character gets caught in a storm and must take shelter in an abandoned house, where a bunch of junk is stored and “comes to life” to teach him a lesson about materialism. I doubt non-reading or non-transcendent kids would get much out of it, though.

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Loved the scene with the giant-sized cocktail umbrellas. I need a drink!

Room on the Broom (U.K.). As soon as this started, I suspected it was another installment from those “Gruffalo” folks, Max Lang and Jan Lachauer. When the squirrel and snake characters made cameos, I knew. Ho-hum. Set against the neat rhymes like a formulaic picture book  — witch with a cat on a broom encounters  dog, bird, then frog, interacts with each, and all-together-now fight off dragon — it was so predictable that I checked my watch. Good for kids and low-IQ adults.

My pick & prediction: Mr. Hublot

If you are lucky enough to screen the nominees in the over-produced compilation making the rounds in select theaters, you’ll also get also-rans, or “highly commended,” shorts.

My favorite of these was “The Missing Scarf” from Ireland, narrated by George Takei. This spoofs the “Room on the Broom” rhyme-query style to the delight of science fans everywhere. The whimsical French delight about stuffy chickens at Versailles, “A La Francaise,” had me in stitches. From the USA comes one to cure your rainy-day blues: the Pixar-made The Blue Umbrella, a charming love story combining live action and stop-motion animation that reminded me of 1956’s award-winning “The Red Balloon.” (Also, what’s with all of the umbrellas this year?) Would have relished seeing the umbrella one nominated over “Get a Horse!” Topsy-turvy world, this.