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)

day-one-directed-by-henry-hughes.47.36-PM

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.

Taking a long shot at Oscar’s short bets

The allure of Oscar shorts: They represent the workshops from which filmmakers master their art and craft. And who doesn’t like rooting for the little guy now and again? Most Oscar watchers don’t bother to see them, so it’s like a horse race, picking the name with the catchiest ring. I’ve seen them all, so I’m here to help shorten your bets.

Guessing which shorts will grab hold of an Oscar, though, is an inexact science. Last year, I correctly predicted only the animated short category. So I’m operating under the assumption that the ones I favor won’t win. You probably should, too.

DOCUMENTARY SHORTS

My Prediction: “Open Heart”

open-heart_592x299Open Heart tells the touching tale of eight chronically cheerful Rwandan children dying of rheumatic heart disease, which roughly 13 million of their peers have developed because of untreated strep throat (the disease has been eradicated in the U.S. because of easy access to penicillin). They are treated at a free clinic in Sudan, led by a brilliant, chain-smoking, greasy-haired, elderly surgeon. He spends time pleading with the Sudanese government for a reneged $5 million in funding, so Oscar voters should rise (fund-raise) to the occasion.

ITS EDGE: Academy members seem pressured to pick the documentary that makes the most difference or advances the greatest cause. Typically doesn’t matter whether it’s the best produced film or evokes the greatest emotional response from an audience. Seeing that Saving Face won last year — that film shed light on the brutal acid attacks on Pakistani women and a doctor who returns to his homeland to perform pro-bono cosmetic surgery — I’m betting Open Heart will play on those same voters’ heartstrings.

My Pick: “Mondays at Racine”

mondaysatracine-300x225So many beautiful things about this film, but the beauty of its title is you have no idea what it’s about if you go into the shorts experience cold, as I prefer to do: A salon run by two sisters on Long Island — sisters who were forced to witness their mother hiding from the world while undergoing her own cancer treatments — extends free beauty and pampering once a month to female chemo patients. One could argue this is this year’s feminist piece and will follow in the footsteps of Saving Face. Though the topic is cancer, it is more than a warm pink fuzzy as these courageous women bare far more than their bald heads and flat chests. Every member of our audience, male and female, needed time to compose themselves after its disquieting conclusion.

Also-rans:

  • “Redemption” — You’d expect a religious treatise, but “Redemption” follows down-on-their-luck New Yorkers who “can” — redeeming bottles and cans after scrapheap-snorkeling 24/7. People of all ethnicities and walks of life do it, sometimes dragging along kids for lack of day care. The territorial disputes are amusing, interviews at times are LOL funny, but ultimately the “there but for the grace of God go I” revelation is chilling. Academy voters might have a soft spot for these colorful souls, so I wouldn’t be surprised if it pulled out a win. This is everything a documentary short should be.
  • “Inocente” — Probably the best-produced of the documentary shorts about a 15-year-old homeless Latina artist who finds a path out of her dead-end life. Handicap: I see marketing written all over it and the focus is a bit too narrow to earn my vote.
  • Kings Point” — Far more depressing than Amour, this bittersweet look at end-of-life issues is set in one of those sunny, Southern retirement communities filled with eternal darkness. Kill me now.

POST-OSCAR UPDATE: “Inocente” wins; shoulda known.

ANIMATED SHORTS

papermanMy Prediction: Paperman

On the strength of Disney’s promotion — nearly everyone I know has either viewed or shared this cartoon online — this story of love-at-first-sight and paper-airplane darts seems destined to win. I do like the black-and-white undertones of paper saving the day in a digital world.

head-overheelsMy Pick: Head Over Heels

While Paperman witnesses to romance, Head Over Heels — the only non-American contender in this category — is the real deal. In this stop-action gem, an elderly couple share a topsy-turvy house, where one’s ceiling is the other’s floor. Eventually, they find some kindling and reclaim some common ground. This is to Amour as Silver Linings Playbook is to Paperman.

POST-OSCAR UPDATE: “Paperman” clinched it.

Also-rans:

  • Adam and Dog — The clear winner for all dog owners, about the first domesticated canine. Be prepared to whimper and wag. Loved the watercolors and the artists’ loyalty to the dog’s point of view.
  • Maggie Simpson in “The Longest Daycare” — The only short to receive applause in our theater. Familiar but refreshingly unpredictable. Still, it felt like a warm-up short for the rest of the shorts.
  • Fresh Guacamole — Fresh and zesty. This one could win — goes by in a blink and a wink and has absolutely no fat. A friend says it was the best two minutes she spent at the movies.

Bonus: Because the animated shorts are so short, producers threw a few highly commended entries onto the reel. I’ve already written about my favorite, Dripped, from France, here. Abiogenesis from New Zealand was a doodler’s dream, and The Gruffalo’s Child from U.K. and Germany seemed a desperate follow to The Gruffalo (2009), both of which seem too long to be shorts. I’d rather read the books and imagine my own visuals than hear it read by squirrels.

LIVE-ACTION SHORTS

ht_buzkashi_boys_mi_130212_wgPrediction: Buzkashi Boys

Guilt over the war alone could edge out a win for this boilerplate buddy flick (wanna-be Western) from Afghanistan. According to The Huffington Post, the young Afghan stars will attend the Oscars ceremony. Hard to send them home without a gift bag.

shorts-curfew31rv1My Pick: Curfew

Pure made-in-the-USA genius. A suicidal uncle’s day out with his nonpareil niece proves doubly life-affirming.

POST-OSCAR UPDATE: “Curfew” took home the Oscar!

Also-rans:

  • Death of a Shadow (Dood van een Schaduw) — From Belgium, a film school-ish portrait of hell.
  • Henry — Oh, Canada, Alzheimer’s is so last decade.
  • Asad — South African/U.S. filmmakers track a young boy at the crossroads of becoming either a Somali pirate or legendary fisherman. An animal from the sea helps seal his fate. Also could win, as it shows the flip side of piracy.