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:

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  • 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.

Rape is no rite

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Despite our highly evolved brains and planetary dominance, humans sure could learn a thing or two from the animal kingdom.

On the subject of rape, for instance. Rapists are often labeled “animals,” and yet — just for the sake of discussion, leaving aside the fact that all humans are technically animals — forcible sex doesn’t exist as much among non-humans as within our so-called civilized society.

I say “as much” because scientists have seen signs of coercive sex and even gang rape in animals from ducks to dolphins. But in general, calling rapists “animals” does a disservice to animals. (UPDATE: The anti-rape design of duck vaginas notwithstanding — perhaps they are just more highly evolved and this is where we’re all headed?)

The thing about animals. They stick to pretty predictable patterns of courtship and mating. Watch Nat Geo Wild for any length of time — I personally go to great lengths to — and you’ll get quite the peep show. What appear to be extravagant dances to us are probably blasé to members of the species depicted. There’s no novelty in it for them, not for several millennia, and they seem OK with that.

For example, we observe nothing short of regal in the clownish blue-footed booby’s routine mating rite.

He whistles at her to get her attention. She doesn’t seem impressed, spewing excrement at him. If, eventually, she gets in the mood — and male boobies know they must be very, very patient — she will make a grunting sound in response to his whistling. The male booby waits for her consent. Often, consent is denied.

Then, the male knows to move on. Not to force the issue. (They also seem not to mind an audience.)

Compare the come-on of the Temminck’s tragopan, an irresistibly eager pheasant, below:

… to your garden-variety harassment by Hoboken, N.J., construction workers. (Picture it in your mind — I’m sure you’ve had the experience once or twice — or peruse this LONG, 8-minute video; they are actors, as is the woman being harassed. An interesting social experiment conducted to see how passersby might react and whether they would intervene.)

In the animal world, the males typically display and it is left for the females to decide whether any “action” ensues. That’d be a pretty awesome world to live in.

Humans, too, have courtship rituals. Yet we often feel above such predictability, exercising instead our vague notion of “free will,” which we assume other animals don’t possess. Or, we malevolently exert our wills over one another — something most other animals are simply too dignified to do.

Humans are forever reinventing the wheel, so to speak, with vast reasoning skills, striving for a unique experience in all things, including sexual conquest. Sexual culture today seems somehow infested with callous extremes. And the gang mentality — even crueler and harder to crack.

Whether or not they receive sexual education, humans come to sex in their own time, acting on urges that fit the norms of society — or not. Human drives may fit within accepted values or may veer far afield of what seems moral or right. But where a lot of bad behavior is present, you have to wonder: Is it somehow condoned?

I am at a loss to understand why any human being would rape another. How violence and sex intermingle, without analyzing any rapist’s motives or malfunctions, is beyond my ability to reason through. It is a brutal perversion. Can’t quite call it an aberration, though, because sexual harassment and assault — crimes, both — have become horrifically prevalent in modern society. We have become inoculated to news of it.

Unidentified women console the wife of Subhash Tomar, a policeman, during his funeral in New Delhi.

Unidentified women console the wife of Subhash Tomar, a policeman who had been trying to control the protests over last week’s gang rape, during his funeral in New Delhi.

The sorrowful story in India this week has now ended in death for the 23-year-old medical student who was gang-raped on a New Delhi bus, with her boyfriend present, also a victim of the barbarous attack. In a way, I feel it’s a relief she died — spared from having to relive the hell that would have become the rest of her life. The news galvanized that nation, with both women and men blaming the government and police for doing too little to protect women from vile and violent acts. But the protesters were also beaten back by powers that be — and even a police constable was killed in the melee. Violence heaped upon violence, making any one of us feel utterly powerless.

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The grim statistics, from CNN.com:

“Reported rape cases in India — where a cultural stigma keeps many victims from reporting the crime — have increased drastically over the past 40 years — from 2,487 in 1971 to 24,206 in 2011, according to official figures. New Delhi alone had 572 rapes reported last year and more than 600 in 2012.”

India is no island. There are merely a lot more people. Things are just as bad in our hemisphere. I was groped twice by strangers in public — once in Montreal at the Expo 67 World’s Fair when I was 6, and once in Puerto Rico, by a mere child, a boy younger than my 12 years, who was encouraged to do it by his father, and was praised afterward for it. I’m not sure how scarred I was — but I was scared and will never forget either experience, nor my shock, my indignation and suppressed rage.

india-rape-protest-afp-670As feminist Andrea Dworkin said, in a 1975 speech: “Rape is no excess, no aberration, no accident, no mistake — it embodies sexuality as the culture defines it. As long as these definitions remain intact — that is, as long as men are defined as sexual aggressors and women are defined as passive receptors lacking integrity — men who are exemplars of the norm will rape women.”

I have learned far too much about rape this year — from my daughter, who is a rape survivor and now a shining advocate for women’s rights. I am unsure how any one of us might change the ferocity of this world, but I know if anyone could, she can.

Still, I pine for a quiet, peaceful life, perhaps on an actual island, like the Galapagos, where I might watch majestic giant tortoises — once driven nearly to extinction by humans’ uncontrolled desire for their meat — do a slow, predictable, respectful mating dance, kinda like old people. And there I’d contemplate where we as humans fit in, in the grand scheme of things.

There will always be sex. And there likely will always be violence.

And perhaps always, not animals, but beasts — monsters — who would co-mangle the two.