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International Film at the Oscars

Holly Cromwell

Tuesday, 14 March 2023

In honour of the 2023 Oscars on Sunday evening, 12th March, Holly takes us on a brief tour of international film as seen on the Oscars corner of the big screen.

The Oscars have always been incredibly euro-centric, and that’s if they even manage to step outside the comforts of homegrown American film.


They didn’t try to hide this at first – until 2020, the category Best International Film was called Best Foreign Film – so every film considered foreign was relegated to a single category with little chance of the coveted Best Picture award. Even then, it wasn’t the cast or crew that received the price but rather the country of origin. What’s more, each country is only permitted to submit one nomination, quite the statement for the Academy, which describes its membership as global and its awards as “the highest honours in filmmaking”. We can only assume that the world of film only exists where English is spoken and that those who dare produce art in their own language will be happily herded into their pen.


This plays out across the board. Before this year’s awards, a mere six actors have won an Oscar for a non-English-speaking role and one of those, Youn Yuh-jung, spoke a non-European language. That’s the same number that have won awards for roles predominantly in sign language.


Of course, we can’t write an article about the Oscars and international film without mentioning Parasite, the first international film to ever win Best Picture. That said, it was in 2020, so it did take them 93 Oscars to get it right! Everyone knows Parasite; Bong-Joon Ho pushed international film back right into the spotlight, spawning a notorious copycat industry to invest and promote more of his fellows. So maybe that tide is changing – although Asian and non-European international film remains a sight much less common in the western consciousness than their contemporaries.


The stakes seem higher now, with streaming services like Netflix and Hulu hunting for an advantage against each other and producing foreign language films in most major territories. You find this category mentioned in articles and videos as one of the most interesting to follow, a prize that is rarely undeserved. So there’s a reason to actually turn on the TV this year.


Even then, the legacy of “best foreign film” looms large. In 2020’s landmark Oscars for international film, both the Nigerian-made Lionheart and Austrian Joy were disqualified as their scripts which were primarily in English somehow made them less international, or perhaps not “foreign” enough. Specifically, Lionheart’s disqualification caused quiet outrage as English is in fact an official language of Nigeria; part of their national tapestry, regardless of the fact it’s a product of colonisation. They have the right to produce art in their languages without being penalised for it.



Bong-Joon Ho famously called subtitles the “one inch obstacle” to America, and to extend his metaphor, anglophone audiences. Non-English-speaking audiences have traditionally been seen as less easily commercialised and as such the languages we learn in school: German, French, Italian and Spanish, are much more likely to win than their counterparts. The African continent collectively has only won three times while Europe has won fifty-seven times. That said, every year culture-focused journals and magazines churn out articles about how this edition’s awards were either a high point for values of diversity and inclusion or disappointing given the recent efforts towards those values, across every award and every type of diversity.


The Oscars have taken some very heavy hits over the last few years. With the rise of on-demand streaming, live television everywhere has seen viewing figures go down the toilet but for award shows, and film/TV awards particularly, it seems worse and worse. The Academy’s distaste for streaming is a whole other article, but with online content being the most accessible, the awards have become less and less relevant to the wider public, and the decisions of the Academy come under more and more scrutiny. That’s without their yearly controversies adding a couple more nails to the coffin. International film is slowly gaining popularity, so perhaps it can help plug a few leaks on this sinking ship.

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Header image provided by University of Nottingham Filmmaking Society Oscars 2022


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