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Brian Whisenant Explores the Nominees for Best Foreign Language Film

This year, when the Oscar nominations were announced I had yet to see any of the films nominated for Best Foreign Language Film. Not even “Son of Saul” of which I had a screener since before the holidays. Luckily, I still get invitations to most of the press screenings for movies vying for Oscar nominations even though I have relocated from Los Angeles to Mississippi, and once the nominations are announced I can go through my emails and reach out to either the studios or the PR firms, briefly explaining my geographically inclined plight, and request a screener. I do my best to watch all of the nominated films, no matter the nomination. This way I feel I can see a blueprint of how the “collective” Academy sees (the good, bad and the ugly!) the year in film. The makes my Oscarwatching experience all the more enjoyable if not extremely tiring. Especially in the final days leading up to the ceremony.

After reaching out, the first screener I received (other than Saul, of course) was “A War,” the Danish entry written and directed by Tobias Lindholm, who also co-wrote and directed “The Hunt” which was nominated two years ago. “A War” tells the story of Claus, the Danish commander of a military company stationed in Afghanistan fighting the Taliban who is accused of committing a war crime. I had the pleasure of interviewing Tobias shortly after watching the film and we began our discussion with the fact that Denmark has only had involvement in two wars, the fight against the Taliban and a very small part in Vietnam. Lindholm, already believing the current war was defining his generation and interested in telling a story about that, read an article that profiled a soldier who stated that he wasn’t afraid of being killed, only of being prosecuted on his return home.

“A War” and Lindholm explore and challenge the ideas between good/bad, not only in the character of Claus, but also with Lisbeth, the prosecuting attorney portrayed by veteran Danish stage actress, Charlotte Munch. I was very taken with the realistic approach to all the characters, especially in the way the family copes both during his deployment and after his return home. I asked Lindholm about how he achieved this remarkable sense of humanity, and he told me it was truly a partnership with his producer Rene Ezra as well as Adam Nielsen his editor. When discussing the last two weeks of post production in his garage he equated his relationship with them to the members of a jazz band, locked away with a bottle of rum, turning over every stone.

After watching “A War,” it was time to visit the Hungarian film, “Son of Saul.” Inspired by the book “Voices from Beneath the Ashes,” “Saul” tells the story of Jewish prisoners who were forced to assist the Nazis in the large-scale extermination of other Jewish prisoners, specifically of Saul, who discovers the corpse of a boy he believes to be his son. While other prisoners plan a rebellion, Saul begins the seemingly impossible process of finding a rabbi amongst the prisoners to recite Kaddish to give this boy a proper burial. Saul is portrayed by Geza Rohrig and told completely from his perspective. A tool that truly eliminates sentiment as Saul’s purpose remains laser sharp up until the very end, even and especially when he, almost against his will, becomes part of that rebellion. The use of a non-actor as Saul was certainly an interesting choice, keeping Saul a blank canvas upon which the viewer is able to paint their own feelings.

After Saul, I watched the beautiful “Embrace of the Serpent.” Directed by Ciro Guerra, Serpent tells a story of two separate scientists (one German, one American) looking for a sacred plant, the rare yakruna, with the assistance of guide and shaman, Karakamate (played wonderfully by both Nilbio Torres and Antonio Bolivar), who appears to be the last survivor of his Amazon tribe. The film is loosely based on published diaries of scientists doing field work in the Amazon in the early 1900’s and 1940’s. Guerra told me that he had hoped to shoot a film about the Amazon and was introduced to the diaries by an Anthropologist with whom he was already working. Although I assumed this was a question Guerra had been asked numerous times, I did ponder why he chose to shoot one of the most colorful locations in the world in black and white. He stated that it would be impossible to fully portray the Amazon in an accurate way, instead letting the audience use their imaginations, saving the use of color for near the end of the film visually exploring all the story’s themes at once: birth, creation and the universe amongst them, in the most simplistic way. As I did with Lindholm, we also discussed the editing process. I was very taken by how the film started, with Young Karamakate gazing toward the water awaiting the arrival of the German man, taking us right into the action, creating an immediate sense of thrill. I asked Ciro why he chose to begin the film this way, and he told me that it only happened in the editing room. Showing me yet again the importance of the collaborative process (although this time, no mention of rum.)

Sometimes the process of getting my hands on a film can be as entertaining as some of the movies themselves. Take “Theeb” for example. When my Gmail search provided no results I went to the film’s website, emailed a general information address for the Mad Solutions studio that distributed the film in Abu Dhabi (twice) to no avail. As I prepared to pay the price, literally, to call the UAE, I came to my senses and contacted Scott Feinberg at the Hollywood Reporter. Who knew “google” and “press kit” would save the day. And my pennies. (Thank you Scott!)

In addition to the process of acquiring these films the true excitement comes from being introduced to stories of which I am completely unaware. “Theeb” set during the Arab Revolt that took place during World War I tells the story of Theeb, an orphan from a family of pilgrim guides who are visited by a British officer looking for a Roman well that lies on the pilgrim’s trail. The film takes a turn (that I won’t spoil here) in terms of plot that allows for Theeb to quickly come of age. The film is not only wonderfully acted by young Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat but gorgeously shot by cinematographer Wolfgang Thaler, orchestrated by director Naji Abu Nowar, in not only the desert scenes but particularly in a riveting moment where Theeb finds himself trapped in the very well to which the pilgrims were heading.

The last film on my list was the official French entry, “Mustang.” One thing that is a little unfortunate about Oscarwatching and handicapping in general is an inevitable comparison between films. Speaking for myself, no matter how much I might want to make my own Oscar experience about the individual films themselves, using the Oscars as a catalyst, the baseline of what the Oscars are is a competition, and there is no way around it. I went into “Mustang” believing it to be the possible foil to “Son of Saul”‘s victory. Perhaps with “Embrace of the Serpent” as the dark horse. These preconceptions put me in a place of almost wanting the film to be two things at once: better than “Saul” or completely overrated. I know that sounds strange, but trying to erase this sort of Oscar pigeonholing isn’t always easy. Especially near the end of the season.

Luckily over the years I have become more aware of these trappings and as soon as I found myself thinking in this way I knew I needed to take a break. I stopped the film and did my best to cleanse myself from all things Oscar. At least for a night. And when I started “Mustang” again the next day I was yet again transported to a world I didn’t necessarily understand or belong to…in this case, the lives of five young orphaned sisters living with the challenges of emerging sexuality and womanhood up against a conservative society and family, with metaphorical and literal bars, keeping them from the outside world. A simplistic and intimate film about women directed by a woman (Deniz Gamze Erguven).

Lastly, I would like to say something I often take for granted. One of the highlights of my year for the past several years been covering at least one category (usually this one) here at the mothership of Oscar websites. I have been a reader here at AD since the beginning and love being a part of this community, for better or worse. Not only do I get to watch films and attend festivals and premieres, I have the pleasure of speaking to the people who made them. For that opportunity I am very grateful to both Sasha and Ryan and to everyone who cares enough about the movies to read my thoughts. Happy Oscars!