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Africa At The Oscars: Best Foreign Language Film Submissions From The Continent - Algeria

Photo of Tambay A. Obenson By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act October 10, 2012 at 7:00PM

As was announced earlier this week by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, a record-setting 71 different countries submitted films for consideration to be nominees for next year's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.
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Zabana!

As was announced earlier this week by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, a record-setting 71 different countries submitted films for consideration to be nominees for next year's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.

A number of those countries are from continental Africa; in fact, one of them is submitting a film for the very first time/

I'll get to that country in another post, as I begin a new series that looks at Africa's contributions to that specific Oscar category, since it was first introduced in 1956 (the 29th Academy Awards which were handed out in 1957), when a competitive Academy Award of Merit, known as the Best Foreign Language Film Award, was created for non-English speaking films, and has been given annually since then.

Prior to 1956, the Academy presented Special/Honorary Awards to the best foreign language films released in the United States; however, they weren't handed out regularly, and it wasn't competitive, unlike other categories. Although in the very early years of the ceremony, probably until after WWII, there was really no separate recognition for foreign language films.

And the film that would win the first official Best Foreign Language Oscar was Federico Fellini's La Strada, beginning a trend that would go on to see European films dominate in terms of wins in that category, followed by Asian films, with African films, and films from Latin America, rounding out the list.

I won't tell you exactly how many African films have won the Best Foreign Language category, but, as I'm sure you can guess, the number is low. But I'm not just interesting in those films that won; I'm considering all the films that each country has submitted, since the award was first handed out some 55 years ago.

This post begins a series that will look at each country (I can tell you that there won't be that many countries) that has submitted films for nomination consideration; a series that will be done in alphabetical order, starting today with Algeria.

Of the record-setting 71 countries that submitted films for consideration, Algeria was one of them. And its choice was Said Ould-Khelifa's Zabana!

Starring Imad Benchenni, Nicolas Pignon, Khaled Benaïssa, Laurent Gernigon, and Abdelkader Djeriou, Zabana!, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival this year, is described as an impassioned, meticulously researched account of the short life of Algerian freedom fighter Ahmed Zabana, whose execution in 1956 by French colonial authorities ignited the crucial phase of Algeria's struggle for independence - a period that was thoroughly documented in Gillo Pontecorvo's 1966 masterpiece Battle of Algiers - a film that you might assume would have been an Algerian submission for Best Foreign Language Film, but wasn't - not for Algeria anyway. It was actually Italy's submission for consideration in 1966/1967. But that's a longer story for another poster.

By the way, Zabana!'s 2012 debut marks the 50th anniversary of Algeria's independence.

Azzedine Mihoubi (who penned the script) is said to have interviewed Zabana's relatives and close friends, and conducted extensive archival research in Algeria and France in writing the screenplay for a film praised for its documentary-style precision; it's a film that, unfortunately, we (here at S&A) have yet to see. Here's hoping for a USA release of some kind (or a screener from the producers) eventually.

As for Algeria's history of submissions to the Academy for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, the country has submitted films since 1969; although not with any regularity. Over that multi-decade period, just 5 Algerian films have been nominated in that category; they are:

- 1969, Costa Gavras' Z

- 1983, Ettore Scola's The Ball

- 1995, Rachid Bouchareb's Dust Of Life

- 2006, Rachid Bouchareb's Days Of Glory

- 2010, Rachid Bouchareb's Outside The Law

And of those 5 instances, only Costa Gavras' political thriller Z won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film - the only one that Algeria can obviously claim.

Also worth noting, if you've seen the last 2 films on the list by Bouchareb (a filmmaker whose name and work we've highlighted here on S&A over the last few years) - Outside The Law and Days Of Glory - you'll notice that a common theme in both is the relationship between Algeria and its former colonial power, France. And we can add this year's submission, Zabana!, to that short list of 2 films (to make 3), as that theme trend continues.

Will Zabana! make the final short list of 5 nominees which will be announced live on Thursday, January 10, 2013? Scanning throught the list of 71 films, I'll say, like all the others, it has a shot at a nomination; although it has yet to screen anywhere else since its TIFF premiere last month. A broader awareness of it, accompanied by good press, would certainly help. It's really lacking in those areas. Compared to France's submission this year, Intouchables, something of a global phenomenon of a film, Zabana! is practically invisible. 

And as far we know, it's not scheduled to screen at any fall film festivals - especially stateside festivals. Granted, there are a tiny, precious few left to go that haven't announced their full lineups yet.

By the way, Bouchareb's Outside The Law and Dust Of Life are both available to stream on Netflix right now; while Z is available on DVD (no streaming); unfortunately Ettore Scola's The Ball isn't available in either format; but other titles are, as you'll find with a Netflix search.

Here's its trailer (not subtitled):


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