This year's Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film will be chosen from a field of 76 entries, with each feature submitted to the Academy by its respective country. Sixteen of these submissions, or just over 20%, are directed or co-directed by women. This week, the American Film institute screened three of the women-directed candidates at AFI FEST in Los Angeles. Read about them below.
Canada's entry is the French-language Gabrielle, written and directed by Louise Archambault. The film won the Audience Award at the Locarno International Film Festival, where it premiered.
Twenty-two-year-old Gabrielle (Gabrielle Marion-Rivard) suffers from Williams Syndrome, a neuro-developmental disorder that causes cognitive disability, decreased inhibition and a buoyant, social personality. In early scenes we see her embarking upon a romance with Martin (Alexandre Landry), a fellow member of her choir, which is practicing for a backup performance with Quebec singer Robert Charlebois. When the two sweethearts are caught half-dressed in Gabrielle's room at the group residence where she lives, their courtship is put on hold by Martin's mother, who fears it will become sexual. Frustrated by the control others have over her life, Gabrielle becomes determined to live on her own as an autonomous adult. While the ending feels a bit rushed, the film is a joyful reminder that the desires for love and independence are universally human.
In the Q&A after the film, Archambault explained that the idea for the film came to her while watching a disabled woman floating playfully in a swimming pool. The woman was singing and seemed very happy, said Archambault, but the people around her looked uneasy. "I wanted to talk about happiness in outcast people," she said of the film. "Then I met Gabrielle."
Actress Gabrielle Marion-Rivard, who plays Archambault's lead, has Williams Syndrome herself and was also present at AFI's screening. Though this was her first feature film, the actress said she wanted to continue acting because when watching movies, "Everybody is so alive." Entertainment One recently obtained U.S. distribution rights for the film, which will get a U.S. theatrical release later this winter. The charm with which Marion-Rivard infuses the character of Gabrielle makes the film likely to be well-received by American audiences.
Georgia's entry, In Bloom, just won AFI's New Auteurs Special Award for Personal Storytelling. Set in Tbilisi in 1992, the story follows two girls, Eka (Lika Babluani) and Natia (Mariam Bokeria), as they navigate a culture undergoing an agonizing transformation in the wake of the former Soviet state's declaration of independence from the disintegrating Soviet Union. Writer / co-director Nana Ekvtimishvili told her screening audience that everything in the film is in some way related to her life as a young teenager in early 1990s Georgia. The AFI jury called the film "an exemplar of personal history as political history."
Eka and Natia grow up in a Tbilisi plagued by economic turmoil and civil war, where citizens seem more angry at each other than at any of the governmental forces shaping their lives. In a world where the imposed authority of the Soviet Union had been lifted but a solid democratic authority not yet constructed, this breakdown in socio-political order is mirrored in the domestic lives of the two heroines. Eka's father is in prison, and Natia's family is constantly fighting over her father's alcoholism. Pushing their way through the bread line is the girls' daily chore -- a critical responsibility since there seems to be little else to eat. On her way home from school each day, Eka is bullied by a couple of boys, one of whom carries a knife, while Natia does her best to spurn the advances of an aggressive local who is determined to marry her. When another boy gives Natia a handgun as a gift, it becomes even more apparent that this is not your typical coming-of-age story.
Though sometimes it's hard to determine whether this is Eka's or Natia's story, against this backdrop it is Eka who stands out as the story's voice of mercy, asserting that no matter what the circumstances, it is possible to be both strong and good.
My Dog Killer
Written and directed by Mira Fornay, Slovakia's My Dog Killer was one of three Tiger Award winners at the International Film Festival Rotterdam in early February. Early on, the film signals its concern with racism as we learn that Slovakia's right-wing extremists are celebrating the anniversary of the first Slovak State, a Nazi-aligned government that deported an estimated 70,000 Jews from Slovakia, most of whom ended up at Auschwitz.
Though shots are sometimes static and the film is slowly paced, it becomes clear that our main character, Marek (Adam Mihal), is being pulled in several directions. He has been tasked by his father to convince his estranged mother (Irina Bendova) to sign papers to sell their flat so that the father can pay debts and save his vineyard. Shunned by Marek's community, the mother lives in another village with her young son, Lukas (Libor Filo), the child of her adulterous affair with a Roma lover (often called "gypsies," though this moniker is considered derogatory). Meanwhile, Marek tries to fit in with a crew of skinheads who are quick to brand him a "crossover" when they learn he has a Roma half-brother.
The film's focus is the anti-Roma hatred in Europe, which we see as Lukas tries to follow his older brother into a cafe but is stopped by a sign that reads "No Romas Allowed." A cafe patron complains loudly about this ethnic minority, saying that its members steal and live off of government welfare. To them, Young Lukas is a "little scum" and Marek's mother a "whore [who] popped out a gypsy." In Slovakia, a country where 80% of the Romani are unemployed and many of them live in makeshift shacks on the perimeters of villages, this conflict is not some remnant of the past but an ongoing, present-day issue that the country has yet to resolve.
Marek's motivations in the film's final climax are ambiguous, causing the film to suffer from a lack of clarity in later scenes. Still, Fornay's film and the fact that Slovakia has chosen it as its Oscar entry represent a meaningful effort to consider sympathetically one of Europe's most disadvantaged minorities.
Overall, the three films are linked by their concern for some of society's most vulnerable groups: the disabled, adolescent girls, and ethnic minorities. In the coming months, members of the Academy will trim the Best Foreign Language Film submissions down to five nominees, to be announced January 16th.
Mary Caroline Cummins is a programmer at the Newport Beach Film Festival and a Lecturer in English at the University of California, Riverside. She also run the Orange County Women and Film Meetup, which organizes weekly trips to theaters for movie fans who want to see films written and directed by women and runs her own blog, Mary at the Movies.