The Academy’s Best International Feature Film committee has disqualified the first-ever Nigerian entry, Genevieve Njaji’s Netflix pickup “Lionheart,” because it is mostly in the English language. Since 2006, the Oscar rules dictate that eligible movies must have a “predominantly non-English dialogue track,” a move made in an attempt to open up more opportunities for films from diverse cultures.
The film in question would have been eligible before that change, because films submitted for the recently renamed foreign-language Oscar have always been in the official language of the country. In this case, the official language of Nigeria, which was colonized by the British, is in fact English. Only 12 percent of the film is in Igbo, a dialect of the ethnic group of the Igbo people. If Nigerian submitted a film which included dialogue that included more than 50 percent in the Igbo language, it would still be eligible.
The film’s 95-minute running time reportedly contains only 11 minutes and 35 seconds of non-English dialogue, making it ineligible for the Best International Feature Film nom. However, “Lionheart” can still be submitted for consideration in Best Picture and other categories.
This has happened before; Israel had to come up with another Oscar entry back in 2008 when “The Band’s Visit” didn’t meet the 50/50 English versus non-English language standard.
This current rule is why Ireland, the U.K., and Australia often submit films to the Academy that are not in English. This year’s UK entry “Gaza” was filmed in Arabic. Other films that have not been eligible in recent years include American films like Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” (filmed in Aramaic, Latin, and Hebrew), “Menashe,” whose characters spoke Yiddish, and Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell,” which was shot mostly in Mandarin.
After the news was announced, filmmaker Ava DuVernay led a fierce Twitter protest against the ruling: “Are you banning this country from ever competing for an Oscar in its official language?”
“Colonialism really is a bitch,” added Franklin Leonard, founder of the Black List.
Now the record 93 International Oscar entries are down to 92, tied with last year. And the record number of women directors in the category is now 28 instead of 29. One upside: the Oscar fuss could make the film more visible to potential viewers on Netflix, curious to see an awards contender taking out of the fray too early.
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