Filmmakers hope Oscar entries raise cultural awareness

By Anthony Breznican, The Associated Press
Saturday March 23, 2002

LOS ANGELES — Mention Iran, and most Americans are likely to think of President Bush’s “axis of evil.” 

India? Its tense standoff with Pakistan, a key U.S. ally in the war on terrorism. Argentina? The financial crisis that has crippled that country’s economy. Bosnia-Herzegovina? A country still trying to emerge from the shadow of war. 

Each was among the 51 countries submitting entries in the foreign film category for this year’s Academy Awards. To the filmmakers behind the entries, an Oscar submission is more than a chance to have their work recognized. It also can be an opportunity to promote their homeland and culture beyond the tumultuous events that grab headlines. 

“Through a movie, you show your country, your way of life,” said Luis Maria Kreckler, the Los Angeles-based consul general for Argentina. “It’s not only a good way to promote Argentine culture, but also a way of bringing money to Argentina.” 

The Argentine drama “Son of the Bride,” The Bosnian film “No Man’s Land” and the Indian musical “Lagaan” made the final cut, competing against the French film “Amelie” and the Norwegian comedy “Elling.” 

Last December, Argentina plunged into economic and political chaos after the government froze bank savings to prevent a financial collapse. 

As the nation restructures, the Oscar nomination for “Son of the Bride” is beneficial because it presents a good image of the culture, Kreckler said. 

Government officials considered cannibalizing the $31 million film-subsidy budget to help stabilize the economy, but they have since reconsidered, in part because of the Oscar nod for “Son of the Bride,” said Juan Jose Campanella, the film’s director. 

“The people in Argentina, they don’t know about an award from a Berlin festival or Cannes. But having a movie nominated for the Oscars, they know about that,” Campanella said. “Our government may realize now that people are seeing our country through this movie...” 

“No Man’s Land,” a violent satire about two enemy soldiers trapped together in a battlefield trench, was Bosnia-Herzegovina’s only film last year. That it was good enough to be nominated is a sign that life is getting better in a country where many people continue to suffer the effects of the civil war of the early 1990s, writer-director Danis Tanovic said. 

“People here are thrilled and happy because there is finally some good news. I’m happy to be the one who brought it to them,” he said. 

Diplomats often study the films because they are a chance for foreign countries to express their points of view and reflect on their own culture. 

“We have a way of learning through these films if we are paying attention to them,” said Karl F. Inderfurth, the U.S. State Department’s top official for south Asia in the Clinton administration. “With an unfriendly country, they can offer a chance to move back toward some form of reconciliation ... It’s like you see in the Olympics, and the Academy Awards are the Olympics of filmmaking.” 

The foreign film submissions were due Nov. 1. That was well before President Bush’s “axis of evil” remark in his Jan. 29 State of the Union address, in which he singled out Iran, Iraq and North Korea as countries seeking weapons of mass destruction. 

Relations between the United States and Iran were uneasy even before then, however, with the United States accusing Iran of trying to destabilize attempts to form a new government in Afghanistan. 

Iran’s Academy Award submission, “Baran,” about a boy who falls in love with an Afghan refugee who fled the Taliban, failed to get a nomination. But filmmakers say such cultural exchanges have worldwide diplomatic value that transcends cinema. 

“When I watch a movie with audiences around the world, the reaction is generally the same,” said “Baran” director Majid Majidi. “If the people can get along so well, why can’t their governments? That’s what art shows us.” 

In India, engaged with Pakistan in a standoff over Kashmir, the Oscar nomination highlights the nation’s independent spirit, director Ashutosh Gowariker said. 

“Lagaan” is a Hindi period musical about Indian peasants engaged in a cricket match against British colonists. Only two other Indian films have been nominated in the Oscar category, 1957’s “Mother India” and 1988’s “Salaam Bombay.” Neither won. 

“The Oscar goes beyond political or socially strained relations,” Gowariker said. “There is a sense here of joy and hope, and in certain cases almost victory.”