As the Best International Feature race comes to a close, it’s fairly clear to see who the favorites are. Since it premiered at Cannes last year, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car has dominated the landscape, featuring highly in international critics’ awards and even penetrating the consciousness of the Golden Globes. But—as we saw at Cannes, where Hamaguchi only went home with Best Screenplay—critical mass doesn’t always impact on industry juries. It’s just as possible, then, that the Oscar might go to Norway’s The Worst Person in the World, a gently subversive romcom by Joachim Trier that captures the exact moment in a director’s career when they nail their style. To add a third alternative, Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s sobering emigrant story Flee has been quietly making history, a feat that will be cemented if it becomes, as many think it might, the first film to compete in the International, Documentary and Animation fields.
But while the competition at the top is strong, it has somehow obscured the fact that this year’s longlist has been incredibly diverse. Perhaps as a result of Parasite’s win two years ago, this section has seen a surge in more experimental, personal and genre fare. A good example of one of the smaller films is Laura Wandel’s Playground (Belgium), which captivated audiences at Cannes with its bittersweet story of a seven-year-old girl trying to make sense of elementary school and its hierarchies of friends and enemies. Filmed entirely from its lead character’s eyeline, it rests on an extraordinary performance by seven-year-old Maya Vanderbeque, who auditioned for the film with steely determination (“I want to give all my strength to this film,” she told the director).
The film was a labor of love for Wandel. “It took me seven years to make this film,” she says, “including five years of writing. Then, because of the pandemic, we had to put it in the fridge for a year.” After Cannes, where it premiered in Un Certain Regard, it toured the world, collecting prizes at festivals in Pingyao, London and Guanajuato—“Which shows that the film moves people in a universal way,” she says.
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Interestingly, this kind of universality is precisely what Wandel set out to achieve. “I wanted to tell a story about the world of school, because it is a place that we’ve all known, a place that forges us as adults and which determines—more than we think—our later view of the world, of life. To tell this story, I drew on my own personal memories but also on a lot of research, to make the story as universal and as realistic as possible: I made observations in the playgrounds, I had discussions with teachers and also the parents of pupils. I talked to children, had meetings with psychologists who specialized in the question of bullying, and I read a lot.”
Consequently, she is “very happy” that the film has been longlisted. “This is a wonderful opportunity to introduce the film to the American public,” she says, “and to make it known worldwide, through the fame of the Oscars. I believe that the fact that the Academy has selected this film shows an open mind by giving a radical, demanding debut film with no star power the chance to be seen by the whole world.”
Another personal story comes from Kosova—Blerta Basholli’s triple Sundance winner Hive—which is set in the village of Krusha e Madhe in Kosovo, seven years after an attack by Serbian forces, where Fahrije (Yllka Gashi) is struggling to raise her family after the disappearance of her husband. Since Sundance, the film has been in contention for a year now, which came as a surprise to its director. “I am always the skeptical one,” she says, “so it wasn’t until I showed it to my sister and her husband that I knew it was working. They are film lovers and are very sincere in their comments—they told me that the story really works, and they had good comments about performances and everything. That gave me hope, and then Sundance made its life—and mine—even better. Getting three awards at Sundance, I think, gave this particular story the reward it deserved, and I am saying this because of the women of Krusha. This film has always meant a lot to us because of them. It was and is more than a film.”
Like Playground, there is a sense of universality about Hive that has taken it around the world. What affects people, Basholli believes, “is the empowerment, resilience and triumph of women in a situation where giving up is knocking on your door.” “But the best feedback that I always like to hear,” she says, “is about the sense of community that builds with the women in the film. Although they resist it at the beginning, they join together to build their future, and it’s like that in real life—it’s such a joy to see these women of Krusha working together even today, beside all the pain they went through. I think it gives people hope and strength, something we all need to be able to move on.”
As for making the longlist, Basholli describes it as “a great experience. The film got to reach a wider audience, and the process itself gave people hope for Kosova. Artists from Kosova now believe even more that if you work hard and are honest with your work, it doesn’t matter if you are from a small new country and making a low-budget film. And in regard to the Oscars, I believe so too now.”
In terms of genre, possibly the most unusual film to make the longlist is, a peculiar folk horror co-written by the Icelandic novelist, poet and musician Sjón. Starring Sweden’s Noomi Rapace, it concerns a childless couple in rural Iceland who find a strange creature in their barn. “I was inspired by many things,” director Valdimar Jóhannsson says. “Mostly visual, like paintings, drawings and photographs, but I also had a story in the back of my head, about loss and something supernatural.”
Since its premiere in Cannes, Lamb has been a cult hit worldwide, notably for A24 in the U.S. “I knew that I was taking a big risk making this my first feature film,” Jóhannsson says, “but I was surrounded by very strong, supportive and creative people. I am super-thankful for the reception of the film. We are especially honored to be on the short list: I think the Academy has always been open to good and classic stories, and Lamb is one of them, even though it has a surreal element.”
Travelling with Lamb to multiple countries has been an eye-opener, he adds. “It’s taught me that the closer people are to their own culture, the more they relate to the story I wanted to tell—a universal story about loss and connection to nature. I’ve enjoyed all the different interpretations of my film. That was what I wanted to achieve.”
From Finland, Juho Kuosmanen’s Compartment No. 6 is equally hard to pigeonhole, being an offbeat semi-love story about a Finnish student who befriends a Russian miner on a train to the Arctic Circle. “It’s inspired by a novel that I read 10 years ago,” the director says. “We made a lot of changes—we changed the decade, the route, the age of the characters—and, obviously, we left many scenes and characters out. But regarding the author of the novel, Rosa Liksom, the essence of the novel is still there. It’s a humane story of a connection between two lonely characters.”
Of all the films on the longlist, Kuosmanen’s film has, literally, travelled the furthest: “I counted that we did more than 25,000km on the train during the pre-production and the shoot,” he recalls. “From audiences, the feedback has been really overwhelming. It makes me happy that even though the film deals with ostensibly small things, the impact of it has been huge. Some see it more as a love story, others as an existential study, others as a portrait of Russian soul—and some think it’s hilarious. I think the core element—the humane gaze, and the relatable contradiction of the need to be loved and the fear of being seen is something that resonates in many of us. And I can also sense that the tone of the humor seems to work surprisingly well all over the world.”
Kuosmanen also welcomes the attention from the Academy. “I think we all should try to open our minds as a daily exercise,” he says. “It’s not easy, because we aren’t really that clever. We need more open-mindedness and less dogma, but the problem is that dogma is so much easier to understand and adapt to. We need it to break the ice of our minds, but to really become more open-minded is a slightly more difficult task.”
In terms of journey, however, the contender with the most fascinating mileage comes from Bhutan—Pawo Choyning Dorji’s Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom, in which an aspiring but unambitious singer takes a job as a teacher in a rural school. Dorji’s film has had an unlikely reprieve after being turned down previously. “When the Bhutanese government first submitted the film last year, we were informed by the Academy that it couldn’t be accepted because Bhutan did not have an Academy-recognized selection committee. The Academy also told us that the country should have submitted at least one film in the previous five years to have a validity with the Academy—and Bhutan’s last submission was 23 years ago. So, the Academy advised us to form a selection committee, and resubmit the following year.”
Surprisingly, the worldwide lockdown bought Dorji the leeway he needed. “The delay actually gave us time to meet their requirements,” he says. “Another interesting note is that when we were finally approved to submit the film, there were more delays, as the Academy website didn’t have ‘Bhutan’ and ‘Dzongkha’ (our national language) as options in the online submission forms, so they had to update the website for us.”
It’s this cultural otherness that could give Dorji’s film a lift in the weeks before the shortlist is finalized. “I think, in the movie, audiences get a glimpse of a culture, a people and a land that’s unlike anything they have ever seen before,” he says. “It is probably the most culturally, linguistically and environmentally diverse story that they have ever seen. However, within all that diversity, the film seems to connect deeply with people because it touches upon the universal human theme of home and finding [a place] where you belong. The film has screened all over the world, and everyone has come out of it with a renewed sense of longing for their own home. I think that celebrating what makes us similar is very much needed during this time of great suffering.”
Like the others contacted for this feature, Dorji sees this year’s longlist as a sign of increasing boldness from the Academy. “The longlist came as a big surprise for many, including myself,” he says. “More than anything, it is a celebration of the possibilities of art, creativity and cinema—that a first-time director, an amateur crew and a cast of yak herders can share with the world a story of our culture and our way of life from the remotest classroom in the world, and it can reach across the world all the way to the Academy. I thank the Academy members for giving me an opportunity to share my beloved Bhutan with the world. The longlist also gives massive encouragement and inspiration to small independent filmmakers like myself, that if we make a film with all our heart… anything is possible.”
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