Last year, when the Parasite press tour was still gaining momentum, writer/director Bong Joon-Ho was asked his opinion of the Academy Awards and, in typical joking fashion, he dismissed the ceremony as “local” and, by extension, not seen as particularly important on the world stage. It’s delightful to think that director Bong goaded the Oscars into giving his film the awards it so richly deserved but, joking aside, he had a point.
For a long time now the division in a number of Western award ceremonies between Best Picture and Best International Picture has seemed bizarre and archaic. The Oscars has a fine history of celebrating directors from other nations. Just this last decade we’ve seen numerous directing awards journey south of the border, recognising the likes of Guillermo del Toro, Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro González Iñárritu, but – until yesterday – the Best Picture category seemed off-limits. It was an award deemed worthy of only American Films or, occasionally, Stuffy English Ones.
That Oscar will, on occasion, nominate a film not in the English language for Best Picture has frankly come to seem like a placating move. And true, Roma may have actually had a shot last year had Spielberg’s anti-Netflix campaign bullied voters into going for, ech, Green Book, but Parasite’s victory lap this year puts spotlight on whether demarcation between Best Picture and Best International Picture is necessary at all.
It’s time to scrub the latter from the ballot.
If a film is worthy of nomination for Best International Picture, it should also be a serious candidate for Best Picture. There’s no finer source for the argument than Bong Joon-Ho himself who, when accepting his award at the Golden Globes, famously told his audience, “Once you overcome the one-inch barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”
Every film festival on the circuit dishes out awards or commendations for the most favoured films in competition. These platitudes are rarely limited by country of origin. Festivals celebrate the diversity of film as a medium, recognising greatness all over the world. The ‘big’ ceremonies, meanwhile, have remained oddly rooted to favouring English language talents. It’s great to see a movie like Parasite receiving wide recognition like this, and everyone’s rushing to note the historic precedence of such a victory, but it ought not be the exception to the rule. The Academy hasn’t proven anything yet. Going forward, it would be heartening to see film as a global enterprise considered more evenly. This, in turn, will help remove the stigma of subtitled cinema. Director Bong is right; it’s a barrier that’s easily vaulted, and the range of films being produced across the globe exceeds the limits of English and American movies by a substantial margin.
Best International Picture is already hampered by an unusual set of rules. Non-English language countries are asked to submit only one film for consideration. This is part of the reason why Céline Sciamma’s widely lauded Portrait of a Lady on Fire wasn’t even acknowledged this year; the French jury offered up Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables instead, meaning Sciamma’s film was out of the running. That the category also only has 5 slots compared to Best Picture’s maximum 9 is also bizarre and limiting. These arbitrary differences scan as deliberate efforts to lessen the importance of world cinema in the eyes of audiences.
Parasite sets a precedent, and makes the need for a separate – and hampering – Best International Picture category all the more puzzling. It’s come to feel like a very patronising gift; a token. If Best Picture can be globalised, so can all of the other categories, including but not limited to the acting gongs (where Parasite might also have deserved some nods). Making such changes would stop such ceremonies from seeming increasingly irrelevant, encourage diversity in filmmaking and encourage audiences to seek out a more versatile range of cinema experiences. It can also only help to encourage racial diversity in the nominating process as global faces become more normalised at these events. There’s been a lot of justified indignation this year that Oscar and BAFTA have overlooked non-white performances. Broadening the field should, ideally, lessen such oversights in the future.
There’s a lot of work to be done still, clearly, but hopefully the case of Parasite is the beginning of something and not just an aberration. And maybe, just maybe, we can start seeing the same thing happening for documentary features, too.