Nation as cinema: Who shall speak for us?

In Photo: Sophia Loren in her Oscar-winning turn in Vittorio de Sica’s Two Women. It was an unprecedented triumph, with Loren becoming the first actor to win an Academy Award for a non-English-language performance.

tito genova valienteWE call it our elusive dream: the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.

It’s a category that begs for explanation. In this age of blurred boundaries, contested and negotiated ethnicities and authenticities, what is a foreign film?

What is obvious and politically shaky is the fact that, for Hollywood, anything that uses a foreign language belongs to a different category. But history proves that the people behind this classification can never be sure what, indeed, is a foreign film and how does it qualify for a competition. The result of this ambivalence is the roster of Best Foreign Language film nominees that have made it to the list of winners in the Oscar other than their being foreign.

In 1060 Vittorio de Sica’s Two Women won for Sophia Loren the Best Actress prize, the first time the Oscar was given to a performance done in a non-English-speaking role. Although the film was not nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film category, the recognition given to Sophia Loren tells us how the boundary between foreign and local/US/Hollywood is really trivial, or even arbitrary.

Cursory research will tell us the Italians are the favored foreign film in the Oscars. Notes and documents from the Oscars show Italy on top with some 14 awards. France follows. We mention the name of the nation as the winner, because the Best Foreign Language Film is given not to an individual but technically and symbolically to the nation that has sent the film.  Federico Fellini and Vittorio de Sica are favorites, with four awards each. The two have certainly put their country on the map not only with their films but with a cinematic approach and tradition called cinema verite, a kind of approach to reality that predated the poverty porn our filmmakers concocted for film festivals abroad. Interestingly enough, the best Filipino films of the 1970s—the Brocka and Bernal films, in particular—have all been imbued, as critics have articulated, with the verite spirit of Fellini and de Sica. We have not won yet. Let us bring down our expectations: Why have we not even been nominated yet?

If we are to examine our films, we appear to be the most “international” of Asian films. But international appeal, it seems, is a kiss of death for any kind of film industry trying to make any impression upon the international audience. I have written about this already how the Japanese avoided sending their “samurai” films abroad for fear that the international audience may think the Japanese had retained the violent streak in their national character. It was when Japan fielded Akira Kurosawa’s now-classic Rashomon that the nation was officially heralded as one of excellent cinema. Kurosawa would be considered the most Japanese of all Japanese film directors, even as this is the opposite view in Japan.

Life is Beautiful from Italy won the Best Foreign Language Film. But aside from that, it received awards for Best Music and Best Actor for Roberto Benigni. It would be Sophia Loren who would read his name as winner.

There is a very charming interview in the TV show Live With Kelly, where Ms. Loren recalls what happened during those years. The interview, which by itself is like a short film on the glamour of the Italian actress, can be seen on YouTube. It opens with Ms. Loren being ushered in and sort of going back to the wings after being confronted by a roar from the crowd. She then walks to the chair and proceeds to charm the fans and the hosts.

Sophia Loren was not there to savor the great moment of victory when she won Best Actress Oscar. In the interview, she confesses about how she was so nervous that if ever she did win, she would faint right there and then. It would be easier to faint while at home, the lovely actress intimated with grand self-mockery.

Strangely, after all these years, there are bits and pieces of news that seem to disparage the unprecedented Oscar win of Loren, ascribing the triumph to the campaigning done by some producers in the US.

What is the point of all this reminiscing?

In all these Oscar events, Hollywood remains a nation, a most powerful nation. The formation of the national cinema, that which differentiates Italian from French cinema, Japanese from Chinese cinema, is attributed to the overwhelming apparatus called “Hollywood”. This was true in the 1960s, when the French nouvelle vague produced film geniuses like François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol and Jean-Luc Godard, just to name a few. They were young and irreverent. They were natural iconoclasts, thumbing down at prevalent social mores. They were the ancestors of our indies, as they worked with portable devices and improvised sets.

We do not have this kind of marked movement, or dramatic shifts in our film industry. Even the indie films made a gradual easing into the film festival until the old guards were eased out, and new names cropped up.

Some weeks back, there was an uproar as to the choice of a committee that selected the film to represent the Philippines in the Best Foreign Language Film catergory of the Oscars. The good news is there were many good candidates. Another bit of news (we’re not sure if this is good or bad) is that all the candidates were new names, filmmakers that belong to a new generation. Gone are the old guards.

Always, when the season for selecting the film for the Oscars comes around, there is always bad vibes in the air. One feels that we are not attending to this ritual properly. No one knows how the selection committee is created.

The selection process arrived just after the Venice Film Festival anointed Ang Babaeng Humayo by Lav Diaz as the winner for Best Picture. This was the first for the country, a glorious first. Much, much earlier, Jaclyn Jose won the Best Actress for Brillante Mendoza’s Ma’Rosa.

Diaz and Brillante, it cannot be denied, are the darlings of the major film festivals. It’s actually very good for the Philippines and its independent cinema that two of its stellar filmmakers figured in two of the biggest film festivals globally.

There are rumors floating around that screeners for Ang Babaeng Humayo was distributed a day before the selection process. Were the committee members able to watch the film and deliberate over it along with the rest of the films being considered? In the end, Ma’Rosa got the nod.

I couldn’t comment then, and I can’t now. I have not seen Ma’Rosa but I have seen Ang Babaeng Humayo. The film blew me away: it has a brilliant plot, a rare case of a narrative-driven Filipino film. My review comes out next Thursday. Things are moot now. Some parties are sad; some are jubilant.

Let’s wait and see. Let’s wait and witness, perhaps, a new golden age in Philippine cinema.

In any case, we should, I believe, take seriously this task of selecting the films that will represent the nation internationally. Let us expand the committee and include film students, journalists, academics, producers and more external examiners. Even if we fail to come home with the award, we can always be proud that we have been unbiased and sincere about the entire process. Which is what the free spirit of good cinema is about—honesty and forthrightness.