Image by Engin Akyurt from Pixabay

If you’ve seen Fleabag, you’ll be familiar with the scene in which Kirsten Scott Thomas talks about her character’s “Best Woman in Business” award: “it’s infantilising bollocks!” she says; “a subsection of success”. She’s separated from her peers by her gender regardless of her competitive merit. But, if the category didn’t exist she likely wouldn’t receive any award, yet winning is made to feel like an insult. Looking at this year’s Oscar nominations, it’s hard not to apply the same principle to the Best International Film category.

The category of Best Foreign Film has been regularly awarded since 1956, twenty-seven years after The Oscars began. Before this it was an honorary award, given out some years and forgotten in others. Overwhelmingly, the awards have gone to European countries who have won a whopping fifty-seven. The next continent is Asia with just six wins. In Bong Joon Ho’s words, the Oscars are actually “quite local”.

“It wasn’t until 2014 that international directors were allowed to have their names engraved on the statues awarded to their own films”

Crucially though, the Best International Film category goes to the nation the film was made in rather than the director themselves. It wasn’t until 2014 that international directors were allowed to have their names engraved on the statues awarded to their own films, a problem not felt by Best Picture winners. The people that are studied in film schools and lauded as the ‘auteurs’ of cinema (cough cough Federico Fellini) have never had their name on an Oscar, regardless of how many they’ve been presented with (cough cough FIVE), disregarding their effort, artistry and dedication.

But the biggest problem with the Best International Feature Film category isn’t that it is Euro-centric, nor that it doesn’t actually commend the creatives behind the piece, but that it gives the Academy an out for international films across the board. The executives behind the Oscars seem to hold the logic that because international films are neatly tucked away in their own category, they don’t need to be mentioned anywhere else. They are effectively kept in a corner while other films sweep up nominations across the board.

At the 93rd Oscars, Youn Yuh-jung was presented with Best Supporting Actress for her role in Minari. She is one of only six actors to ever win an Oscar for acting while not speaking English, and the only person to win for a role speaking a non-European language. Among those six actors is Robert De Niro for his role in The Godfather Part II. De Niro, while a wonderful actor, is an American, so I hardly think his award suggests that the Academy is particularly interested in commending international actors.

Hopefully, nudge by nudge, we’re starting to witness a sea-change in Oscars culture. I think everyone is familiar with Bong Joon Ho’s Oscar sweep a few years ago, which saw Parasite become the first international film to ever win Best Picture. That night Bong Joon Ho also took home the second Best Director award ever given to an international director, the other going to Alfonso Cuarón the year before for Roma. Let’s hope these “firsts” become seconds and then thirds and, ultimately, the norm.


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Giving international films their own category is great; it means that more people are exposed to a more diverse range of films, and it’s lovely that some talent is praised. But Best International Film is also condescending: it treats its nominees as though they are not worth the same level of praise as the American ones. Cinema is not and has never been a solely American pursuit, and on the Academy’s own website they call themselves “the world’s preeminent movie-related organisation.” To invoke Bong Joon Ho again, I think their version of world might be a bit too “local”.