Oscars 2018: Foreign Language Films Part Three—The Best of the Non-Nominees

Friday, March 02, 2018
Director Can Ulkay and Kim Eun-ja (Ayla) at the Asian World Film Festival (photo: David Wallechinsky)

As I mentioned previously, I saw 89 of the 92 entries to the Foreign Language category for the Academy Awards. So many of the films that did not make the final cut of five nominees were excellent films and worth seeing that’s it is frustrating to see them pass by without more recognition. I would like to call attention to at least some of the most noteworthy non-nominees.


Bulgaria—Glory (Slava)

I first saw this film on an Air France flight. You don’t get a lot of Bulgarian films shown on non-Bulgarian airlines, so you know there’s something special and universal about Glory’s send-up of corrupt government officials, cynical public relations employees and even investigative reporters.


Tsanko Petrov is a stuttering railroad linesman who lives alone with his pet rabbits. One morning, while checking the tracks, he comes upon a large pile of dumped cash. Instead of grabbing it and keeping it for himself, Tsanko contacts the authorities. It so happens that this event coincides with a corruption scandal hitting the Department of Transportation. The department’s PR chief, Julia Staikova, sees a chance to distract attention from the scandal by making a big deal of honoring Tsanko on television. His prize is a cheap digital watch. Just before the live coverage begins, Julia badgers Tsanko into removing his old-fashioned watch, which she tucks away for safekeeping.


As soon as the coverage is finished, Julia loses interest in Tsanko and his watch, which was a keepsake passed on to him by his father. The watch brand is called Slava, or Glory; thus, the double-meaning title. Tsanko tries desperately to retrieve his watch, but Julia has already moved on to other schemes, including getting pregnant before she runs out of…time.


Glory was directed by a married couple, Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov. I had the pleasure of spending time with Valchanov and screenwriter Decho Taralezhkov before moderating a question and answer session with them at a screening arranged by European Film Promotion. I asked Valchanov what it was like collaborating with his wife. He replied, “It’s easy. She directs the film and I do the media interviews.”


Slovenia—The Miner (Rudar)

This was another film for which I moderated the Q&A for a press and Academy showing, allowing me a couple hours to get know director Hanna Slak while The Miner was screening. Before going into the film itself, I have to say that one thing she said made a great impression on me. Speaking of the time when communism collapsed in Eastern Europe, she observed, “Our new leaders and Western advisors told us they would bring us democracy, but what they really brought us was just capitalism.”


The Miner was inspired by a deeply disturbing true incident. In the film, miner Alija Bašić, played by Croatian actor Leon Lučev, is ordered to examine an abandoned coal mine shaft and to report that nothing is there so that the mine can be closed and blocked up. But when Bašić penetrates deeper into the shaft, he discovers that parts of the mine have already been blocked. Digging his way through, he finds skeletons and bones—hundreds of them. When he reports this to his boss, he’s told to let it alone and file his report without this information. So Bašić tells the police and then the press. But clearly, he has dug up—literally—a chapter in Slovenian history that the majority of Slovenians do not want to hear about. Who are these people, who apparently were murdered soon after the end of World War II?


As a boy, Bašić emigrated from near Srebrenica in Bosnia. After he left, his entire family was massacred by Bosnian Serbs. When, in the mine, he finds female hair, he is doubly haunted by the memories of his beloved sister. He stubbornly contends that even if the remains can’t be identified, they were still human beings and they deserve a proper burial.


Slak worked with the real miner, Mehmedalija Alić, and helped him write his memoir. In real life, since 2009, more than 1,400 of the unknown victims have been exhumed from the mine and buried in a cemetery. This is a moving story, and I hope that, somehow, more people get to see it.


Switzerland—The Divine Order (Die göttliche Ordnung)

It’s hard to believe, but until 1971, Swiss women did not have the right to vote. In 1959, Swiss men voted 2-1 to deny women the vote. There was even a women’s group formed that year called the Federation of Swiss Women against Women's Right to Vote.


Written and directed by Petra Volpe, The Divine Order deals with the 1971 referendum to reverse this prohibition, told from the point-of-view of Nora (Marie Leuenberger), an everyday housewife with two young sons, living in a village. She has never questioned her submissive role in rural Switzerland’s male-dominated society. But when her husband refuses to allow her to take a job, which is his legal right, something starts to stir inside her. Add to this, her niece is sent to prison for trying to run away with her boyfriend without her father’s permission, and Nora has had enough. She and her sister and an older woman who is angry because she lost her restaurant when her husband died, begin a campaign to support the vote for women’s suffrage. This eventually leads to a Lysistrata-like women’s strike.


Except for the obvious climax of the vote referendum itself, for me the highlight of The Divine Order comes when the three women join a march in Zurich and are exposed to a more open atmosphere than they are used to. They wander into a New Age seminar to teach women to feel comfortable with their bodies and their sexuality. They are given mirrors to study their vaginas and learn to love them. The Swedish moderator explains that vaginas come in different kinds, like bunny, butterfly and tiger. Although this scene is amusing, there is a serious aspect in that it exposes how isolated the village women have been. Nora, for example, has never had an orgasm.


There is never any doubt where this story is going, but it makes you feel good anyway. Because of Switzerland’s decentralized government, parts of the country continued to allow only men to vote. In fact, the men of one half-canton, Appenzell Innerrhoden, held out until 1989, when the Swiss Supreme Court finally ruled that women’s suffrage was a national right. By coincidence, the theater in Los Angeles where I saw The Divine Order was one block away from a Swiss pastry shop. Naturally, I stopped in, and I found myself sitting next to an elderly couple originally from Switzerland who had also just seen the film. The man confirmed this development because he grew up, in fact, in Appenzell Innerrhoden.


Slovakia—The Line (Ciara)

The Line is a fast-paced crime thriller that takes place on the border of Slovakia and Ukraine just as Slovakia is about to join the European Union. The region has for years been a smuggling center with many levels of criminal gangs. Now that the new political situation will institute stricter border controls, the old criminal hierarchies might be turned upside-down…or not.


The title, The Line, doesn’t refer to just the line between Slovakia and Ukraine, but also to the moral line each person creates that he or she will not cross. Adam Krajnak (Tomáš Maštalír) runs a cigarette smuggling business. He’s willing to expand to engage in people smuggling, as long as the smuggled people are refugees seeking a better life. But he refuses to traffic in methadrine or narcotics. This does not sit well with Ukrainian gangster Krull or with some of Adam’s employees, such as Luka, who is desperate to buy his son out of prison because the young man fears he is about to be killed.


There is a lot more going on in The Line and quite a cast of interesting characters, including innocent Ivor, who wants to marry Adam’s daughter, and Adam’s crime matriarch mother, Anna, played by the great veteran actress Emília Vášáryová, who starred in last year’s Slovak entry, Eva Nová. Vášáryová is so famous that her 60-year filmography has its own Wikipedia page.


This an extremely entertaining film with high-end production values all-around from script to casting, to acting, to cinematography, etc.


I had the honor of spending time with producer Wanda Adamík Hrycová and her father, veteran actor Andrej Hryc, who plays the villainous local police chief. Although Hryc has made his living primarily playing villains, he was proud to point out that he dubbed the voice of Fred Flintstone from English into Slovak, and, yes, “yabadabadoo” is the same in both languages.


Cambodia—First They Killed My Father

This is the third time in six years that Cambodia has entered a film about the nightmare of the Khmer Rouge period (1975-1979), during which an estimated 1,700,000 Cambodians were killed. Although Rithy Panh’s The Missing Picture earned a nomination, I thought the best of the three was Lost Loves, in which Kauv Southeary, one of the survivors, wrote the script and played her own mother in the movie.


However, First They Killed My Father, written and directed by Angelina Jolie, is a worthy addition to the sub-genre. Based on the 2000 memoir of survivor Loung Ung, the tragedy and horror is seen from the point-of-view of Loung, who is the five-year-old daughter of a military policeman when the Khmer Rouge sweep into the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. Eventually she is separated from her parents (who are killed) and placed in a labor camp for children. At the age of eight, she is deemed old enough to be trained to become a soldier. It is this section of the film that I found most impressive because it portrays in detail the process of indoctrination.


I have read several critical reviews of First They Killed My Father which, I suspect, were written by people who were blinded by Angelina Jolie’s celebrity and might have seen the film more positively if it had been directed by a debut director. I visited Cambodia in 1988. No one I spoke with brought up the subject of the Khmer Rouge atrocities, but whenever I asked about it, it turned out that every person I met had lost at least one immediate family member. I encountered an entire nation experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder. I recommend watching First They Killed My Father because it’s a well-made film about a subject we shouldn’t forget and one which should always serve as a warning that this could happen in other countries.


Iraq—Reseba: The Dark Wind (Reseaba)

Based, unfortunately, on real events, The Dark Wind follows the story of Pero and Reko, members of the Yazidi religious minority in northern Iraq, who are a loving couple engaged to be married. Reko is a security guard at a U.S. oilfield. In August 2014, Islamic State fighters invaded the Yazidi region, murdering the men and older women and kidnapping the younger ones. In the film, Pero is taken away and sold to the highest bidder in a slave market. Reko risks his own life to find Pero and save her. With the aid of female fighters of the Kurdish resistance, Reko finds Pero and brings her home, which, by this time, is a large refugee camp.


Pero is utterly traumatized, and even when her family and Reko appear to coax her back to a fragile state of comfort, she has flashbacks that leave her screaming. Then she discovers that she’s pregnant as a result of rape. Her family brings her to Yazidi religious leaders, who cleanse her spiritually and declare her an acceptable member of the community. But Rezo’s father considers Pero shameful, damaged goods and refuses to allow his son to marry her. This puts Rezo in the position of either rejecting his cultural tradition of following your father’s orders or continuing to carry out his plan to marry Pero.


Those who want to know more about the real Yazidi survivors of the Islamic State sex trade should check out The Last Girl: My Story of Captivity, and My Fight Against the Islamic State by Nadia Murad; The Girl Who Escaped ISIS: This Is My Story by Farida Khalaf and With Ash on Their Faces: Yezidi Women and the Islamic State by Cathy Otten.


Turkey—Ayla: The Daughter of War (Ayla)

The term “tearjerker” usually refers to films that artificially manipulate our emotions. I saw Ayla: The Daughter of War on the opening night of the Asian World Film Festival in Culver City, California. Each seat was provided with a handkerchief, and with good reason: this film is a legitimate tearjerker.


The effects of the tragic Korean War of 1950-1953 are still being felt 65 years later, as seen by the tentative rapprochement between South and North Korea during the recent 2018 Winter Olympics. A little-known aspect of this war is that Turkey sent a total of 15,000 soldiers in support of South Korea and its U.S. allies.


One of these soldiers is Sergeant Süleyman Dilbirliği (İsmail Hacıoğlu). He and the other members of his brigade have barely settled in when they come under heavy attack from the North Koreans. In the wake of the battle, the Turkish troops enter a village where everyone has been killed; everyone that is except a five-year-old girl holding onto the hand of her dead mother. It’s worth noting that it is never determined which side is responsible for this massacre. Süleyman and his comrades save the child and, with the eventual permission of their superiors, both Turkish and American, adopt her as their mascot and try to teach her the Turkish language. Since she is traumatized and unable to speak, they name her Ayla, which is Turkish for moon, because of her round face. When Ayla recovers enough to start speaking, she calls Süleyman “Papa.”


They go through many adventures together, but the time comes when Süleyman is sent back to Turkey. Ayla is put into a school with other war orphans, but it’s still a painful separation. Süleyman promises Ayla that he will return and adopt her, but, alas, despite his desperate attempts to return to South Korea, he is never able to do so. For his entire life, he is haunted by his failure to fulfill his promise to Ayla.


Sixty years later, journalists in Turkey and South Korea discovered that Ayla had been given a Korean name—Kin Eun-ja—and they tracked her down. Now a 65-year-old widow working as a janitor at a daycare center, she had never forgotten Süleyman. Flown to Seoul, Süleyman, now 84 years old, was finally reunited with Ayla.


After the screening at the Asian World Film Festival, director Can Ulkay and numerous others associated with the film came to the front to talk about the film and answer questions. When someone asked what became of Ayla, Ulkay said, “She’s right here,” and asked her to join them in front of the audience. I have been going to the movies since I was four years old, and I have never witnessed such a dramatic moment. As the audience members collectively gasped in surprise, a shy, elderly woman dressed in traditional Korean clothing walked to center stage. When she was asked about Süleyman, Kim Eun-ja, apparently knowing that Süleyman Dilbirliği was in ill health back in Turkey, began to cry.


Later, one of the film’s media coordinators, Pia Pinar Ercan, told me that Ayla and Süleyman were invited to visit the set during the film’s production. The crew happened to be filming a scene where Ayla draws a picture of her family. Mother—dead; brother—dead. Papa…and she points to Süleyman. The real Ayla and Süleyman both began sobbing, as did most of the crew, and the director ordered a break.


Süleyman Dilbirliği died six weeks after the showing at the Asian World Film Festival.


Germany—In the Fade (Aus dem Nichts)

Fatih Akin’s In the Fade won the Golden Globes award for best foreign language film, and Diane Kruger won the best actress award at the Cannes Film Festival. Kruger plays Katja, to whom we are introduced during her wedding in a prison with Kurdish Nuri, who is serving a term for drug dealing. Flash forward and they are happily married with a wiseacre six-year-old son named Rocco. Nuri and Katja run a travel agency and tax return business in a Turkish neighborhood in Hamburg, and they are doing well financially.


Katja goes out with a girlfriend, leaving Rocco at the office with Nuri. When she returns, she discovers that someone has bombed the office, killing her husband and their son. The authorities assume that the attack is connected with Nuri’s drug-dealing past or maybe political conflicts in the Turkish/Kurdish community.


Katja however, recalls that upon leaving the office, she encountered a young white woman whom she admonished for failing to lock her bicycle. Katja is convinced that the real murderers are racist Neo-Nazis.


Katja is not a heroic heroine. She is a drug-taker and, left to her own devices, something of a low-life. Finally, she enters a bathtub and slashes her wrists. As the water turns red, her phone rings. It’s her lawyer informing her that the police have arrested and charged a Neo-Nazi couple, the Möllers, for the murder.


Act two of the film is a prolonged and maddening trial. Despite the fact that the Möllers are obviously guilty, they are acquitted because of “reasonable doubt.”


This leads to act three: Katja’s decision to seek revenge by taking the law into her own hands.


The unfortunate English-language title, In the Fade, comes from a song by Queens of the Stone Age. According to Akin, the German title is untranslatable. The literal translation is “Out of Nothing” or “Out of the Blue.”


Paraguay—The Gold Seekers (Los Buscadores)

Thank you, Paraguay, for entering a comedy. The premise of The Gold Seekers is that during Paraguay’s disastrous 1864-1870 “Great War,” which led to the deaths of almost 70% of the population through fighting or disease, many people buried treasure, some of them of legendary value. Manu is a teenager who does his share to support his struggling family by delivering newspapers by bicycle. Manu’s grandfather, rendered mute by a stroke, gives Manu a book in which is slipped a map, presumably leading to buried treasure. Manu enlists the aid of his best friend, Fito, and longtime buried treasure aficionado Don Elio. Their quest for the second half of the map leads them to raid a grave. They conclude that the treasure is buried on the grounds of the embassy of an African country. Their attempt to gain access to the embassy leads them to either struggle against or confide in a series of comic characters. The Gold Seekers does touch upon serious issues, such as urban poverty and the legacy of the war, also known as The War of the Triple Alliance. But it is, thank goodness, basically a heist comedy.


Palestine—Wajib (Duty)

Although Wajib does have a plot, I was most taken by this this comic-drama’s setup: before Palestinian weddings, it is traditional for the invitations to be delivered in person. Because the mother of the bride-to-be scandalously ran away to the United States some years back, it’s left to father Abu, a well-liked retired teacher who continues to tutor, to do the deliveries. He convinces his son, Abu Shadi, who is now an architect in Italy, to return to Palestine and help him. Father and son are played by Mohammad Bakri and Saleh Bakri, who really are father and son, so their interactions are smooth and natural. Written and directed by Annemarie Jacir, the story takes place in Nazareth in Israel. As Abu and Saleh roam around town, they encounter a wide range of relatives and old friends, both Christian and Muslim. Along the way, they argue about politics, exile versus staying, and living in a country ruled by Jews.



Newton Kumar is an idealistic, everything-according-to-the-book government employee who volunteers to oversee Election Day in the remote Dandakaranya forest in central India, where Maoist rebels have threatened to disrupt the vote. There are only 76 registered voters in his precinct, and they’re hard to find. Accompanied by comic-relief election worker Malko Netam, a local indigenous teacher, and a contingent of the Central Reserve Police Force, led by Commander Aatma Singh, Newton insists on setting up shop for voting in an abandoned schoolhouse. No voters show up. Aatma Singh tries to convince Newton to give it up and let him and his men gather votes their way, while Malko explains to Newton that the central government has no relevance to the lives of the local Gond people. But stubborn Newton will not be swayed.


When a television crew arrives to record this shining example of Indian democracy at work, everyone is forced to snap into action in support of the election. Locals are rounded up and election procedures are explained to them. The problem is that the local people have never heard of any of the candidates or the parties they represent. And they are worried about the reprisals the Maoist Naxals, who are promoting a boycott of the election, might bring down upon them. It is the local chief, who is wise enough to find a solution.


Greece—Amerika Square (Plateia Amerikis)

Amerika Square is one of the better films dealing with the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe. It portrays two friends, one of whom is an anti-immigrant racist, while the other is sympathetic to the refugees who are streaming into their neighborhood. At the same time, it introduces us to some of the immigrants. Although some have criticized director Yannis Sakaridis for not developing the immigrants more fully, he has certainly done a better job than the Italian documentary Fire at Sea, which was honored last year with a best documentary Oscar nomination despite failing to portray any immigrants as full human beings.


Nako, an unemployed 40-year-old living with his parents, doesn’t like the fact that immigrants from African and Muslim countries have settled into the square that he has known since he was a child. His only real friend—from growing up since childhood in the same apartment building—is Billy, a tattoo artist. Billy takes a liking to Tereza, an African nightclub singer and chooses to rescue her from her gangster “protector” and help her escape from Greece.


Nako, meanwhile, bakes poison into bread and leaves the loaves in places that he thinks poor and homeless people will find them. We follow some of the people who pick up and eat the loaves. Nako is satisfied with his work, until the wrong person eats one of his creations.


Colombia—Guilty Men (Pariente)

Guilty Men may be a film from Colombia, but at its heart, it has all the elements of a classic western: violence, a romantic subplot, comic relief and beautiful scenery. Director Iván Gaona chose to use non-professional locals from his hometown of Güepsa, Santander, and even used their real names for the characters.


Willington is a trucker who moonlights as a DJ at weddings and other occasions. He still has a crush on his ex-girlfriend, Mariana, who is engaged to Willington’s cousin, René, and is pregnant. The story is set in 2005, a period of transition because the right-wing paramilitary group that has been ruling the area is supposed to be in the process of being demobilized. However, the film opens with a night scene in which villagers, driven by Willington, are scheduled to hand over protection money to the “paras.” But something goes wrong; the local friends commit murder; and then they have to decide what to do with the money they are left holding.


As unsolved robberies proliferate, and internecine problems develop, it becomes clear that, unlike in traditional Hollywood westerns, the various characters are not all good or all bad.


Some elements of Guilty Men are difficult for a non-Colombian audience to understand, but this is an exciting, well-produced film. Semi-comic relief? At one point, the characters debate whether they would be less criminal, and different people in general, if they had been raised on norteña music instead of ranchera music. After listening to the arguments from both sides, Willington speaks up. “No,” he concludes, “we’d be just the same; we’d just listen to different music.”

-David Wallechinsky


Oscars 2018: Foreign Language Films Part One—Bad Films and Obscenities (by David Wallechinsky)

Oscars 2018: Foreign Language Films Part Two—The 5 Nominees (by David Wallechinsky)



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