ALO salutes Asghar Farhadi, winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. His speech, on stage at the OscarsR embodies what our editorial vision is, and has been, since our inception.
Oscars® Foreign Language Symposium
In our continuing celebration of diversity of culture, ALO was front and center at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Foreign Language Film Award Symposium held Saturday, February 25 at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills.
Moderated by Academy Award® winning producer Mark Johnson, the five directors nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar® represented five unique perspectives from their regions:
Joseph Cedar, director – Israel, "Footnote"
Agnieszka Holland, director – Poland, "In Darkness"
Philippe Falardeau, director/screenwriter – Canada, "Monsieur Lazhar"
Asghar Farhadi, director - Iran, "A Separation"
Here are highlights covering the genesis of ideas for the films from this unique morning symposium.
Mark Johnson: The surprise, the pleasure, the insight, the pain and the dramatic revelations of these five films are nothing short of titanic. As representative of their respective countries as these five films are, all five represent, I believe, a triumph in personal filmmaking. These are movies that could only come from these directors regardless of their national traditions and disciplines.
This year we had a total of sixty-three films to arrive at the five nominees. Suffice it to say, it took approximately three hundred members of the Academy in our general committee and then a second group of thirty people in both New York and Los Angeles to come up with our five nominees. The group that participated throughout, starting in October and then finishing in January was steadfast, passionate and dedicated.
Secrets and lies, or better half-truths, dominate all five of our nominated movies and dominate all of their lead characters. Nobody really lies about what keeps them from revealing who they are or actually what they are doing. Who they are or what they know is conveniently not addressed and not shared. Whether it’s a steroid-injected cattleman with a life altering secret ["Bullhead"], Talmudic scholar who knows the truth that might tip the scales against his domineering and disapproving father ["Footnote"], an immigrant teach in a Montreal school who cannot explain his physical and emotional flatline ["Monsieur Lazhar"], a sewer worker in Poland who can’t tell his bosses, best friend, or even his wife what his life has become ["In Darkness"], or an Iranian husband and wife who separately strain under the entrapments of being honest ["A Separation"].
All of these movies ensnarl – in a very punishing way – their lead characters and their inability to come clean. Consequently, the traditional plot of these five films is driven by who knows what, who can’t know what, who’s on the verge of discovering what, and what that what will do when exposed to the lead characters and who’s around him or her. As a theme, the slipperiness of truth couldn’t be better realized in these movies in which all of their characters are charged with telling the truth, charged by religious dogma, marital vows or a teacher’s responsibilities to his students. All of these characters come up short, either by their strength or their weakness.
As one of the main character in “Footnote” states to a fellow scholar, “There are things more important than the truth.” To which the response is, “Like what?” It’s the answer to that question that distinguishes each of these five extraordinary films and lets us know as an audience that we are in the hands of five master directors.
As exotic as these movies may be to us, as an American film audience, it is the characters concealing the truth, the ultimate truth that these five filmmakers speak so directly, subtitles or not.
So the big question always is the genesis of the film. Some are based on a play or an idea and everyone always wants to know how they came about.
Michael Roskam: I always knew I wanted to make a film noir and for a good film noir you need a few things: a good crime scene and a good tragedy. In my country in the early 90’s we were faced with the existence of the Belgian hormone mafia, which is cattle farmers using illegal growth hormones for the livestock and it is organized crime. Most of the inspectors and cattlemen were corrupt as was the whole system of regulating meat and the hormones used; until one guy stood up. He was a bit of an Elliot Ness type of guy. The mafia was not happy with him and they tried to corrupt him and buy him off, but he wouldn’t back off and he ultimately paid with his life. They executed him in the field. I always knew that I wanted to center the theme around loyalty and two kids being separated and then coming back together later on two sides of the law.
Joseph Cedar: The idea of “Footnote” originated here at the last symposium four years ago. It’s about recognition and awards and all of these contradicting emotions that come from having to stand in front of an audience and admitting that you need to feel important and you’re willing to do a lot on the way. I think maybe some of the directors will identify with that. I found myself, over the last nine months, getting further and further away from how it really came to be, but it makes for a better story. It goes back to what you were saying before about the truth. I was walking across Rabin Square and my phone rang and it was the Cultural Attaché for the Italian embassy in Tel Aviv and she told me in an excited voice that I was receiving an award from the Italian government. As she was telling me who else was being honored it dawned on me that she probably meant to call my father. She didn’t say “no”, she said, “can you hold the line for a second?” While I was waiting on the line, this film was born.
Agnieszka Holland: The movie is true, it happened in reality. The screenwriter [David F. Shamoon] read the story in the newspaper, got obsessed with it and found the book that was written about it in the 80’s by the British journalist Robert Marchant based on the testimonies by the survivors. He wrote it on spec and until now has not received any money for it. The producer and David thought I would be the perfect person for this movie. They sent me the script and I read it and found it really good. This one was exceptional because it was about the people and not about the mechanics of war or the cruelty of the nations. It was about what was going on in the souls and the bodies of those who were involved. When you are facing the fear and responsibility, the theater of choice – this is what set it apart. I knew that I didn’t want this to be in English, because it needed to be as real as possible and the language was very important to that. A lot would have been lost in the translation. Problem was, the script was written in English, so David had to change it back to the original languages that were spoken. Yiddish, German, Ukrainian and more. It was a difficult, emotional shoot. I was cursing more than I had in the totality of my entire life.
Philippe Falardeau: I had no idea I would be making films when I was studying international relations. I was watching “Race Around the World” back home where they chose eight amateurs to make twenty short movies in twenty-six weeks all over the world. At one point I said “I’m going to submit for that next year.” To my surprise in 1992 I was selected. I was afraid to go because I didn’t want to tell them that they made a bad choice because I didn’t know how to make movies. So I left for six months alone and I had to go to these countries I knew nothing about, find a subject, shoot it, get in the hotel, edit the film on paper, and send it home by FedEx then move on to the next country. While doing that I set up a trip all over the world, including many Arab countries, Syria, Egypt, Libya, Algeria. And just before I was supposed to go to Algeria there was an explosion at the airport and my trip there was cancelled. When I returned, I was very interested in immigration, because I was the immigrant in all of these countries and I was fascinated. So, four years ago I saw this one-man play with the main character being from Algeria. He touched me and I thought this was the missed rendezvous with Algeria itself. I turned to my producer who was there with me and said, “we’re doing this [play as a movie]!”
Asghar Farhadi: After finishing my previous film, I went to work on a script with my lead actor Peymon [Maadi]. I thought that I would leave Iran and for the first time make a movie outside of the country, so I left with my family and Peymon left with his family. Everything was going well on the new project, but things changed one day while visiting a friend. I was standing in his kitchen and heard an Iranian song from his laptop. I don’t know what happened in my heart at that moment, but I asked myself, “What am I doing here?” It was then I decided to go back only a few days after signing a contract to work on another film. I talked to my daughter and told her that we had to go back to Iran and that all I knew is that I had an image in my mind about a film, but didn’t know exactly what it was. A few days later I was back in Tehran working on this film without the complete story. I had this image of a man washing his father who had Alzheimer’s and took some notes and a few hours later, I called my assistants and said we are going to start this movie. At the center of the movie, it shows that larger problems can be solved easier than small problems. The issue with small problems is that you can’t really see them. The big problems are so big you can see them and identify them. I believe what really bothers us are these small problems that you really cannot see.
Editor’s Note: After seeing the five directors up close and watching the five nominated foreign movies, we realize that making movies are more than a good story and technical wizardry. Recognition and reaching the hearts of an audience is all about the vision of the directors and producers who are inspired by realistic stories that capture the social, environmental and psychological issues that we live and share. The greatest stories are the ones discovered after being forgotten, hidden behind closed doors or yet to be discovered by the next creative and visionary film maker. We salute those who can empower the stories of those who carry in their hearts emotional stories that can be nominated or make it to the big screen.
See you on the red carpet next year.
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