The Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film is one of the Academy Awards of Merit, popularly known as the Oscars, handed out annually by the U.S.-based Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS). It is given to a feature-length motion picture produced outside the United States of America with a predominantly non-English dialogue track.
When the first Academy Awards ceremony was held on May 16, 1929 to honor films released in 1927/28, there was no separate category for foreign language films. Between 1947 and 1955, the Academy presented Special/Honorary Awards to the best foreign language films released in the United States. These Awards, however, were not handed out on a regular basis (no Award was given in 1953), and were not competitive since there were no nominees but simply one winning film per year. For the 1956 (29th) Academy Awards, a competitive Academy Award of Merit, known as the Best Foreign Language Film Award, was created for non-English speaking films, and has been given annually since then.
Unlike other Academy Awards, the Best Foreign Language Film Award is not presented to a specific individual. It is accepted by the winning film's director, but is considered an award for the submitting country as a whole. Over the years, the Best Foreign Language Film Award and its predecessors have been given almost exclusively to European films: out of the 59 Awards handed out by the Academy since 1947 to foreign language films, fifty have gone to European films, four to Asian films, three to African films and only two to films from the Americas. The late Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini directed four Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award-winning motion pictures during his lifetime, a record that remains unmatched as of 2007 (if Special Awards are taken into account, then Fellini's record is tied by his fellow countryman Vittorio De Sica).
Unlike other Academy Awards, the Foreign Language Film Award does not require films to be released in the United States in order to be eligible for competition. Films competing in the Foreign Language Film category must have been first released in the country submitting them during the eligibility period defined by the rules of the Academy, and must have been exhibited for at least seven consecutive days in a commercial movie theater. The eligibility period for the Foreign Language Film category differs from that required for most other categories: the awards year defined for the Foreign Language Film category usually begins and ends before the ordinary awards year, which corresponds to an exact calendar year. For the 80th Academy Awards, for instance, the release deadline for the Foreign Language Film category has been set on September 30, 2007, whereas the qualifying run for most other categories extends till December 31, 2007.
Although the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film is commonly referred to simply as the Foreign Film Oscar in newspaper articles and on the Internet, such a designation is misleading, since a film's nationality matters much less than its language. Although a film has to be "foreign" (i.e. non-American) in order to be nominated for the Award, it also has to be in a language other than English. Foreign films where the majority of the dialogue is in English cannot qualify for the Foreign Language Film Award, and the Academy has usually applied this requirement very seriously by disqualifying films containing too much English dialogue, the most recent case being that of the Israeli film The Band's Visit (2007). Despite the basic importance of the "foreign language" requirement, a completely dialogueless film such as Le Bal (1983) was still able to get nominated in the Foreign Language Film category.
Another disqualifying factor is a film's television or Internet transmission prior to its theatrical release, hence the Academy's rejection of the Dutch film Bluebird (2004). A film may also be refused if its submitting country has exercised insufficient artistic control over it. Several films have been declared ineligible by the Academy for the latter reason, the most recent of which is Lust, Caution (2007), Taiwan's entry for the 80th Academy Awards. The disqualifications, however, generally take place in the pre-nomination stage, with the exception of A Place in the World (1992), Uruguay's entry for the 65th Academy Awards, which was disqualified because of insufficient Uruguayan artistic control after having secured a nomination. It is the only film so far to have been declared ineligible and removed from the final ballot after having been nominated for the Foreign Language Film Award.
Since the 2006 (79th) Academy Awards, submitted films no longer have to be in an official language of the submitting country. This requirement had previously prevented countries from submitting films where the majority of the dialogue was spoken in a language that was non-native to the submitting country, and the Academy's executive director explicitly cited as a reason for the rule change the case of the Italian film Private (2004), which was disqualified simply because its main spoken languages were Arabic and Hebrew, neither of which are indigenous languages of Italy. This rule change enabled a country like Canada to receive a nomination for a Hindi-language film, Water. Previously, Canada had been nominated for French-language films only, since films shot in Canada's other official language (English) were ineligible for consideration for the Foreign Language Film category. The rule change, however, did not affect the eligibility of non-English speaking American films, which are still disqualified from the Foreign Language Film category due to their nationality. Because of this, a Japanese-language film like Letters from Iwo Jima (2006) or a Mayan-language film like Apocalypto (2006) were unable to compete for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, even though they were both nominated for (and, in the case of Letters from Iwo Jima, won) the Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film, which does not have similar nationality restrictions.
Although all films produced inside the United States are ineligible for consideration for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film regardless of the language of their dialogue track, those produced in U.S. overseas possessions are not. Puerto Rico, an unincorporated territory of the United States, is therefore able to submit films to the Academy, and even received a nomination for Santiago, the Story of his New Life (1989). Since Puerto Ricans have had American citizenship since 1917, the overwhelming majority of the latter film’s cast and crew were thus American citizens. This resulted in a rather uncommon situation, whereby a film was nominated for the Foreign Language Film Award despite most of the people involved in its production being American.
After each country has designated its official entry, English-subtitled copies of all submitted films are shipped to the Academy, where they are screened by the Foreign Language Film Award Committee(s), whose members select by secret ballot the five official nominations. Final voting for the winner is restricted to active and life Academy members who have attended exhibitions of all five nominated films. Members who have watched the Foreign Language Film entries only on videocassette or DVD are ineligible to vote. These procedures were slightly modified for the 2006 (79th) Academy Awards, with the Academy deciding to institute a two-stage process in determining the nominees: for the first time in the history of the award, a nine-film shortlist was published one week before the official nominations announcement. In the meantime, a smaller thirty-member committee which included ten New York-based Academy members was formed, and spent three days viewing the shortlisted films before choosing the five official nominees. Residents of the city hosting the country's second largest film industry were thus allowed to participate for the first time ever in the selection process for the Foreign Language Film Award nominees.
Unlike the Academy Award for Best Picture, which officially goes to the winning film's producers, the Foreign Language Film Award is not given to a specific individual but is considered an award for the submitting country as a whole. For example, the Oscar statuette won by the Canadian film The Barbarian Invasions (2003) was until recently on display at the Museum of Civilization in Quebec City.
The rules currently governing the Foreign Language Film category state that "the Academy statuette (Oscar) will be awarded to the picture and accepted by the director on behalf of the film's creative talents" (emphasis added). Therefore, the director does not personally win the Award, but simply accepts it during the ceremony. In fact, the Foreign Language Film Award has never been associated with a specific individual since its creation, except for the 1956 (29th) Academy Awards, when the names of the producers were included in the nomination for the Foreign Language Film category. A director like Federico Fellini is thus considered to have never officially won an Academy Award of Merit during his lifetime, even though four of his films received the Foreign Language Film Award (the only Academy Award that Fellini personally won was his 1992 Honorary Award). On the other hand, producers Dino De Laurentiis and Carlo Ponti are considered to have personally won the 1956 Foreign Language Film Award given to Fellini's La Strada (1954), since their names were explicitly included in the nomination.
Because each country chooses its official submission according to its own rules, the decisions of the nominating bodies in each respective country are sometimes mired in controversy: for instance, the Indian selection committee was recently accused of bias by Bhavna Talwar, the director of Dharm (2007), who claimed her film was rejected in favor of Eklavya: The Royal Guard (2007) because of the personal connections of the latter film's director and producer.
Another object of controversy is the Academy's "one-country-one-film" rule, which has been criticized by filmmakers. Although it allows films from small countries like Iceland or Bosnia and Herzegovina to get recognized by the Academy by putting them on an equal footing with major releases from established filmmaking nations, it also forces countries with a strong film industry like Italy or France to exclude many legitimate motion pictures because they are forced to select only one film. For the submissions for the 80th Academy Awards, for instance, critically acclaimed films such as La Vie en Rose (2007), whose lead actress Marion Cotillard eventually won the 2008 Academy Award for Best Actress, were dropped out simply because France had to choose only one film to submit and opted instead for Persepolis (2007), another equally acclaimed film.
Not being submitted for the Best Foreign Film Award does not prevent a film from receiving other Academy Awards. For instance, Pedro Almodóvar's film Talk to Her was not submitted for the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 2002 (Spanish film authorities had selected Fernando León's Mondays in The Sun), but received the Academy Award for Writing Original Screenplay. Moreover, the need for a film to be actually submitted by a specific country hinders the chances of international co-productions of getting nominated. For example, a multinational film such as The Motorcycle Diaries (2004) whose production involved nine different countries could not be specifically affiliated with any one of them. Therefore the film ended up being excluded from the race for the Foreign Language Film Award, even though it was successful and received numerous other awards, including an Academy Award for Best Original Song and an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.
In recent years, the Academy's very definition of the term "country" itself has been polemical. The submissions for the 75th Academy Awards, for instance, became shrouded in controversy when it was reported that Humbert Balsan, producer of the critically acclaimed Palestinian film Divine Intervention (2002), tried to submit his picture to the Academy but was told it could not run for the Foreign Language Film Award since Palestine is not a state that the Academy recognizes in its rules. Because the Academy had previously accepted films from such political entities as Hong Kong and Puerto Rico, the rejection of Divine Intervention triggered accusations of double standard from pro-Palestinian activists. Three years later, however, another Palestinian film, Paradise Now (2005), succeeded in getting nominated for the Foreign Language Film Award. The nomination also caused protests, this time from pro-Israeli groups in the United States, who objected to the Academy's use of the name "Palestine" on its official website to designate the film's submitting country. After intense lobbying from Jewish groups, the Academy decided to designate Paradise Now as a submission from the Palestinian Authority, a move that was decried by the film's director Hany Abu-Assad. During the awards ceremony, the film was eventually announced by presenter Will Smith as a submission from the Palestinian Territories.