Thursday, March 17, 2011

Just Like the Movies, Part I: Language and Nationality Ideologies, Differentiation and Markedness in the Oscar Categories

By Ilene Palacios

Exhibits A & B: Javier Bardem & Alejandro González Iñárritu:

Alejandro González Iñárritu y Javier BardemDirector Alejandro González Iñárritu and actor Javier Bardem on the set of Biutiful.

Javier Bardem is known as a Spanish actor born in the Canary Islands, an autonomous community off the coast of Africa that fell under Spanish rule starting from the early 1400s. “Los canarios” are usually also considered to be racially Spanish, but Canarian dialects are distinct from Peninsular Spanish. He was the first Spanish actor to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role for his part in Before Night Falls. He was also the first to win for Best Supporting Actor, which he won for his haunting role in the Cohen brothers’ adaptation of No Country for Old Men in 2007.
Bardem got a second Best Actor nomination this year for his role in Mexico City-born director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s (a.k.a. “el Negro” for his dark skin) film Biutiful, nominated for Best Foreign Language Film. Iñárritu was the first Mexican to be nominated for Best Director. His four feature films have included a variety of languages, Spanish above all, have been nominated for a dozen Oscars, and his first feature 2000’s Amores Perros, was also nominated for Best Foreign Language Film. His second most recent film Babel, was nominated for seven awards including Best Motion Picture and Best Director.

Exhibits Aₐ & Bₐ: Javier and Alejandro, Marked
            Being un-American/foreigners/Spanish-speakers, etc., there are a few ways, outside of their work per se that Javier Bardem and Alejandro González Iñárritu have been marked. Here are examples for each of them.
Aₐ In response to an article by the Hollywood Reporter:

Last September the Hollywood Reporter guessed as much when it published a story titled “Whitest Oscars in 10 years,” warning everyone that no actors of color were being considered for this year’s top prizes. This year’s awards does include one person of color, Javier Bardem from Spain who starred in “Biutiful.”
            Grammatical errors aside, this post calls Javier Bardem a ‘person of color’ – which, being Spanish/Canarian/European, he is not. It is difficult to tell here if the writer was mapping his native language of Spanish onto his ‘color’ or race or if his foreignness, his being not (White) American was to blame for this faux pas.
Being an actor that does work in both English and Spanish, Javier’s imperfect use of English and his ‘natural’ use of Spanish is a source of anxiety for some. In his interview after winning Best Supporting Actor (for an American movie filmed in English) in 2007 one journalist starts off by saying to Bardem, “We want you to share some of this joy…in English” and laughing.

If you are so inclined to see that full interview:
            Bₐ: Iñárritu, along with the two other, according to the NY Times, of Mexico’s “most successful, acclaimed directors” formed a sort of production conglomerate called Cha Cha Cha films. Hollywood has taken it upon itself to thus call this group “The Three Amigos”. Ironically, this trio created the conglomerate to use its range of skills and style as a point of leverage in Hollywood, i.e. for American-produced films.
Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College

            Talk about  a triple whammy of a culture and language suffering erasure, appropriation and mildly offensive iconization...and...hmm actually with that pose, I see the resemblance...
Marking and Not Marking Films and People through the “Film in a Foreign Language” Oscar Category

Awarding people and films based on a particular set of U.S. standards that utilize somewhat arbitrary categories can be limiting and perhaps problematic. Things can get even more muddled and ambiguous when race, nationality and language come into play. I doubt many people would claim that the various participants of the Academy Awards are representative, be they various ethnic, racial and gender groups within the U.S., people from countries around the world or speakers of different languages. The Best Foreign Language Film category, created in 1956, seems to aim to address race, nationality and language all in one, but it may be the most limiting and inconsistent category of all, and they way it plays out seems to be based on a number of intertwining inconsistencies, assumptions and folk notions.

For instance:

1)    The category assumes (U.S.) English as the Standard language for film
2)    The nominees for the category are chosen not by language(s) but by country in/from which a film is produced (although many American films nowadays are physically and artistically made [e.g. filmed, edited] internationally)
3)    A country is allowed to pick only one film to represent it, i.e. linguistically, which, coupled with events and notions of the film, could lead to the film being an reference for iconization and fractal recursivity related to the country’s people and erasure of dialects and other language use in that country
4)    Even though a film can include multiple languages and dialects of a language, as well as multiple countries in which it is produced, usually one language in one form is chosen for the films

The Best Foreign Language Film category seems not only to try to bear and pass down the burden or representation of the entire world, but also to map and overlap nationality or country with language together, and might even run the risk of dragging in assumptions about ethnicity and race in with the mix. There are many points of fractal recursivity happening and it is difficult to see at what point of difference the process began.
Iñárritu’s film Babel was nominated for Best Picture, not Best Foreign Language Film, even though its director is Mexican and it contained Arabic, Spanish, Japanese, a Japanese variety of Sign Language (in addition to English), because it was an American-produced film. The first film Javier Bardem was nominated for, Before Night Falls, contained English, Spanish, Russian and French, but he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor among other English-speaking actors, and won. He also was nominated for Best Actor for Iñárritu’s Biutiful, a Foreign Language Film nominee.
This inconsistency and erasure that occurs in this category come somewhat to light when the Best Foreign Language Film nominees are presented at the Academy Awards show. This occurs in the form of reading out the nominees’ film titles in English or  the film’s own, “foreign” language:

            Perhaps the actress couldn’t pronounce those two film titles she read in English, or maybe it was how the films were marketed. The actress reading out the nominees here reads the nominees out, introducing them by saying, “From (insert country here)” instead of “In (insert language here)”, and reads their titles are written on the screen behind her. The Milk of Sorrow (in Spanish, La teta asustada, literally “the frightened breast”) and The White Ribbon (in German, Das Weisse Band) are read out in the language and country the film represents.
The White Ribbon is actually an Austrian-German production, but it represented Germany – and the German language. The Milk of Sorrow was produced by both Peru and Spain and contained both Spanish and Quechua, but it only represented one country and one language, Peru and Spanish, respectively.

One Nation, One Language, One People…One Category?

Based on these examples, one might conclude the following about the Academy Awards and its categorizations and conceptions about language and nationality (and perhaps following that thread, race):

·         Actors’ ‘foreignness’ (I.e. they are ‘foreign-made’, ‘produced’ in another country) can mark them, especially in relation to U.S. folk notions and ideologies about ‘normal’ or ‘appropriate’ language use, nationality and race in relation to English/American/White
·         Acting whether done in English or another language, is thought of as more universal, language-less – perhaps ironically; separate categorization for actors is not necessary (because actors act like someone else anyway)
·         A film can contain (a) “foreign” language(s)/actors/directors/filming/editing, but isn’t really considered as such unless it’s produced in another country, and thus would require a separate category of nomination.
·         Language and Nationality are almost interchangeable terms by which a film can be defined
·         The Academy Awards’ (i.e. the U.S.) language ideology  of one language/nation/people are imposed on Foreign Language nominees and assumes a similar language ideology applies for every country in the world; the nominated films must adhere to the Academy's rules and be the sole choice of one country with one language to represent that country -- this has implications for what a film represents of a country’s people as being of a particular monolingual (i.e. one dialect too), monoethnic, and perhaps monoracial essence 
o   Perhaps in line with the devaluation of Bilingualism in the U.S. and valuation of “Standard English”?
o   Probably erase other countries’ ideologies about language and its use and prevalence
·         A language and a Country can be commodified and represented in a film

The only country that can be said to predominantly speak English, Canada, was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film for a film made in that country’s dialect of French. Never has a film from Britain, Australia, New Zealand, etc. been nominated because mainly English is spoken there; they are foreign countries, but they are English-speaking countries so they cannot qualify for this award though the award is given out to filmmakers of a country, not who are speakers of a language.
One might wonder what might happen if Pakistan and India, which list English as an official language, ever submitted an English-language film if it would nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Category. Would their foreignness and distance of geography, ethnicity and race trump the similarity of language then? How much would such films need to fit the ‘Foreign Language Film profile’, the U.S./Hollywood ideology about language, in order to even be considered for nomination?

Additional References

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