2021 Academy Awards

2021 Academy Awards – International Feature Film

2021 International Films General Introduction

For the 2021 Academy Awards, 93 countries entered films in the International category. I have seen 85 of these films. I have been writing reviews of the entries in this category for thirteen years. This year’s batch of films was different because there was a much greater emphasis on stories about injustice, human rights abuses, mass cruelty and government corruption. Some of these films deal with present-day issues and some with historical atrocities.

Two such films did qualify for final five nominees. In the Romanian documentary Collective,  dogged investigative journalists and whistleblowers expose a shocking scandal within a scandal. Quo Vadis, Aida? from Bosnia and Herzegovina recreates the lead-up to the 1995 massacre of more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica by Bosnian Serb paramilitary forces. It is told from the point-of-view of a teacher who is working as a translator for the Dutch NATO forces who are supposed to be protecting the local civilians.

Two of the other nominees deal with bullying (Better Days) and getting drunk (Another Round). The fifth nominee, The Man Who Sold His Skin from Tunisia, is a clever exploration of the commodification of a human being.

A sixth foreign-language entry, The Mole Agent from Chile, earned a Best Documentary nomination, and a worthy one at that, as an elderly man is hired to infiltrate a rest home to find out if one of the patients is being robbed and abused.

However, as I said, the predominant theme of International films this year is the portrayal of injustice. Here are a few examples.

From present-day:

The Milkmaid from Nigeria, Nafi’s Father from Senegal and Broken Keys from Lebanon all deal with the cruelty of Islamist extremists. The Milkmaid follows the divergent paths of two sisters who are kidnapped by Boko Haram. In Nafi’s Father, a religious fanatic uses the potential marriage of his niece to gain favor with a wealthy fundamentalist leader. The protagonist of Broken Keys is a pianist who is torn between opposing the ISIS fighters who have taken over his town and fleeing so that he can pursue his musical career.

Once Upon a Time in Venezuela and River Tales from Luxembourg/Nicaragua are documentaries that expose the heartlessness of corrupt government officials who ruin the lives of rural citizens. The Mongolian film Veins of the World takes this corruption a step further to include mining companies. Sun Children from Iran shows the governmental neglect that turns poor children into petty thieves, while at the same time denying funding to a school that tries to help just such kids. 200 Meters from Jordan and Gaza mon amour from Palestine deal with the restrictions imposed on Palestinians by the Israeli government and military, and Gaza mon amour throws in condemnation of Hamas for good measure. Wiren, Suriname’s first entry in the Academy Awards, highlights an injustice that is hard to believe still exists in the twenty-first century: in Suriname, it is illegal for deaf students to attend university.

Historical:

The difficulty of getting people to watch films about atrocities in their own countries is illustrated by the cinematic odyssey of Guatemalan director Jayro Bustamante, who wanted to make a film about the massacre of more than 30,000 Mayan peasants by the Guatemalan military that peaked in the early 1980s. Knowing that most Guatemalan filmgoers did not want to face the subject, Bustamante wrapped it up in a horror story called La Llorona.

The films in this sub-category are fictional, but based on historical facts that most people, like the majority of citizens of Guatemala, would like to forget.

The Armenian film Songs of Solomon deals with the Turkish massacre of Armenians and other Christians. No, not the famous genocide that began in 1915, but an earlier one in 1894-1896, in which Turks massacred an estimated 200,000 Armenians. The Crying Steppe from Kazakhstan portrays, in painful detail, the Bolshevik-imposed famines that wiped out more than a million and a half Kazakhs. Dear Comrades! from Russia deals with another of those incidents that the Soviet government tried to erase from history: the 1962 massacre of striking workers.

Quo Vadis, Aida? may portray the vicious cruelty of Serbs, but the shocking Serbian film Dara of Jasenovac reminds us of the appalling story of the Croatian Ustaše-run Jasenovac concentration camps during World War II, in which almost 100,000 people, most of them Serbs, Roma and Jews, were killed. The Auschwitz Report from Slovakia tells the surprisingly little-known story of two Jews who escaped from Auschwitz, bringing with them evidence that forced the outside world to face the fact that Auschwitz was a Nazi extermination camp, not a benign resettlement camp, as the Red Cross believed. At the end of the film, director Peter Bebjak reminds us of why Holocaust stories are still relevant by accompanying the credits with an audio montage of current racist and anti-immigrant politicians and religious leaders from nine countries spouting hate messages.

Among the other films dealing with historical cruelty is Killing the Dead from Paraguay, which takes place during the dictatorship of Gen. Alfredo Stroessner. Two men make their living secretly burying the corpses of Stroessner’s opponents. The Endless Trench from Spain is about the lingering effects of the dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco, causing one anti-Franco revolutionary to hide indoors for 33 years. A State of Madness from Dominican Republic takes place during the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo and follows a doctor in charge of a psychiatric hospital who discovers that some of his patients are not mentally ill, but political dissidents. Operation Just Cause tells the story of the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama from the point-of-view of the Panamanians.

Three of this year’s non-political entries deserve much more attention. Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time from Hungary is about a neurosurgeon who is romantically obsessed with another surgeon, with some late twists that change the way we view the protagonist. The Norwegian film Hope is an unusually realistic story about a woman who is diagnosed with terminal cancer and how she and her family deal with it. The reason it’s so realistic is that it’s the true story of writer-director Maria Sødahl. France’s entry, Two of Us (Deux), is about two lesbian senior citizens who have kept their relationship secret for a long, long time.

It is unusual for a country to enter a comedy or at least a light-hearted movie in the International category, so I like to honor those that do. The Unknown Saint from Morocco opens with a thief burying his loot on top of a remote hill and covering it up to look like a grave. When he is released from prison years later, he discovers that the “grave” has been transformed into a pilgrimage site in honor of an unknown saint. The Bulgarian film The Father follows an adult son who tries to convince his father that his mother is not trying to speak to him from the hereafter, while at the same time searching for a special kind of quince jam for his pregnant wife. And in the aforementioned Gaza mon amour, a 60-year-old bachelor fisherman finally works up the nerve to make a play for a widow of his own age.

-David Wallechinsky