By Ian Brennan
March 10th, 2023
“I’m sure the majority of the world doesn’t even know we make movies.”
These are the words of Likarion Wainaina, the 35-year-old writer-director of 2018’s Supa Modo, one of Kenya’s most acclaimed films. It’s a bittersweet, quirky tale of villagers rallying around a terminally ill 9-year-old girl to make her final wish– of becoming a superhero— come true.
The Seattle Times wrote about the film, “I straight-up bawled my eyes out.”
Kenya submitted the film for consideration in the Oscar category of “international feature films.” It was not nominated.
Countries submit potential candidates for the category — known as “foreign language film” until 2020. To be eligible, a film must be produced outside the U.S. and contain primarily non-English dialogue.
And over the years, certain countries rise to the fore — notably in Europe — while others are neglected.
Lower income countries rarely crack the list of 5 nominees, let alone win the Oscar. The nations of Africa, for example, are practically invisible. Since the category was introduced in 1956, only 10 films from Africa have been nominated, representing just 5 countries. Only 3 have won: Z from Algeria (1969), Black and White in Color from Ivory Coast (1976) and South Africa’s Tsotsi (2005). Two of those Oscar winners were directed by Europeans and the third by a white South African.
Meanwhile, the list of overlooked films is quite impressive. The 2019 Senegalese film, Atlantique, won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival. It’s been described by critics as a “supernatural romance” that largely acts as an allegory for the migrant crisis. Its director, Mati Diop, made history by becoming the first Black woman to direct a film featured in competition at the festival. Former President Obama named it one of his favorite films of the year. On Rotten Tomatoes the critics’ rating is 96%. Atlantique was submitted for an Oscar nomination but did not make the final cut.
The Oscar has gone to a European nation 58 times over 74 years (in addition to Canada winning once). France has been nominated more times than any other country with 41 nominations. Of the 10 countries that have won the most Oscars in the category, all are in Europe with the exception of 5-time winner Japan.
And only a small club of countries is even in the running. Just 62 nations — fewer than a third of the countries on earth — have ever had a film nominated.
The inequity is not due to lack of trying by non-European countries. Egypt has submitted films on 36 occasions and the Philippines 33, yet neither nation has once received a nomination.
Of course, cultural biases have a deep impact on all Oscar categories. Just ask the organizers of the #OscarsSoWhite campaign. Or consider the paucity of female nominees in the best director category. This year’s slate is all male.
The 2023 lineup
This year, submissions came from 93 nations, many of them in the Global South. They include Bangladesh, Cambodia, Tanzania and Uganda, with its first submission ever — Tembele, the story of a garbage collector who has a breakdown after the death of his newborn son. Morris Mugisha’s film won top awards at the Uganda Film Festival.
The Oscar nominations went to four European nations — Belgium, Germany, Ireland and Poland — and Argentina, an upper middle-income country that has won the category twice and earned eight previous nominations.
NPR reached out to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Film Academy for comment on the possible reasons that the list of international film nominees comes from such a relatively small and largely Western group of countries. The Academy did not provide comment.
So it is left to others in the world of film to speculate.
Columbia University Professor Richard Peña specializes in international cinema and as program director at the Film Society of Lincoln Center was pivotal in bringing cinema from Iran, Taiwan, Cuba, and Egypt to American audiences.
Professor Pena told NPR: “Members of the Academy and the Hollywood community are not the most ‘cosmopolitan’ in their view of world cinema. Inevitably, though, the more obscure ‘foreign’ films help make what seems unfamiliar, more familiar.”
The Smithsonian’s Amalia Córdova specializes in indigenous film and co-founded the Mother Tongue Film Festival in Washington, D.C., in 2016, which screens movies “about or in endangered, Indigenous or minoritized languages.” Her perspective: “The national film industries tend to aspire to Hollywood standards and popularity. But the gems are often in the more marginalized cinemas of each country. In terms of the education that we want to give our children in a globalized world, it can’t just be a replication of American culture, only in another language. It should instead be a glimpse into how diverse a place the earth is and how humans live in different ways throughout different parts of the planet.”
Of course the international film category isn’t the only place where other nations are recognized. Films and individuals from other countries have been nominated in many categories in the past and this year as well.
In 2020, the South Korean film Parasite won four Oscars— including best picture.
Last year, a film from Bhutan was a surprise nominee in the international film category: Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom. It’s all the more notable because Bhutan is a country with fewer than a million inhabitants.
Competing with three European countries and a Japanese film, Lunana was not the winner. The Oscar went to Japan.
This year, “Naatu Naatu,” a Telugu-language song from India featured in the blockbuster film RRR, is up for best original song.
But true to the pattern shown in the best international film category, a number of international nominees for other Oscars are from Western countries, including four Irish actors in the running for actor awards from The Banshees of Inisherinand Aftersun.
Nonetheless, filmmakers from the Global South have hope for more recognition in the future. Despite his frustration, Kenya’s Wainaina remains optimistic: “Normally, we from Africa are seen as beggars and always asking for handouts. But I believe for a fact that once the spotlight is put on African cinema, the one thing that every single Academy member will be asking is, ‘What took us so long to watch this stuff?’ “
Ian Brennan is a Grammy-winning music producer ( for Zomba Prison Project, Tinariwen, The Good Ones [Rwanda] and spoken word artist Raymond Antrobus). In the past decade he has recorded over 40 records by artists from Africa, Asia, Europe, North America and South America. He is the author of seven books, most recently Muse-$ick: a music manifesto in fifty-nine notes.
Ian Brennan is a Grammy-winning music producer who has produced three other Grammy-nominated albums. He is the author of four books and has worked with the likes of filmmaker John Waters, Merle Haggard, and Green Day, among others. His work with international artists such as the Zomba Prison Project, Tanzania Albinism Collective, and Khmer Rouge Survivors, has been featured on the front page of the New York Times and on an Emmy-winning 60 Minutes segment with Anderson Cooper reporting. Since 1993 he has taught violence prevention and conflict resolution around the world for such prestigious organizations as the Smithsonian, New York’s New School, Berklee College of Music, the University of London, the University of California–Berkeley, and the National Accademia of Science (Rome).