Strange as it may seem, the Oscar for Best International Feature tends to go to movies that are universal rather than geographically specific. Last year’s winner Drive My Car spoke more about mankind’s default setting to loneliness than it did about the specifics of relationship dynamics in modern Japan, just as the Danish drunks in 2021’s Another Round got hammered in a way that was relatable to boozers in every country from Albania to Zambia. Maybe the Academy feels that real life is better left to docs, but a 2015 win for the harrowing Second World War drama Son of Saul suggests that the door is always open. And after a year that saw the whole world reeling from Vladmir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, this might be one of those years that addresses the fact.
Clearly, the abrupt nature of Putin’s surprise maneuver on February 24 caught many unawares, especially in an industry that can be slow to react. Maryna Er Gorbach, however, had begun work on her film Klondike — Ukraine’s official entry in the Oscar stakes — nearly two years before. “We shot this movie non-stop in 2020,” she told a press conference in Sarajevo, “having this feeling that we are already late because, there had already been six years of [Russian] occupation [after the annexation of Crimea].”
Set on 17 July 2014, the day when unknown forces believed to be using a Russian missile shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, Klondike tells the story of a pregnant farm owner caught up in Russia’s assault on Donbass. “I remember the day well,” said Er Gorbach, “because it was a huge civil and international air-crash catastrophe. It was not a Ukrainian or Russian airplane, it was not a military plane. It was a totally shocking event. And we thought, ‘This event will not be ignored by the world, by international politicians, by journalists, whatever. It will bring a huge conversation about the events in Ukraine.’ But in 2016 I realized that this wasn’t happening.”
With Klondike, Er Gorbach aims to remind people of the human cost of war: not just the loss of lives but the loss of homes and livelihoods in the displacement that follows. “Often when people are in war zones, after a few months or after a few years, they have a feeling that they’re forgotten,” she said, “that nobody shares their pain, and that no one understands what’s really happening with them. I know that for many Ukrainians it’s hard to watch [my] movie, but I also want these people to know that I feel the same pain, and I’m trying to share this feeling with the viewers, so that they won’t be alone with their feelings. [With this film] I want the viewer to experience the power of women’s instincts to survive, to resist, and to fight for the future.”
Russia, of course, won’t be competing this year, having snubbed the Oscars in a pre-emptive strike. Some countries, though, are only too keen to offer up mea culpas about shameful episodes from the past. New Zealand is backing Tearepa Kahi’s Muru (a Maori word with many readings, one being “forgive”). Set in the otherwise peaceful Ruatoki Valley in the Tühoe region of New Zealand, Kahi’s film deals with a series of police raids in 2007 in which the authorities targeted an Indigenous community, hoping to shut down Maori activists in the area by falsely portraying them as domestic terrorists.
The film’s star, Cliff Curtis, acknowledges that this is something of a stain on such a progressive nation. “But what’s great about our country is that we’re telling a story about this with the support of our government,” he says. “Y’know, other governments might not be so willing to participate in this kind of exploration of who we are. And so it’s critical, and healthy, to be able to examine those things we’re uncomfortable with.”
Argentina is another country that is willing to open up the wounds of the past. Indeed, it has previous form for it, winning the 2009 Oscar with Juan José Campanella’s noir-thriller The Secret in Their Eyes, which was set during in the pre-dictatorship years when far-right death squads ran amok. This year the region is getting behind Santiago Mitre’s Argentina, 1985, an account of the trial that led to jail time for those responsible for the torture and murder of thousands.
The years ’75-’83 have been addressed a lot, and those dark times have cast a long shadow. Says the star of Argentina, 1985, Ricardo Darin, “There was a wave of Argentine screenwriters who, after having lived through such a difficult period and through such a horrific dictatorship, felt obliged to make reference to it, which is why there were some very hard-to-watch films that emerged from that period.”
Now, he says, there is a new generation, and one that doesn’t feel the same obligations to the past: “Which is why you get the same subject matter, the same history, being treated and presented through films in a completely different way.” And is also why Argentina, 1985 might catch the Academy’s eye: although it is perfectly serious in its assessment of the misdeeds of the Junta, the film is often very funny, notably in its depiction of Darin’s character, the witty, irreverent lawyer Julio Strassera.
“I think it’s a very clever script-strategy,” says Darin, “because it lowers our defenses for the second half of the film, which otherwise might come off to audiences as too heavy or almost too cruel or too burdensome. It’s one of the really strong aspects of the film for me, that the heavy themes we’re exploring don’t ever overburden the audience.”
Wartime stories, however, are relatively thin on the ground this year. One that might catch voters’ attention, however, is the Jordanian contender Farha, about a teenage girl caught up in the controversial aftermath of the 1947 U.N. plan to partition Palestine (also known as the Nakba or “catastrophe”). “When you watch a film about Palestine, you always think you’re going to watch a political film,” says director Darin J. Sallam. “But this was always going to be a human story first, about a child who’s forced to grow up and to become a woman. She didn’t choose any of this.”
Producer Deema Azar explains a little more. “The film is called ‘Farha’ and, in Arabic that means joy,” she explains. “It refers to the joy that was stolen from the Palestinian people in 1948, and it was important for us to show that there was light in Palestine, that it was a land with people who had lives, dreams and aspirations. In almost every household in Jordan, you’d hear a story about Palestine 1948, about what happened to that specific family, and how they ultimately ended up in Jordan because of that.”
No conflict so far, though, has seen as a much global upheaval as the First World War, which is the subject of Edward Berger’s Netflix hit All Quiet on the Western Front, an adaption of Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 memoir/novel. For many, the 1930 American version is unimpeachable, so why make it again? “For me,” he says, “the big reason was to go back to the German novel and make a German film out of it by bringing what we have, the things that make German, to this movie — things that no English or American filmmaker can theoretically do, because they don’t have that heritage.”
England, he points out, was attacked during the war and so defended itself, and then America joined in and liberated Europe from fascism. “There’s a sense of pride about that,” he says. “It’s about honor. There’s something to commemorate. But in Germany, there’s nothing like that. There’s just shame and guilt, and terror, and responsibility towards what happened. And that makes a very different film, in my opinion.”