Lionheart & Joy: A Tale of Two Oscars Nominations and Disqualifications

Two Films from two women of colour; Lionheart by Genevieve Nnaji and Joy by Sudabeh Mortezai were recently disqualified from the Oscars after being nominated owing to a highly controversial decision of both films having too many English dialogues.

 Lionheart, Nigeria’s first-ever and only submission to the Academy was Directed by actor-director Genevieve Nnaji which received enthusiastic reviews since it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2018 and subsequently acquired by Netflix with many more Nigerian films, got thrown out by the academy due to its 11 minutes igbo dialect dialogue.

Also, the movie Joy, which was directed by Austrian-Iranian Sudabeh Mortezai, was Austria’s pick for the 92nd annual Academy Awards. The film centres on Nigerian sex workers in Vienna and was also premiered to high acclaim at the 2018 Venice Film Festival. Joy was also acquired by Netflix. But during its standard review, however, the Academy realised two-thirds of the movie was in English, thus making it disqualified for consideration.

Although the Academy has hitherto clarified that the grounds for disqualifying the Lionheart film was because it had a mere 11 minutes of non-English dialogue, it had also noted in a statement published in Variety Magazine in April, that the rules of the category (in which Lionheart was nominated) would not change.

“In April 2019, we announced that the name of the Foreign Language Film category changed to International Feature Film. We also confirmed that the rules for the category would not change. The intent of the award remains the same — to recognize accomplishment in films created outside of the United States in languages other than English.

“As this year’s submitted films were evaluated, we discovered that ‘Lionheart’ includes only 11 minutes of non-English dialogue, which makes it ineligible for this award category,” the statement read.

The Nigerian Oscar Selection Committee (NOSC) 2020 made up of Charles Novia, CJ Obasi, Mildred Okwo, Ngozi Okafor, Ramsey Nouah, Abba Makama, Bruce Ayonote, , Mahmood Ali-Balogun, Chioma Ude, Adetokunbo “DJ Tee” Odubawo and Shaibu Husseini, had recently described the barring of Lionheart from the category as “an eye-opener” and advised local movie-makers to take care to follow Academy guidelines in the future.

Reacting to the backlash from the disqualification, the NOSC acknowledged that “Lionheart”, departed from the requirement that contenders feature “a predominantly non-English dialogue track.” The 95-minute comedy is mostly in English, with had just a short section in the Igbo language.

Critics of the Academy’s decisions had their day on Social Media condemning the institution’s position by arguing that English is the official language of Nigeria and that the move could be sending a message that Nollywood, Nigeria’s thriving movie industry, isn’t welcome.

The import of the disqualification saga is that both movies centre on things happening to the Nigerian community and are written and directed by women of colour leaves more to ponder as to why both were barred and what the requirements for Best International  Feature Film category are in the first place.

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Criteria for Entering the Best International Feature Film Category

Although the Best International Feature Film is an old category with a new name, it was formerly known as known as Best Foreign-Languge Film, up until 2019 when it was changed.

According to the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), an international film must meet the following criteria to be considered:

  1. It must be feature-length. (Translation: running time of more than 40 minutes).
  2. It must be produced outside of the United States.
  3. It must have a “predominantly non-English dialogue track.”

Countries can only submit one movie per year, which also includes animated and documentary films.

A major criterion that may have been overlooked by the makers of the two movies (according to the rules above) was the fact that the majority of the dialogue must be in a language other than English.

Hollywood Director, Ava DuVernay, lent her support to the film’s entry in the Oscar race, in a category that, ironically, has been newly rechristened as “international feature film” instead of “foreign-language film.”

Speaking in favour of her film, Lionheart, Nnaji argues that since Nigeria’s colonisation, the English language has the universal form of communication as it connects all of the diversities of languages.

“Are you barring this country from ever competing for an Oscar in its official language?” DuVernay asked the Academy in a tweet.

“This movie represents the way we speak as Nigerians. This includes English which acts as a bridge between the 500+ languages spoken in our country; thereby making us #OneNigeria,” Nnaji said in a tweet in response to DuVernay’s tweet.

“It’s no different to how French connects communities in former French colonies. We did not choose who colonised us. As ever, this film and many like it is proudly Nigerian,” Nnaji added.

In a phone interview with Plus TV, Veteran actor Segun Arinze also lent his voice to the Lionheart’s disqualification from the Oscar race: “If it’s going to be a foreign language film, it has to be at least 60% of Igbo or Yoruba and the rest 40% could be in English. But they fell short and were about 20% Igbo, so that was a minus.”

Lessons Learnt from the Disqualification? 

In this year’s edition of the Oscars, the category for Best International Feature Film is particularly important because a record-breaking 93 films were submitted. But now, however, that number has been whittled down to 91 from which, the Academy will announce a shortlist of 10 finalists to compete at the 92nd Oscars on December 16. And in January 2020, the final five nominees will be announced.

From this development where Africa is yet at the centre of it all, film-makers will have to pay much more attention to the criteria of the categories they are entering for before they do in order to avoid such embarrassing situations.

“If you’re submitting for something as important as an Academy Award, I would think you should look at the rules,” the Academy’s International Feature Film executive committee co-chair Larry Karaszewski noted in a statement to Deadline.

Secondly, the Oscars Academy awards organisers must also get their acts right by properly defining what each criterion would entail and if there are exceptions to the rules just like in the cases of Joy and Lionheart.

Taking a look at the Academy’s decision to bar both movies,  the award institution must see from a different perspective that their exclusions might limit filmmakers’ abilities to make movies about immigrant, refugee or foreign communities with a history of British colonial rule – an empire that ruled 24% of the Earth’s surface and an estimated 412 million people.

But then, the category’s criteria operate under the assumption that people must speak the language of the country they currently reside.


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