Why it might be time the Oscars rethink the best international film category — again

The disqualification of Nigerian film Lionheart from the best international film feature category at the Oscars is raising questions about whether films made in English in countries outside the U.S. should be allowed to compete.

Nigerian film Lionheart disqualified because of too much English dialogue

Director, co-writer and actress Genevieve Nnaji seen in the film Lionheart. The movie was the first-ever submission by Nigeria in the Oscars' best international feature film category but has since been disqualified for not having enough non-English dialogue. (The Entertainment Network)

Up until Monday, Lionheart was Netflix's first original film from Nigeria, and the first ever submission by Nigeria in the best international feature film category at the Oscars.

Now, only one of those facts remains true. 

Though the film was wholly produced in Nigeria, Lionheart is predominantly in English. That was enough for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to remove it from the running in the international film category, even as fans pointed out English is the country's official language.

"There are some countries where English is not just a spoken language, but it is the official language, like Nigeria. And I think that needs to be taken into account," Cameron Bailey, artistic director of the Toronto International Film Festival, said of the controversy.

Lionheart made its world premiere at TIFF in 2018. The movie, about a Nigerian woman pushing past sexism to take the reins of her father's transport business empire, received relatively good reviews.

"I was disappointed," Bailey said about learning the film had been disqualified from pursuing an Oscar as an international title. "It's an important film — an important film for Nigeria, an important film for world cinema."

The 95-minute film also features dialogue in both Igbo and Hausa, languages spoken in the West African country. It was one of 93 submissions in the international feature film category for the upcoming Academy Awards — the largest pool the category has ever seen. 

In a statement to CBC News, the academy says it stands by its decision to remove the film from consideration.

"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."

In April of this year, the academy changed the name of the category from best foreign language film to best international feature film, citing the term "foreign" as outdated within the "global filmmaking community." The academy said it felt the change would better promote "a positive and inclusive view of filmmaking." 

Still, despite the name change, the rules for qualification remain unchanged.

Academy rules state that movies in the international category must be feature length and produced outside of the U.S., with a predominantly non-English dialogue track. 

"The intent of the award remains the same — to recognize accomplishment in films created outside of the United States in languages other than English," the academy said in its statement to CBC.

Under those rules, the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada all have entries in this year's competition, with films featuring the languages Chewa, ‎Khmer and French, respectively.

Bailey says the rules about what makes a film international might need a closer look.

Toronto International Film Festival co-head and artistic director Cameron Bailey says the full landscape of international film needs to be taken into account at the Academy Awards. (Nigel Hunt/CBC)

"I think it's a rule that doesn't cover every situation in the world," said Bailey, who points out countries like Canada, Australia, New Zealand and English-speaking islands in the Caribbean meet the international standards geographically but their English-language films are currently ineligible under Oscar rules.

Canadian submissions in the category over the years have been predominantly French-language films from Quebec, like this year's submission, Antigone. Only a few films have competed in the category for Canada in other languages, such as Zacharias Kunuk's Atanarjuat, which was in Inuktitut, and Deepa Mehta's 2005 film, Water, which was in Hindi.

Bailey acknowledges the issue is complicated, but says he hopes the academy takes this opportunity to look at its rules and consider whether it wants to adapt anything moving forward.

Support for Lionheart

News of the academy's decision quickly sparked criticism online.

"English is the official language of Nigeria," tweeted Hollywood director Ava Duvernay. "Are you barring this country from ever competing for an Oscar in its official language?"

The film stars one of Africa's biggest screen stars, Nigerian actress Genevieve Nnaji, who also directed and co-wrote the drama. Nnaji took to Twitter on Monday to respond to the disqualification of her film.

"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."


Nnaji went on to make the comparison with how the French language connects communities in former French colonies.

"We did not choose who colonized us," she wrote. 

With Nigeria out of the competition, 92 films are left to vie for the 10 spots on the best international feature short list, to be announced on Dec. 16.


Tashauna Reid

Senior Reporter, CBC News

Tashauna Reid is a Senior Reporter for CBC News covering Health, Science and Climate Change. Her stories delve into a range of issues including the COVID-19 pandemic and the varying impacts of climate change in Canada. Tashauna has worked behind the scenes and in front of the camera at CBC News since 2008. Her stories can be found at CBC's The National, The World at Six, CBC News Network, World Report and cbc.ca.


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