Nigeria's 1st Oscar Entry 'Lionheart' Is Disqualified

Nov 10, 2019
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Let's talk movies now. The holiday season is soon upon us. That's a major time for big releases. It's the ramp-up to awards season. And in recent years, it's been the start of big controversies. This year is no different. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has caused a stir by disqualifying the first Oscar entry from Nigeria's massive film industry, known as Nollywood. It's a film called "Lionheart," and it was disqualified from the International Feature category because most of the dialogue is in English.

This is not going over well in Nigeria or the U.K. or among American filmmakers like Ava DuVernay. We wanted to learn more about this, so we've called on Afua Hirsch. She's a columnist for The Guardian, and she recently wrote a piece about this for that publication. We reached her in London.

Afua Hirsch, thank you so much for joining us.

AFUA HIRSCH: Thank you.

MARTIN: So walk me through this. The category used to be known as Best Foreign Language Film. They changed the name of the category, but they didn't change the rules for submission. So the argument here is what - that there isn't sufficient non-English dialogue in the film, even though the film was produced entirely outside of the United States?

HIRSCH: The thing with this film is that it does include Ibo, which is a major language in Nigeria. I think about 16% of the film is in the Ibo language. But the majority of the film is in English, and that really reflects life in Nigeria. I've worked and traveled a lot in Nigeria. My family comes from Ghana, which is another West African country with a similar history to Nigeria in the sense that this is an African country that was colonized by the British with the result that the official language is British. And this film really reflects that. So it really kind of senses American English as a kind of cultural norm and casts everything else as foreign and the other.

And, you know, I suppose there is an argument that it can defend that on the basis that, well, Hollywood is in America, and this is ultimately an American awards system. But then having rebranded that category to Best International Film, which is what it is now, suggested that the Oscars were trying to normalize the idea that there are films being made in other countries, and it's not just about them being foreign.

MARTIN: So Ava DuVernay - as we know, she's a Oscar-nominated filmmaker in the United States - you know, very, you know, influential, very outspoken. And she tweeted about this. And she said, well, what does this mean since, as you pointed out, because there are many languages in Nigeria, and many people use English as their - sort of their common thread - it is one of the official languages of Nigeria, right? - are they saying that no Nigerian film is going to - is - could be nominated? What are they - what is the implication of this?

HIRSCH: Countries that used to be in the British Empire speak English. That doesn't make them any less authentically African. But this leaves Nigerian films and many other African films in a bind because this is how life is in Nigeria. People speak a lot of English. And the idea that now Nigerians would have to kind of perform African languages just to appear authentic to decision-makers in Los Angeles seems really, really problematic. It's almost a kind of reverse colonialism, saying that we have to persuade you of our authenticity by behaving in a way we usually wouldn't.

MARTIN: A representative of the Academy said in a statement that the situation is less of a controversy and more of a misunderstanding. How do you understand that?

HIRSCH: Well, I agree in the sense that the misunderstanding is on the Academy. They do not understand African film. And, you know, just to drive that home, there are other entries from other African countries who were colonized by the French. So if you take Algeria, there is an entry from Algeria which is considered as having a good chance of winning in this category, Best International Film. Now, that film is in Arabic and also in French.

And, you know, the perverseness of this situation is that if your colonial - former colonial master was the French empire, then your colonial language is considered a foreign language because Americans don't speak French. If your former colonial master was Britain and your language is therefore English, your film is not considered a proper international film because it's in English.

And, you know, that there is no logic behind this. It's simply a reflection on what the Academy doesn't understand about colonial history and the reasons that countries speak the languages they do. So if someone from the Academy can explain why an Algerian film in French is somehow more authentically African than a Nigerian film in English, both of these being the languages of their former empire, then I would love to hear that explanation. But I suspect no one can explain because they just haven't thought it through.

MARTIN: That was Afua Hirsch. She's a columnist for The Guardian. She's also a visiting professor at USC. We reached her in London. Afua Hirsch, thank you so much for talking with us.

HIRSCH: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.