DUBAI: The Oscars have always been a local affair. For the last 92 years, the elite of Hollywood, the filmmaking members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science gather in gowns and tuxedos to walk the red carpet past people they idle behind in the LA traffic, sit next to people they live down the block from, and give awards to people that they run into at the supermarket, that is if they do their own shopping at all.
While the Academy Awards have always drawn eyes from around the world to see the films that the industry itself deems the best, Hollywood has often had a hard time looking beyond its borders. Until last night when South Korea’s Parasite triumphantly took home the top prize, no non-English language film had ever won Best Picture, in spite of the fact that international cinema has been pushing the artform forward since it was first brought forth by two mustachioed French brothers 125 years ago.
It wasn’t until 1947, at the Oscars’ 18th ceremony, that international features were even awarded, and not until 1956 that the competitive category “Best Foreign Language Film” was added, where the work of history’s greatest directors such as Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini and Akira Kurasawa was relegated to. South Korea has been nominating films for the category since 1962, not achieving even a nomination until 2019—the year for which it finally won, and also the year that films stopped being considered “foreign language”, changed to “international feature” films.
That change matters a lot—and may have provided an ease on the mental block that had stopped great international films from achieving the top honor. There is no ‘foreign language’ in film after all, as the language of cinema is universal. That was clear as Bong Joon Ho, who also won Best Director, quoted his hero and fellow nominee Martin Scorsese in his acceptance speech. Film has always bridged cultures, and the fact that a barrier remained towards full appreciation of the breadth of the artform was nonsensical and unjust.
Now that Parasite, a film as specific in its cultural details as it is universal in its themes of income inequality and class disparity, has smashed that barrier, the world of international film can finally get the appreciation it deserves, bringing with it greater box office returns, and a broadening viewership. Not only does this keep the Oscars relevant, as they battle dwindling television ratings worldwide, it will give these films a platform previously reserved for those in Hollywood’s club of mostly homogenous, slowly diversifying membership, to the benefit of both filmmakers and fans.
That bridge, too, is open to Arab cinema. Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum found huge audiences in China because, like Parasite, its themes resonate far beyond Lebanon’s borders. This lays out a clear path forward. As long as a film can touch on the truths of the human condition, it has just as much a right, and now possibility, to gain the highest of accolades.
For Arab cinema to truly progress, however, it must gain greater public support in its own region rather than just hoping that international approval will be enough. The greatest dialogue must first happen within, just as it has with the thriving Korean film scene, where its own movies out-perform most international fare. As actress Lee Jung-eun rightly pointed out in the acceptance speech for Best Picture last night, it is fervent support at home, first and foremost, that grows its industry and allows great art such as Parasite to be made, and find audiences around the world.