Why did ‘Capernaum’ not win an Oscar?

BEIRUT: For two years in a row this country’s film-lovers have been treated to the rare spectacle of Lebanese directors vying for Oscars.

Last year Lebanon had its first brush with the Oscars when Ziad Doueiri’s fourth feature, “The Insult,” was nominated for Best Foreign Language Oscar.

This year “Capernaum,” Nadine Labaki’s third feature, earned the same nomination.

No trophies came home. Why?

Short answer: Who knows?

Empirical evidence suggests Arabic-language films have tended to make little impact on the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, but the opacity of the voting process makes any informed analysis of the process impossible.

Academy award winners are decided by AMPAS’ 6000-odd cinema professionals. As the entertainment press informs its readers during the yearly awards season, the identities of AMPAS members is a “closely guarded secret,” though most of them are based in the U.S.

Journalists have been able to provide some AMPAS demographics.

A 2012 LA Times study determined 94 percent of members were white, 77 percent male, with a median age of 62 years.

That year the academy’s 43-member board of governors was mostly male too, with six women sitting.

Tectonic changes are assumed to have shaken AMPAS since 2016 in response to the #OscarsSoWhite campaign and the post #MeToo celluloid ceiling discussions of pay inequities between male and female film professionals.

These assumptions betray nothing about how AMPAS members have voted, or may vote, on a case by case basis.

If you don’t know who’s voting, it’s impossible to know their decision-making criteria for the winners.

In lieu of voting transparency, the entertainment press has fallen back on other means for forecasting winners (aka drumming up buzz for films with persuasive press relations teams). The favorite device for forecasting Oscar gold has been accumulated treasure. That said, the bookmakers have determined that not all pre-Oscar prizes are equally reliable in tracking Oscar success.

Smaller awards ceremonies staged in the weeks preceding the Academy Awards (the SAG awards, etc.) have proven unreliable in making Oscar predictions. Among film festivals, juried prizes like Cannes' Palme d’Or are less likely to come up during awards season than the Toronto film festival’s People’s Choice Award. Films that have taken the PCA have an uncanny knack for receiving Best Picture nominations and, as is the case with “Green Book” this year, winning the trophy.

No such weather vane exists for the foreign language Oscar.

In the babble of press and public relations proclamations preceding this year’s Oscar ceremony, few gave “Capernaum” much chance of winning. The competition - not just “Roma,” but each short-listed film - was simply too strong.

A convincing narrative for a Labaki win did emerge, one that reflected the realpolitik of decision-making more than the quality of the film itself.

It suggested that if Alphonso Cuaron’s film won the Best Picture prize, then it would greatly open the field for Best Foreign Language Oscar. The Academy might not vote for Pawell Pawlikowski’s “Cold War” (seen as the second-most-touted title), it was argued, because he’d already won that Oscar in 2015 for “Ida.”

In that case, and in the celluloid ceiling era, AMPAS might choose to make a statement in voting for the only nominated female director.

Does losing matter?

Labaki devotees can rest assured that her nomination will have some impact on distributors and exhibitors, particularly those minding the consumer niche that touts of “Capernaum” claim it fills - compassionate depictions of the struggles of poor people in the 21st century’s global workhouse.

Industry punters will tell you the real worth of the Oscar lies in its making it easier for winning filmmakers to find production funds for subsequent projects. Cuaron himself threw these assumptions into doubt last year when journalists asked why he’d agreed to have Netflix produce “Roma.”

With a bushel of Oscar nominations under his belt and two trophies for “Gravity” in 2014, he said no one else would produce his film.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 26, 2019, on page 12.




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