Photo: Götz Spielmann at the Academy Awards. Photo Credit: Matt Petit / ©A.M.P.A.S.
Saturday Morning, Feb. 21, Beverly Hills
It was a cloudy Saturday, Feb. 21, when cineastes got a glimpse of the five films that were nominated for the Best Foreign Film at the 81st Annual Academy Awards. The legendary Samuel Goldwyn Theater at 8949 Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills, used by the Academy for the Oscar nominations each year, was host to the traditional Foreign Language Film Nominees Symposium, held for the 31st time.
There were 65 submitted this time, and Austria’s submission, Götz Spielmann’s Revanche, was short listed, along with entries from Germany (Baader-Meinhof-Complex), France (The Class), Japan (Departure) and Israel (Waltz with Bashir).
From the outside, the theater looks like any other office building with its darkened glass façade, but the gowned and tuxedoed crowd passing through the security checks was clearly not on its way to work.
The red-carpet winds its way upstairs, past two Italian-made and beautifully crafted Bisazza mosaic Oscar statues, reflected in the mirrored wall, softening the otherwise sterile atmosphere. Upstairs, posters of movie legends are a reminder of the hay-days of Hollywood film-making. Finally, I enter the theater and take an unreserved seat in the middle.
Admission is free for any of the symposia, but registration is required on the Academy website, and events are quickly sold out.
The Foreign Film nominations are of particular interest, even in provincial Hollywood: these directors are exotic and bring a range of new experiences and projects. Along with it comes the huge international media interest.
Although world media seem to have identified the clear favourite– the Israel Animated Feature Film Waltz with Bashir – the locals remain skeptical. Mike, a middle-aged Hollywood resident and regular said he “wouldn’t bet on it to win,” and his tip instead was the Japanese Departure, whose screening he had seen just a few days ago.
When I let on I am Austrian and excited to see yet another Austrian movie nominated, he smiled. “A good movie indeed,” he agreed, “but at the beginning I wasn’t’ sure whether this was a porn movie. But then it gets really exciting and powerful.” But, he doubted it would be enough to win. Similar voices could be heard where I was seated, and so, I keep thinking, everyone might be in for a surprise.
Each film nomination was introduced with a short clip, and then all the five directors were invited on stage for an entertaining panel discussion, chaired by Mark Johnson, chair of the nominating committee.
As the segments were screened, my attention is caught by the clip of The Class; a skillful movie, where the teacher François Begaudeau – also the best-selling author of the book on which the film is based – plays the lead character. The students of a multi-ethnic Parisian classroom are also non-professionals.
Yet, this film – currently showing in Austrian cinemas – has won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in fact, the first French film in 22 years – has authenticity, and one feels the challenges a society faces when educating a multi-ethnic young generation.
In the scene introducing the film, one of the students chose the word Autrichien – Austrian – and in which Begaudeau challenges its choice and the relevance: Austria is an “unimportant country” that no one would miss if it were to disappear from the map, he says, causing some amusement to Austrians present. A short, friendly rivalry on stage followed when Austria’s Götz Spielmann was seated next to the film’s director Laurent Cantet, and host Mark Johnson jokingly expressed his concerns about the seating arrangement.
Spielmann’s relaxed and casual way added particular charm to the debate, contrasting some of the serious film directors on stage. And his self-ironic opening comment “Excuse my bad English, I hope you find it somewhat charming” was received by the packed audience with warm laughter.
The overall discussion focused on the genesis of the nominated films, as well as of practical matters, such as casting of actors as well as differences between European and Hollywood film culture. European directors often envy Hollywood’s vast pool of talented actors, while back home, only a handful of top professionals are at hand for their film projects.
Japanese director Yojiro Takita had just flown in from Tokyo, where his film Departure picked up 10 awards at the Japan Academy Prizes. Based on the book Coffinman: The Journal of a Buddhist Mortician by the contemporary Japanese writer Shinmon Aoki, this is charming romantic comedy about an unemployed cellist Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki), who finds himself at a company specializing in the ‘ceremonial encoffination’ of corpses (prior to their cremation), instead of a travel agency. The film, at the U.S. box offices in May 2009, will be in Austrian cinemas in March 2009.
Discussing casting matters, the Japanese director, through a translator, explained that the “hardest actors to select were the corpses.” Had he had considered using “the real thing?” It had only occurred to him after the movie was shot.
But what about Revanche? Was this based on a story “you read in the papers?” asked host Mark Johnson? “I really also would like to know,” quipped Spielmann, at which point the audience was in hysterics. Equally disarming was his response to the question of inspiration for new film projects. “I did not realize for a long time that I do not have an idea (for a new movie).”
Finally, when Mark Johnson rounded off the panel with the information on cinema release of the respective films, the astonished moderator noticed that Götz Spielmann had left the stage.
“He found an idea,” French director Laurent Cantet suggested, and Johnson closed with the words, that “one has to go with it when it comes.”
This is an excerpt, the full article was published in March 2009 in The Vienna Review.