Smart Thinking

The Oscars’ ‘foreign language’ category is outmoded. A Fantastic Woman proves it

The movie won an Oscar on Sunday – but that doesn’t mean it’s had the recognition it deserves

A Fantastic Woman is thought-provoking in so many different ways. A vibrant magical-realist feature by Chilean director Sebastián Lelio, the film tells the story of a transgender woman (played brilliantly by Daniela Vega) and her journey through grief and social isolation after the death of her partner. Vega plays Marina, an entertainer in a relationship with an older divorcé. One night, he suffers a heart attack and later dies in hospital. Marina wrongly comes under suspicion, and is forced to face his family, who will do anything to keep her from his funeral.

The film has garnered glowing attention from reviewers, with critics calling it a ‘breakthrough moment’ for trans cinema and others a ‘powerful portrait of grief and prejudice’. On Sunday night A Fantastic Woman won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and Vega became the first trans actor to present an award at the ceremony. Which is an amazing recognition of the film, isn’t it? Not quite.

We can’t help but think it’s a shame A Fantastic Woman – brilliant and incisively of-the-moment – failed to be nominated for any of the main categories at the Oscars. Why wasn’t Lelio, a director making waves in the industry, recognised as a filmmaker in a category other than ‘foreign’? And why wasn’t Vega, a talent who carries A Fantastic Woman with the kind of emotional resonance that most actors could only dream of, up there with the rest of the best actresses?

It’s high time this divide was closed. Although it’s rare, there’s no hard-and-fast rule about which films can be picked for the top categories at the Oscars; this year, Mexican Guillermo del Toro won best director and best film for The Shape of Water, and Coco (another Mexican film) won best animated feature. In fact, since the awards started in 1929, there have been 10 foreign films nominated for best picture.

We need to challenge the notion that foreign language films are somehow weird or ‘arty’ and should be treated differently. The recent popularity of Scandi noir dramas, series such as The Revenant and films like The Handmaiden show us that cultural subtitles don’t put audiences off like they used to. And in today’s multicultural world, it doesn’t make sense to isolate films just because they’re ‘foreign’. Good filmmaking is good filmmaking – wherever in the world it comes from.

We ought to do away with the Oscars’ foreign language film category, and give films like A Fantastic Woman the recognition they deserve, alongside their peers. The diversity and inclusivity that was made so much of at this year’s Oscars will only happen when the segregation between English and non-English films comes to an end, and movies are judged solely on their quality and originality, rather than the language they’re filmed in. A Fantastic Woman has both in abundance.

A Fantastic Woman is in cinemas nationwide