Palestinian overcomes obstacle to reach new US foreign film market

Guy Davidi and Emad Burnat, makers of Oscar-nominated 5 Broken Cameras, in Beverly Hills this week. photograph: reuters

Guy Davidi and Emad Burnat, makers of Oscar-nominated 5 Broken Cameras, in Beverly Hills this week. photograph: reuters

Sat, Feb 23, 2013, 00:00

A few days before the Academy Awards, filmmaker Michael Moore went on something of a Twitter rampage, posting a series of messages about how immigration officers at Los Angeles airport detained Palestinian filmmaker Emad Burnat, who was travelling to the Oscars ceremony.

“My family and I were held at US immigration . . . and questioned about the purpose of my visit,” Burnat said in a statement the following day.

He is nominated in the best documentary category for his feature-length film 5 Broken Cameras, documenting the growth of a resistance movement to the Israeli separation wall in the West Bank village of Bil’in.

Moore later joked, “Welcome to America”, and commented on Twitter: “Apparently the immigration and customs officers couldn’t understand how a Palestinian could be an Oscar nominee.”

True, the Oscars are a quintessentially “American” ceremony; for its first 28 years, the ceremony did not have a best foreign-language film category. (From 1947 to 1955, the academy presented special/ honorary awards every other year to the best foreign-language films released in the US.)

This year in particular, the top three most-nominated films offer Academy voters something reassuringly mainstream and essentially patriotic: from Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln and Ben Affleck’s Argo to Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty.

According to film professionals, the very fact of a Palestinian film being Oscar-nominated proves that the “foreign” is increasingly integral to the US film industry.

Niche market

“Although it is true that foreign-language films continue to constitute a tiny fraction of the American box office, the commercial success of movies like The Artist last year and Amour this time around suggest that there is a niche marker for quality films that are not in English,” said Annette Insdorf, director of undergraduate film studies at Columbia University.

“Amour joins a long list of foreign movies that reached and moved American viewers,” she added, listing films such as Monsoon Wedding, The Motorcycle Diaries and Under the Same Moon.

The highest-grossing foreign film in the US is the Taiwanese production Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, with more than $128 million (€97 million) under its cinematic belt. In recent years, Pan’s Labyrinth came the closest, grossing about $37 million.

Out of the 64 awards handed out so far, 50 have gone to European films. The first recipient was the Italian neorealist drama La Strada by Federico Fellini.

Last year, the co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, which released 2012’s best foreign-language film, A Separation, said that despite their relatively tepid earning figures, foreign films were finding audiences beyond the typical arthouse cinemas in big American cities.