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December 11, 1999


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What Lies Between Earth And An Oscar

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Aseem Chhabra

Although Deepa Mehta's Earth has been selected as India's official entry for the 1999 Best Foreign Language Film award, it still has several hurdles to cross before it can win the coveted Oscar.

To begin with Earth is one of the 48 films nominated by as many countries which must first win the nomination. Five films win the nominations.

If Earth does manage to get nominated as one of the five foreign language films, it would be quite a rare feat for India. In the history of Oscars only two other Indian films have been nominated in that category -- Mira Nair's Salaam Bombay in 1988 and Mehboob Khan's Mother India in 1957.

Salaam Bombay lost the race to the Danish film Pelle the Conqueror. In 1957 the top foreign language film award was given to Federico Fellini's The Nights of Cabiria.

The only other Indian production to ever be nominated for the Oscars was Richard Attenborough's 1982 film Gandhi. The film won eight Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Director. It was a co-production between British companies and India's National Film Development Corporation.

"Look, it (Earth) is a hell of good picture, but so are a lot of the other nominated films," John Friedken, a Los Angeles-based publicist said in an interview. Friedken was recently appointed as the West Coast publicist for Earth.

Among the top films entered for the 1999 best foreign film Oscar race are Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardennes Rosetta (Belgium) and Pedro Almodovar's All About My Mother (Spain). Earlier this summer, Rosetta won the best picture (Palme D'Or) and actress awards at the Cannes Film Festival.

Almodovar won the best director award for All About My Mother at the festival. The Almodovar movie is a big hit in Europe. In America, where it opened a few weeks ago, it has grossed over $ 760,000 in 31 days and continues to be a strong performer while Mehta's movie has made about $ 500,000 and has faded from the top 60 box-office chart.

Also included in the list is the French entry, Regis Wargnier's East-West. Wargnier also directed Indochine (starring Catherine Deneuve), which won the 1992 Oscar for the best foreign language movie.

Incidentally Earth is not the only south Asian film to be nominated for the best foreign film award race this year.

For the first time in its history, Bhutan has nominated a film -- Khyentse Norbu's The Cup. Norbu is reportedly the reincarnation of Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo, a 19th century Buddhist lama. Normally the film director serves as the High Lama for monasteries in exile from Tibet. However, he has also studied film-making in New York and has apprenticed with Bernardo Bertolucci on Little Buddha.

Shown earlier this fall at the Toronto International Film Festival (where it won the second place in the All Canada People' Choice Award), The Cup is about some teenage monks at a Bhutan monastery who are obsessed with soccer and are determined to watch the World Cup.

Friedken said the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has a special set of rules for the foreign film category. First, the academy appoints a special Foreign Language Film Award Committee. Members of the committee -- all volunteers -- are broken into three groups, identified by the colors, red, white and blue. This year each group has been assigned 16 films to view.

Committee members must see all the films assigned to their group at special screenings held at the academy's headquarters in Los Angeles. At the end of each screening the members vote on the film on a scale of 6 to 10.

Finally the top five selections of the entire committee are labeled as the academy-nominated foreign language films. For a second round of voting, the academy screens the five nominated films in New York and Los Angeles for its entire body. For their vote to be counted, members must prove that they have seen all the five foreign films. The final top film wins the Oscar for the Best Foreign Language Film.

Freidken said the rules for the other award categories are not so strict. Academy members can actually vote for best picture or actor without having seen all the nominated films.

He said that the screening of Earth is scheduled on January 16 at the academy's Wilshire Boulevard address in Los Angeles. He added that prior to the January 16th screening he will put out a couple of ads in Hollywood trade publications. The ads in Variety, Daily Variety and Hollywood Reporter will essentially remind the academy members to attend the special screening, he said.

Also involved in promoting Earth for the Oscars and the other critics awards, is the film's New York-based American distributor, Zeitgeist Films.

Emily Russo, the co-president of Zeitgeist Films said her organization has sent out mails to critics, especially the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (which hands out the Golden Globe awards), reminding them that Earth was eligible for just about every award category (and not just the best foreign language film).

"We have made the critics know that they have access to the video of the film," Russo said.

In addition to the HFPA, critics in New York, Los Angeles and Boston each hand out their own set of awards prior to AMPAS's Oscar event.

However, she added, that due to the strict requirements of AMPAS, including the fact that the foreign-language nominated films have to be seen at specific assigned locations, Zeitgeist Films will not send videos of Earth to academy members.

Earlier Nancy Gerstman, the other co-president of Zeitgeist Films told that her organization was far too small to send out copies of Earth to each and every member of the academy.

Friedken also did not support the video giveaway promotion for foreign films.

"If you do too much, it can be counterproductive," he said. "The attitude of the (foreign language film) committee members is that we sit through all the films and they start to resent it if the promotion is too blatant."

Currently Earth is showing in the following cities: Durham, NC; Fairfax, VA; Chapel Hill, NC; Ithaca, NY; Marietta, GA; Phoenix, AZ; Pittsburgh, PA; and St Johnsbury, VT. From mid-December 1999 to mid-May 2000, Zeitgeist plans to open the film in 13 other cities in 10 states across the US.

Next: Kirpan Victory Not All That Sweet

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