Revisiting the 7 Films Canada Has Successfully Submitted for the Oscars' Best International Feature
A Canadian film has only won the prize once
Published Aug 31, 2023For the second year in a row, a pan-Canadian committee has chosen a documentary to enter the Oscar race for Best International Feature on the country's behalf. Following last year's Eternal Spring, Canada will submit Zaynê Akyol's Rojek, a provocative film that considers a post-war Syrian Kurdistan through many interviews with jailed members of the Islamic State. Akyol, who immigrated to Montreal as a young child, offers an authentic perspective on the impact of ISIS as someone born in Turkey to Kurdish parents. Through Rojek, viewers are given unprecedented access, all while Akyol navigates the sensitive nature inherent to the subject matter.
The voting committee is comprised of filmmakers and industry figures from across the country, with Telefilm Canada acting as the non-voting chair of the proceedings. Canada's submissions to the Academy have traditionally been French-Canadian offerings, primarily due to the Academy's eligibility rules for the award requiring more than 50 percent of the dialogue be spoken in a language other than English. (Until 2020, the prize was called Best Foreign Language Film.)
Canada first began submitting films to the Academy for consideration in 1971, and since then has made a total of 49 submissions, including Rojek. Of the 49 films, seven have been nominated and three more have been short listed, with only one movie taking home the gold statue.
As we cross our fingers and toes for Rojek, Exclaim! takes a look back at the seven Canadian films recognized by the Academy for its Best International Feature category.
Le déclin de l'empire Américain / The Decline of the American Empire (1986)
Directed by Denys Arcand
Canada's first nominated submission was Denys Arcand's The Decline of the American Empire. Centring on a dinner table of Montreal academics, sex is the soup du jour as the political and societal aspects of sexuality are explored with personal secrets revealed. Admittedly, parts of the film have aged poorly, but it remains a cunning and clever exercise in conversational tennis and arguably Arcand's best work. While Decline would ultimately lose to the Dutch film De aanslag (The Assault), it endures as one of Canada's greatest comedies.
Jésus de Montréal / Jesus of Montreal (1989)
Directed by Denys Arcand
Another Denys Arcand film, another nomination, another Montreal troop. Instead of the academics from The Decline of the American Empire, Jesus of Montreal focuses on a group of the city's actors performing the Passion Play. As the lead actor's reality inches its way closer to the story of Jesus, the film folds in on itself as the parallels between Jesus of Montreal and the New Testament become unavoidable. The film lost to Italy's Nuovo Cinema Paradiso (Cinema Paradiso) but swept the Genie Awards, including winning Best Motion Picture, Direction and Actor in a Leading Role.
Les Invasions barbares / The Barbarian Invasions (2003)
Directed by Denys Arcand
The sole Canadian submission to win the Oscar is, naturally, a film by multiple nominee Denys Arcand. The Barbarian Invasions is the long-awaited sequel to The Decline of the American Empire, and it continues the story of Rémy, the insatiable cad who had relations with half the dinner party and is now facing a terminal diagnosis. Barbarian ages the characters and stories elegantly, creating a nuanced perspective on life and death with warm and thoughtful performances from the entire cast.
Jal / Water (2006)
Directed by Deepa Mehta
The 2006 Academy Awards were the first to remove the requirement that submissions for Best Foreign Language Film (as it was then known) had to be in an official language of the submitting country. Because of this rule change, Canada was able to submit Deepa Mehta's Water, a devastating and moving drama set in 1938 British colonial India. Although it didn't take the top prize at the Oscars — Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others) from Germany claimed that honour — Water is the crowning conclusion of Mehta's Elements trilogy and a Canadian classic.
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
He's gone on to richer Hollywood pastures, but arguably Denis Villeneuve's best work was developed in the Canadian indie space — and, arguably, the best of that work was Incendies. A family drama beneath a civil war film, the story of a mother and her twins shakes the core and disturbs the soul. Denmark's Hævnen (In a Better World) won the Oscar that year, while Incendies remains the crown jewel of one of Canada's greatest directors.
Monsieur Lazhar (2011)
Directed by Philippe Falardeau
Based on a one-man play, Monsieur Lazhar is a true character study, bringing to life the intricacies and complexities we face in moments of adversity. Directed by Philippe Falardeau, Monsieur Lazhar, which lost the Oscar to the Persian film Jodâyi-e Nâder az Simin (A Separation), details a substitute teacher who takes over a Montreal elementary school classroom grieving the sudden death of their teacher. An emotionally complicated story presented simply, Monsieur Lazhar is an unforgettable experience.
Rebelle / War Witch (2012)
Directed by Kim Nguyen
A deeply empathetic and compassionate portrait of child soldiers, Kim Nguyen's War Witch depicts a 12-year-old girl abducted and forced into becoming a child soldier, and later believed to be a child witch. Horrifying and overwhelming, Nguyen creates a rich film that includes gorgeous shots of the sub-Sahara and a bittersweet story of young love. Another French language film — Amour from Austria — won the Oscar that year, but along with Villeneuve and Falardeau, Nguyen became the third Québécois director to be nominated in as many years, a clear sign of the respect and recognition of the province's filmmaking prominence on a world scale.