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Why aren’t British films considered foreign by the Oscars?

July 30, 2013

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Yesterday I was reading this article from LiveScience.com called “Why Do Americans and Brits Have Different Accents?” (h/t Gwynne Garfinkle). It’s a question I’ve thought randomly through the years but never researched.

What’s surprising, though, is that Hollywood costume dramas get it all wrong: The Patriots and the Redcoats spoke with accents that were much closer to the contemporary American accent than to the Queen’s English. It is the standard British accent that has drastically changed in the past two centuries, while the typical American accent has changed only subtly.

So wait, all these films taking place in ancient Rome, Egypt, Germany….they didn’t have British accents in the 16th century? But seriously, it is sort of amusing that we spent all that energy to break free of the colonizers only to later take on their accents as the standard norm for period pieces. This also reminded me of a question our blog has gotten in the past: with regards to the Oscars, why aren’t British films considered foreign?

Well, simply put, the full name for the category is actually “Foreign Language Film”, not simply foreign film, so the film must be primarily in a language that is not English, and while most British films might be differently accented, it’s still technically English all around, so they generally don’t qualify. But it’s actually a reasonable mistake to make, since the category is considered a win for the entire country, not just the director, producers, etc., so I can see why the question gets thought. It’s also confusing because American movies that aren’t primarily in English can’t apply. It must be foreign-made, foreign-released (an American release is not necessary to qualify) and primarily in a different language. It used to be the foreign language had to be the one native to the country where the film was produced (e.g. filmed in Italy, dialogue is in Italian), but a few years ago they changed the rules to include non-dominant languages.

There have been a few exceptions through the years with British films getting nominated when the primary language of the movie was Welsh: Hedd Wyn (1992) and Solomon and Gaenor (1999). The latter was actually filmed twice – once in Welsh, once in English. And Canadian films have also been nominated too, at least those done in French, though the recent change in rule made it possible to nominate Deepa Metha’s Water (2005), a film in Hindi that is the final part of her Elements trilogy. So far American films not made in English are still left out in the cold, including films made in Puerto Rico, but here’s hoping the Academy has started to realize the narrowness and might create two categories – Best Foreign Film and Best Film Not In English (similar to the category used by BAFTA (aka British Oscars)) – which would be a small step in recognizing the broad range of movies made even inside the Unites States.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 30, 2013 1:40 pm

    Concerning British accents in Rome, Egypt, Germany… I always interpreted this as American filmmakers (consciously or not) identifying the British accent as the way the Empire sounds –doesn’t Darth Vader have a vaguely British sounding accent? I particularly love a Roman era epic where the rulers have high accents and the common folk sound cockney or American.

  2. July 30, 2013 1:48 pm

    It’s interesting how it does play out perfectly sometimes in regards to power dynamics, whether it’s intentional or not. And now I want to do a staging of Shakespeare that’s not set in modern times, but everyone has an American accent. I want to hear Elizabethan language but in the more accurate pronunciation – like a Brooklynite!

  3. July 30, 2013 3:08 pm

    I would love the academy to loosen their rules because it would create a robust competition of films eligible not defined by geography. I wonder what many films would be like if their filmmakers were able to script them in native tongue of the characters or the filmmakers themselves. Moreover we would probably get more stories that were more ambitiously non-US/Western Cultural centric even within North American borders. That would be really exciting.

  4. August 30, 2013 10:07 am

    Interesting with the language thing. I’m English and I watched a documentary a few years ago that, like you contest, stated American English is almost a crystallised version of how English was used then. For example, the uses of the letters c, s and z and terms like ‘Fall’ for ‘Autumn’.

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