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"Incendies" was one of five nominees for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. In the past, that category truly pitted nations against one another. For example, a German film likely had a German director, German cast and German money behind it.
But NPR's Bilal Qureshi reports that this year's nominees defied borders.
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BILAL QURESHI: If you were to walk midway into "Incendies," you may find yourself asking: What am I watching, and where exactly is it happening?
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RADIOHEAD (Music Group): You and your cronies...
QURESHI: A young woman listens to Radiohead on her iPod as a sundrenched valley in the Middle East glides past her bus window. It's a quiet moment in an otherwise disquieting film about two siblings on a journey across the world to find where they came from.
"Incendies" was directed by Denis Villeneuve, a filmmaker from Quebec, Canada.
Mr. DENIS VILLENEUVE (Director, ""Incendies"): We are a small society. We struggle, a small - few French people among a sea of English people. You know, so very often our movies are about our French identity, culture.
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Unidentified Woman (Actress): (as character) (Foreign language spoken)
QURESHI: "Incendies" is mostly in Arabic and filmed in Canada and Jordan.
The way its story stretches across borders, playing with geographic ambiguity is a theme that echoed in most of the nominees for this year's foreign language Oscar.
Mexico's entry, "Biutiful," is set in the underworld of Chinese and African immigrants in Barcelona. It was directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.
Mr. ALEJANDRO GONZALEZ INARRITU (Director, "Biutiful"): This story could have happened in any European city now, and this huge new problem, which is this immigration.
QURESHI: Another nominee, "Outside the Law," crisscrosses between Paris and North Africa during the Algerian War of Independence.
And Danish director Susanne Bier juxtaposes an idyllic Scandinavian village with an African refugee camp in her film "In a Better World."
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Ms. SUSANNE BIER (Director, "In a Better World"): The whole notion of the film was to have those incredibly different environments and standard of livings and yet show that human nature is very much the same.
QURESHI: What unites these very different films is a thread running through a lot of new world cinema.
Mr. A.O. SCOTT (Film Critic, The New York Times): Experience in the modern world, identity in the modern world, life as we're all living it does not happen within the boundaries of a single nation or region or place.
QURESHI: For New York Times film critic A.O. Scott, this is the cinema of globalization.
Mr. SCOTT: What filmmakers do is try to tell stories about the world that they see around them, and this is certainly one of the big and ongoing and complicated stories, and one that I think lends itself to film in a way because you can show things and you can show people and you can go places with a camera that brings these issues to life in a very real way.
QURESHI: And these films are global by design. Most are co-productions, jointly financed by studios in Asia, Latin America and Europe. They premiere at festivals in Venice, Berlin and Toronto.
Michael Barker is at those festivals to buy new films. He's co-president of Sony Pictures Classics.
Mr. MICHAEL BARKER (Co-President, Sony Pictures Classics): There is a lot of freedom in a lot of these countries for a filmmaker to express themselves even if the characters feel somehow spectacularly uncommercial.
QURESHI: His studio released "In a Better World" and "Incendies" in the U.S. this month, and Barker has been behind some of the most commercially successful foreign language films, including "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."
Mr. BARKER: The revelation of the success of that film was that the younger generation does not have the same challenge to reading subtitles that the older audience has.
QURESHI: Despite that generational evolution, film critic A.O. Scott says films like "Incendies" face an uphill battle in the U.S.
Mr. SCOTT: We don't have laws that mandate that 99 percent of the screens in America be taken up with American films, but that is in fact what we have, which makes us the most exclusionist film market in the world outside of Iran.
QURESHI: Scott wrote a provocative essay in The New York Times earlier this year arguing that American audiences are missing out on a golden age of world cinema because of the way Hollywood ghettoizes foreign films.
At the Golden Globes, Ricky Gervais' riff on that idea.
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Mr. RICKY GERVAIS (Actor): Our next presenters are young and thin, very lovely to look at, which is just as well, because they're presenting the award for Best Foreign Language Film, a category that no one in America cares about.
QURESHI: But Michael Barker says every year at least five films have a chance to make people care, thanks specifically to the Oscar nominations.
Mr. BARKER: Even though many times I've been disappointed because of that process, I've seen many filmmakers that would otherwise not get recognized be recognized in a way that really helps their careers and helps quality film.
QURESHI: Danish director Susanne Bier, who won the Oscar this year for "In a Better World," says we're going to see more films like hers.
Ms. BIER: What I want to do with the movies is making sure that people realize that we are part of a more global environment.
QURESHI: Denis Villeneuve says perhaps the idea of a distinct national film tradition is outdated. His Arab film, "Incendies," is representing Canada on international screens.
Mr. VILLENEUVE: It doesn't say a lot of things about Canadian identity, but maybe it says a lot of things about cinema.
QURESHI: But maybe this year's nominees do say something about Canada, France, Mexico or Denmark for these are films about what it means to live in the world today - stories of the uprooted and the rootless.
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QURESHI: Bilal Qureshi, NPR News.
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