By Vanessa Obioha
Against all odds, ‘Parasite’, a South Korean film directed by Bong Joon-Ho made history at the 92nd Academy Awards which held on February 9, at the Dolby Theatre in U.S.A.
The film broke the foreign film jinx by claiming the two of the top prizes of the award: Best Picture and Best Director, as well as Best Original Screenplay and Best International Feature Film.
In the history of the Oscars, only 10 films not in English language have been nominated in the Best Picture category. They include films such as Alfonso Cuaron’s ‘Roma’ which gave the streaming giant Netflix an Oscar shine last year; and Clint Eastwood’s ‘Letters from Iwo Jima’ which lost to Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Departure’ in 2006.
But on Sunday night, ‘Parasite’ became the first foreign film to win Best Picture, a category that boasts of many heavyweights including Scorsese’s ‘The Irishman’, Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’, Todd Phillips’ ‘Joker’, Greta Gerwig’s ‘Little Women’ (only film directed by a woman), Sam Mendes war film, ‘1917’ as well as Noah Baumbach’s ‘Marriage Story’.
Prior to its Oscar win, ‘Parasite’ was a frontrunner in most awards, scooping top prizes at Screen Actors Guild Awards, British Academy Film Awards and Golden Globes. At the Oscars, ‘Parasite’ made more unexpected waves by taking home also the award for Best Director for Joon-Ho, as well as Best Original Screenplay and Best International Feature Film. It took home most awards of the night, beating the heavily advertised ‘The Irishman’ as well as ‘1917’ which had soared in the awards season.
The seismic win for ‘Parasite’ reflects the Academy’s push for diversity which started in 2016 following the rise of the #OscarsSoWhite protest. The Academy was highly pilloried for snubbing black films such as ‘Straight Outta Compton’ that year, leading to a planned boycott of the main ceremony.
The outcome of that uproar was a conscious decision by the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences to make radical changes to its voting requirements, recruiting process and governing structure, with an aim toward increasing the diversity of its membership. It pledged to double the number of female and minority members by 2020. At the time, the Academy had 6,436 active members out of which only 6,124 were eligible to vote for the Oscars, which means that the diversity pledge required them to add about 1,609 female members and 515 non-white members.
In a statement, the former president of the Academy, Cheryl Boone Isaacs stated that “The academy is going to lead and not wait for the industry to catch up.”
As part of the changes, the Academy also said it would replace the traditional process of inviting members based on their achievement to that of an ambitious, global campaign to identify and recruit qualified new members who represent greater diversity.
The Academy invited 683 film practitioners from different countries to become voting members that year. In 2017, it added 774 members and by 2018, it invited 928 new members from 59 countries including Nigeria, India, South Korea and Algeria. Thus, prominent filmmaker, Femi Odugbemi (Documentary), actress Omotola Jalade-Ekeinde (Actor), movie producers Ngozi (Feature) and Simon Onwurah (Producer) became the first Nigerians to join the Academy. 2019 saw the gesture extended to other Nollywood stakeholders including the renowned cinematographer Tunde Kelani. In total, the Academy sent out 842 invitations to 59 countries last year.
With more individuals of different cultures given the opportunity to vote in the Academy, there is a growing appreciation of cultures across the world. Odugbemi put it this way:
“The Academy’s push for diversity is meaningful when there is evidence of inclusion and merit in moments such as we had on Sunday night. It is also a huge encouragement to global filmmakers to know that their work will be judged on the merits of its storytelling and cinematic excellence, not based on their geographical locations or language.”
He adds that “Finally, it is far more interesting to me because it represents a shift in the understanding that stories of other cultures are valid. In a multicultural world we all have a lot to learn about each other’s cultural worldview and languages fall in that category. Cinema archives world cultures and the Academy has proved by this that it understands the important place of film in this regard.”
Perhaps, the most valuable impact ‘Parasite’ win has is the hope that film industries like Nollywood stand a chance to win at the prestigious awards someday. Last year, Nigeria made her first attempt at participating in the Oscars by submitting Genevieve Nnaji’s ‘Lionheart’ in the International Feature Film category.
But the hope of being shortlisted for the category was cut short when the Academy disqualified the film for not meeting its language requirements. The disqualification led an outcry with some accusing the Academy for being partial in their judgment while others blamed the Nigeria Oscar Selection Committee (NOSC) spearheaded by filmmaker Chineze Anyaene for not adhering to the rules of the international body. Anyaene who for so long has harboured a dream to see a Nollywood film celebrated at the Oscars has since moved on with a stronger determination to get it right next time.
Odugbemi believes that indeed the South Korean film which centres on how a poor family infiltrated the home of a wealthy family by posing as unrelated highly qualified individuals shows that a powerful story transcends language and culture and with the diversity of the Academy, it becomes more assuring that Nollywood days of winning an Academy is drawing close.
“Nollywood is an important film culture in the world today and the reality is that a lot is expected of us. So the signal of ‘Parasite’ win is clearly that if we make a film with a theme that resonates, voting members of the Academy will give it a nod. The time to achieve that is shorter than we fear, if we continue to pay attention to storytelling that is strong and representative of our culture and worldview.”