Oh, how I’ve grown to love the Foreign Language category of the Oscars. When I was younger and watching the ceremony, I’d usually pass it over, because there were no recognizable stars to me, and, what kid is really watching films with subtitles? Thankfully, growing up and into my cinema tastes opened a whole new world, and movies with subtitles have been some of the most rewarding film experiences I’ve ever had. Especially in my own home country of South Africa, where foreign language unfortunately also encompassed 9 of the 11 official languages.
It’s been 10 years since South Africa had a film competing for a Best Foreign Language Oscar. That film was Tsotsi, and it, as we know, went on to win. Next year marks 60 years of the category itself, and to celebrate the Academy has put out a playlist of speeches from the winners. Personally, I think it would have been better to have some of the best clips from the films, but it is fun to see how Italy has dominated this category, from La Strada through to recent times.
As for South Africa’s chances this year – well, I recently had the chance to watch Noem My Skollie, or in English as it’s known, Call Me Thief. Living in NYC, I rely a lot on online buzz and the film has been generating a lot of that for telling the story of a man who escaped the clutches of the infamous Numbers gang in prison by himself telling stories. The National Film and Video Foundation, which also helped with developing the script, decided to submit it for Best Foreign Language. This kind of exposure for the film is great. It does not, as many outlets in SA have erroneously stated, mean the film is up for an Oscar. Not yet, at least. It still has to make the short list and then after that actually make it into the list of official nominees. Only 5 films will make that list and then, it will be true to say the film is ‘up’ for an Oscar. We – and the other 84 countries with submissions – will find that out in January.
But, accolades aside, the film is still worthy of attention. For South Africans, it’s a story many will be familiar with – the Numbers gangs, 26s, 27s, 28s – have been the subject of films and documentaries before, and most extensively in the award-winning book by Johnny Steinberg, The Number. In this film, which is based on the real life of John Fredericks, who penned the screenplay, we see how someone tries to make another way for his life, in spite of his prison circumstances. Fredericks directed a documentary about Mr Devious, an emcee from the Cape Flats who, too, tried to use his words to escape a life of gangsterism, but wasn’t as fortunate, and died at the hands of a gang. Noem My Skollie, while specific in its plot, is a story of hope where there really seems like there is none. That may seem cliched to say, but you can never have too many reminders of how true this is, especially when it’s done as well as it is in Noem.
The movie, directed by first-timer Daryne Joshua, took Fredericks about 16 years to get to the big screen, according to an interview in the Mail & Guardian. The time it took to get from initial idea to credits rolling is a small factor now that it exists. It wasn’t an easy write for Fredericks, who says the script for Noem My Skollie was written on a typewriter that his dad got from a dumpster near where they lived. It’s this kind of detail included in the film that makes it sincere and genuine in its approach, from the dialogue to the cinematography.
When the Best Foreign Language category is announced, some of the films I’m sure will make it as nominees will surely include Germany’s Toni Erdmann, which had audiences in Cannes raving about it, and me too, when I finally saw the drama/comedy about a father-daughter relationship in need of salvaging, in Toronto; France’s Elle, starring Isabelle Huppert as a woman who develops a kind of weird relationship with her rapist; and Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan’s It’s Not the End of the World, which walked away with a prize at Cannes (as have practically all of his other movies). Perhaps maybe, just hopefully, there’ll be a spot left for a South African gem of a film too.