Saudi Arabia makes history with ‘Wadjda’ in foreign Oscar race, Dutch enter ‘Borgman’

The other day, I described the race for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar as being wide open. That”s still true, but I wonder if at least one nomination slot might now be emphatically spoken for. For in submitting Haifaa Al-Mansour”s “Wadjda” to the Academy, Saudi Arabia – despite never having taken part in the process before – have alighted on both a film and an accompanying narrative that voters could well find irresistible.

Though the film is, in many respects, a traditional audience pleaser, “Wadjda” breaks a lot of new ground historically: the first Saudi film ever made by a female director, it is now also the first film of any description that the Islamic state has entered into the Oscar race. Al-Mansour has spoken frequently of the challenges involved in bringing the film to the screen at all: her insistence on filming on location in the streets of Riyadh came with tricky permission issues, while local tradition dictated that  she couldn’t publicly interact with her male crew members, meaning much of the film had to be directed remotely. German funding, meanwhile, came to the rescue of a film that could hardly count on Saudi investment alone.

As such, the story behind “Wadjda” should be pretty compelling to voters. I suspect, however, that the film itself will prove appealing to this branch, with or without its political import. The latest entry in what I noted earlier this week is a bumper crop of child-driven stories in the race, it tells the endearing, entertaining tale of a rebellious young Saudi girl who defies the religious and gender-based laws of her school and society with her simple dream of owning a bicycle. It’s a simple premise upon which Al-Mansour builds a stirring protest against the oppression of women, and independent thought in general, in traditional Islamic society. Vittoria De Sica and Jafar Panahi are cited as influences, though the universally accessible film isn’t as formally rigorous as such comparisons might imply.

I had previously noted that the film stood to be a significant threat in race if it was entered at all — which, given the givens with Saudi Arabia, was no guarantee. As it turned out, this inaugural national entry was selected by the Saudi Society for Culture and Arts, whose president, Sultan Al Bazie, stated: “We very proud of this film, which is an authentic representation of our country and our culture and are delighted that the themes and the story of this film has connected with an audience far beyond our borders.”

Since premiering at the Venice Film Festival last year, “Wadjda” has been warmly received across the festival circuit, earning accolades at Rotterdam, Palm Springs and London. A sizable art house hit in the UK, it’s been smartly picked up for US distribution by Sony Pictures Classics, an outfit that, of course, knows a thing or two about campaigning for this particular Oscar — they’ve won it six times in the last seven years. “Wadjda” is their first entry in this year’s race, and I expect they’ll be pushing it vigorously. Early days yet, but I sense this stands a fair chance of being our eventual winner.

That’s something that probably can’t be said for The Netherlands’ excitingly eccentric submission: Alex van Warmerdam’s blacker-than-black comedy “Borgman,” a twist on home-invasion horror in which the macabre fate of a wealthy suburban family at the hands of an eerily charismatic stranger also serves as a mordant allegory for the failings of One Percent society. (Drafthouse Films have the US rights.) Reviewing the film for Variety at Cannes, I described it as “a sly, insidious and intermittently hilarious domestic thriller,” noting an absurdist, even Pinter-esque streak to a story in which multiple characters are required to act in their own worst interests.

It was a predictably divisive title at Cannes, where it played in Competition — the first Dutch film to do so in over 40 years. As such, it’s the pride and joy of the country’s small local film industry this year, which made it the obvious candidate for submission all along, even if little about it seems likely to appeal to general voters in this branch. An executive-committee save can’t be ruled out in this post-“Dogtooth” era, though the film isn’t the kind of across-the-board critical hit for which those might be reserved.

Whatever the outcome, it’s a refreshingly daring selection for The Netherlands, a country that has scored three Oscar wins from seven nods over the years. It’s also the first film from this year’s Cannes Competition lineup to enter this year’s foreign Oscar race; between possible entries for France, Italy and Mexico, among others, one wonders how many will join it.

Check out the updated submissions list here.