This year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences renamed the Oscar category of best foreign-language film to best international feature film, but it didn’t change the rules for qualification: Nominated movies still have to be mostly in non-English dialogue. So, Nigeria's first-ever Oscar submission has been disqualified.
“The intent of the award remains the same — to recognize accomplishment in films created outside of the United States in languages other than English,” the academy said in a statement. “As this year’s submitted films were evaluated, we discovered that Lionheart includes only 11 minutes of non-English dialogue, which makes it ineligible for this award category.”
The 90-minute film “Lionheart” was acquired by Netflix, and is in English, other than the 11 minutes of dialogue in the Igbo language of eastern Nigeria. It’s a story about about being a Nigerian woman in a male-dominated business world. Nigerian actress Genevieve Nnaji funded the movie and stars in it and directed it.
“It provided an environment where I could showcase the things that made me proud about our culture,” Nnaji told CNN last year. “It was really about that authenticity.”
The reaction to the academy’s decision to disqualify “Lionheart” was swift, and it was led by Hollywood director Ava DuVernay. She pointed out in a tweet that English is one of the official languages of Nigeria as a result of being colonized by the British.
To @TheAcademy, You disqualified Nigeria’s first-ever submission for Best International Feature because its in English. But English is the official language of Nigeria. Are you barring this country from ever competing for an Oscar in its official language? https://t.co/X3EGb01tPF— Ava DuVernay (@ava) November 4, 2019
“Are you barring this country from ever competing for an Oscar in its official language?” DuVernay asked.
Nnaji, in her own tweet, said “Lionheart” represents the way Nigerians speak. “We did not choose who colonized us,” she wrote, adding that English acts as a bridge between hundreds of native languages. Many of Nigeria’s biggest film productions have primarily English dialogue.
1/1 1/2 Thank you so much @ava❤️.— Genevieve Nnaji MFR (@GenevieveNnaji1) November 4, 2019
I am the director of Lionheart. This movie represents the way we speak as Nigerians. This includes English which acts as a bridge between the 500+ languages spoken in our country; thereby making us #OneNigeria. @TheAcademy https://t.co/LMfWDDNV3e
“This is the reality of Nigeria as it exists now. And the film wasn’t created to rectify the realities and consequences of colonialism.”
“This is the reality of Nigeria as it exists now. And the film wasn’t created to rectify the realities and consequences of colonialism,” said Mukhtara Yusuf, a Nigerian artist and academic who focuses on colonial studies. “It’s reflecting a language reality that is very common in Nigeria, especially of people of certain classes. And I don’t see why there should be any punishment for really honestly reflecting that reality.”
But there are those who say that “Lionheart” doesn’t represent Nigeria well.
“Speaking English and using English is like putting on an image that is not you,” said Uduak Inwang, a social media consultant from Nigeria. “You’re trying to celebrate the people who colonized you, telling them, ‘I’m still not matured, I’m still a baby.’”
And a rule is a rule, said Nigerian director Obi Emelonye. He said Nnaji probably made “Lionheart” in English to get the biggest possible audience, but there are plenty of Nigerian films made in native languages like Yoruba and Hausa.
“To argue that English is our official language, so we should be allowed to submit a foreign category film in English language ... if you look at it logically without lack of sentimentalism, you’ll find that it doesn’t hold much water.”
“To argue that English is our official language, so we should be allowed to submit a foreign category film in English language ... if you look at it logically without lack of sentimentalism, you’ll find that it doesn’t hold much water,” he said.
For its part, the Nigeria Oscar Selection Committee said in a statement that from now on, it intends to submit films that are mostly native languages, not English. They’re urging Nigerian directors to keep that in mind when making films if they want to be considered for an Oscar.