Ahead of the Oscars this Sunday, we’ve been interviewing the directors behind the nominees for best foreign film.
The five finalists range from dark to darkly funny, and you can watch trailers for all of them below. Click through the links to hear our interviews with the directors.
“Land of Mine” (Denmark)
Every country wants to show the world its good side. But there’s always a dark side it doesn’t want to let out. That’s the motivation behind the Danish film “Land of Mine,” one of five nominees for best foreign language film.
“I wanted to show Denmark’s true face,” says the movie’s director Martin Zandvliet. He knew there were a lot of hidden stories in Danish history, but when he stumbled across the stories involving German boys, he knew he had the makings of a film.
Soon after the end of World War II, in the mid-1940s, Denmark used German teenage boys sitting in prison camps along the border between the two countries — POWs — to dig up and defuse land mines planted by the Nazis.
Zandvliet says his research revealed around 500 teenagers died doing the work, while between 900 and 1,000 were maimed.
This is a story rarely told about Denmark. “It’s not one of our finest moments,” says Zandvliet, who adds that he’s received hate mail calling him unpatriotic. But patriotism isn’t exactly what he was going for, anyway.
“The Salesman” (Iran)
Asghar Farhadi, the renowned Iranian filmmaker, didn’t take home a Golden Globe last month, but he has been putting Iranian cinema in the global spotlight for years.
Back in 2012, his movie “A Separation” won the Oscar for best foreign language film. Since then, he’s taken home many other international awards. His most recent work, “The Salesman,” was nominated for a Golden Globe and an Academy Award. It’s a tense story, based in modern-day Tehran.
“It is about a couple who are rehearsing a production of Arthur Miller’s ‘Death of a Salesman,'” Farhadi explains through his interpreter, Dorna Khazeni. “In the process of moving homes, they are confronted with events that they could not have foreseen and that creates an upheaval in their lives.”
“Toni Erdmann” (Germany)
“It’s a father-daughter story,” says director Maren Ade.
“The two have lost each other a little bit,” she says. “And the father visits his daughter spontaneously at work — she works abroad in Romania. In the beginning they don’t get along so well, so he tries a strange transformation into a new guy, ‘Toni Erdmann,’ trying to get closer to her. The guy has some fake teeth and strange wig and a strange suit and introduces himself as a lifestyle coach.”
The father is kind of a joker, and the film is billed as a comedy-drama. Think of a German analog to Woody Allen — middle-class people dealing with awkward social interactions.
“I’m always interested in these daily life situations because I think there’s often a lot of comedy in there,” Ade says. “There’s often a lot of pain involved. I’m interested in awkwardness between people. Or these moments when a ball starts rolling, everybody’s aware that something strange is happening but nobody can stop it, in a way.”
Ade’s film shows a generational shift in Germany: from the baby boomer, post-war generation that challenged authority to their more compliant offspring who are just trying to get ahead.
“That’s exactly how I feel a bit about my generation, that we take all the values that our parents were fighting for a little bit too [for] granted,” she says. “The father belongs to a very political generation, especially in Germany, because it was the post-war generation and they had a strong enemy with the generation before.”
“So they raised their children with a lot of warm values and sent them out to the world, believed in a world without borders,” she continues, “and now [their children are] confronted with that type of capitalism that came through the globalization that they actually wanted.”
It’s social critique through comedy, but maybe it requires a uniquely German sense of humor. Or a full movie theater. “It’s something different when you watch it in a group,” Ade says. “But when you watch the film alone it becomes a very sad and melancholic film, and I’m happy about both sides.”
“Tanna” has been described as a sort of “Romeo and Juliet” set in Oceania, on the island nation of Vanuatu.
The film is based on a true story from about 30 years ago, in which a man and a woman from two different tribes fall in love. They want to marry, but customs and tradition forbid it.
“It’s a tragic story,” says co-director Bentley Dean, “but it’s one that changed the course of their custom and their culture for good.”
Bentley, his wife and two young sons spent seven months living with the people from the Yakel tribe on the tiny island of Tanna. The entire cast is made up of villagers who re-enacted the story. Dean says they still live a traditional life.
“Imagine grass skirts, still hunting with bows and arrows, living the way their ancestors have always lived for thousands of years,” Dean says. They didn’t have a script when he started production. He says the film is a complete collaboration between the team and the tribe. “It’s their story.”
The villagers had never even seen a film before. Dean wanted to show them the finished product, so they set up a makeshift screen by sewing two queen sheets together and tying them to banyan trees.
“It’s in their language and it’s their story, and it was just brilliant,” Dean says. “It was more like going to a football match than going to a movie. There [were] lots of catcalls, lots of screaming, singing along with the songs. It was just magic.”
“A Man Called Ove” (Sweden)
We all know this man: He yells at you to clean up after your dog. Scolds children playing. He’s always on the lookout for people who are disturbing the peace.
That’s Ove. He is an unhappy widower whose wife Sonje has died. When he’s fired from his engineering company after 43 years, he has to find other ways to occupy his time.
He buys flowers daily to place on his wife’s grave. He makes the rounds through his housing development. He takes on the role of enforcer over recycling, parking and obeying the rules.
One day, Ove puts on his best suit and decides to kill himself.
But his attempts are interrupted by the loudness of a new family moving in across the street.