Shortlisted Oscar International Films Tackle Gender, Sexuality and Bullying

Years ago, you wouldn’t have looked to the international feature category — or foreign-language film, as it was more insularly named back then — for much in the way of reflecting the modern world. World War II history and heartwarming child’s-eye family portraits were for a long time the staple diet of an award that shied away from more nervy topics. This year’s shortlist, however, sees a number of global filmmakers tackling more resonant, contemporary subject matter — with matters of gender and sexuality woven through a number of them.

Germany’s entry, “I’m Your Man,” even strays into science fiction, a genre rarely given much attention in this category. Maria Schrader’s witty, philosophical romantic comedy begins as a battle of wills between Alma (Maren Eggert), an independent, career-oriented academic, and Tom (Dan Stevens), the android boyfriend tailored directly for her needs in a lab — though it seems he has a mind of his own.

“In our romantic comedy, the obscure object of desire is not a woman but a man, which of course has to do with the fact that he actually is an object in the true sense of the word — a robot,” Schrader says. “Every good comedy evades expectations of the audience, and as gender politics is such a delicate and controversial field of expectations, it is a tremendously joyful playground for laughs.”

Schrader is one of four woman filmmakers on the shortlist, all of whose films taking a female character’s perspective in a world pitted against them. Blerta Basholli’s Sundance-lauded “Hive” is a rousing statement against patriarchal society, following an independent woman, whose husband has gone missing in the Kosovan war, as she defies systemic misogyny to forge her own food business. Basholli based her film on the true story of still-thriving businesswoman Fahrjie Hoti, and it’s a sturdy tribute to female entrepreneurship.

It paints a more hopeful picture for marginalized women, perhaps, than Mexican docmaker Tatiana Huezo’s searingly powerful fiction debut, “Prayers for the Stolen,” in which a group of girls in a rural Guerrero village grow up under the constant threat of cartel kidnappings and human trafficking.

A different kind of childhood terror is explored in freshman director Laura Wandel’s Belgian entry “Playground,” among the most frank and vivid films ever to address schoolyard bullying culture — as seen through the eyes of a 7-year-old girl (the remarkable Maya Vanderbeque). It’s another film to subtly explore and expand preconceived gender roles in contemporary society, as the bullying yields toxic masculine pride in victims, while even our heroine begins to question the authority of her stay-at-home dad.

Gender warfare in the workplace, meanwhile, is central to raucous Spanish farce “The Good Boss,” in which Javier Bardem’s sexist company CEO, Blanco, is increasingly flummoxed by a changing corporate culture — while his sexual exploitation of Liliana, a young intern, backfires.

“The film explores the power dynamics within the workplace, how they interact and affect the personal lives of employees,” says director Fernando León de Aranoa. “It speaks on the abuse of power, exercised in different forms: paternalism, depersonalization and the deterioration of labor relationships.”

Finally, two films on the shortlist address the struggles of gay men to find sanctuary in a world hostile to them. Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s “Flee,” the only documentary in contention, centers on Amin Nawabi, an Afghan refugee on the verge of marrying his partner in Denmark, as he relates his arduous journey from war-torn Kabul to oppressive Russia to finally living out and proud in Copenhagen.

For Hans, the gay protagonist of Austrian entry “Great Freedom,” his life in post WWII Germany is merely a succession of stretches at the same prison, as he’s repeatedly convicted under Paragraph 175, the now-defunct law criminalising homosexual activity.

Though the film is a period piece, its story remains chilling relevant as an examination of human rights that are still denied in many countries — and can’t be taken for granted even where they are permitted. “Conservative forces are getting stronger again in democratic societies the world over: you’re seeing it in Hungary and Poland, but even in Germany and the United States. Our democratic rights are still endangered, and this film is a reminder of that.”

In “Great Freedom,” as with many films on the shortlist, cinema holds a mirror to the world as it is, and as it could be.

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