The Academy's Own Dumb Rules Kept One Of The Year's Best Movies Out Of The 2023 Oscars

The rules for Academy Award consideration are byzantine and difficult to understand. Oscar eligible films have to be a certain length (a "feature" is anything over 40 minutes), have to have a certain type of theatrical run, and have to be advertised in a certain way, presumably in industry trade papers like Variety. A film can play at a festival and still be eligible for Oscar consideration, but the festival run itself does not qualify as a theatrical release. What counts as an animated film has also become nebulous, as a partially animated film like "Marcel the Shell with Shoes On" was nominated for Best Animated Feature, while an even more animated film like "Avatar: The Way of Water" was not. 

The rules for what qualifies as an "International Feature" are even more convoluted. The Academy does not scour the whole Earth looking for great cinema, but accept submissions — one film per country — for consideration. At least 50% of the film must be in a language other than English (it seems English-speaking countries cannot submit films in this category), and it has to have the same kind of FYC ad campaign as any other Oscar contender. 

One might see a flaw in the submission process right away. If a certain country feels that one of their more astonishing films is perhaps critical of its government, it can deliberately withhold a film from the Academy. There seems to be a tacit approval of censorship sneakily baked into the Academy's eligibility rules. 

That certainly seems to be the case with "No Bears," Jafar Panahi's latest film from Iran, and one of the best films of 2022. 

The complexity of No Bears

"No Bears" is a wonderfully complex metafiction about the filmmaker himself. In it, Jafar Panahi plays a filmmaker named ... Jafar Panahi. Banned from making movies in Iran (in real life and in the movie), the fictional Panahi is making his new movie remotely. The film is being shot just across the border in Turkey, and Panahi is directing scenes from a laptop back in Iran, located in a small village with spotty wi-fi. The film-within-a-film is about a couple attempting to flee Iran's repressive regime, and their struggle to obtain passports. The actors from the film-within-a-film, however, are experiencing a similar struggle, and they will eventually object to Panahi trying to turn their actual struggles into the stuff of entertainment. 

When not filming, Panahi has to contend with the locals in the village where he has to camp out. The village elders — a group of older dudes in sweater vests — have become concerned that Panahi, while idly taking pictures in the village, accidentally captured a scandalous meeting between two people, possibly sparking love-affair rumors and ruining lives. Panahi will have to go through several elaborate rituals to assure the locals that he means no malice and doesn't care for the local politics. The people in this village are supposedly hemmed in by a wild wilderness, just beyond the village borders. The wilderness, the rumor goes, is lousy with wild bears. There are, of course, no actual bears. The title is a direct symbol for the repression of systems that keep people trapped, paranoid, and persecuted. 

Jafar Panahi's six-year prison sentence

In addition to being a clear indictment of Iran's repressive regime, Panahi is also self-critical. In making films about persecution, is he actually helping anyone in a practical sense? And if he knows it will get him in trouble, why make art? He seems driven to make movies in a system that offers no reward or edification. There is a strange, moving contemplative streak underneath "No Bears" that speaks to a deep ambivalence about the very function of cinema. 

Jafar Panahi would know about persecution. Shortly after production on "No Bears" wrapped in May of 2022, Panahi was arrested by the Iranian government for spreading propaganda and sentenced to six years in prison. "No Bears" began circulating the film festival circuit shortly thereafter, and many voting bodies saw an opportunity to reward "No Bears" not just for its brilliance, but as a political statement. To use slightly more salacious language, it was the film Iran didn't want you to see. "No Bears" was selected to compete for the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. 

As one can imagine, the Iranian government — who already jailed Panahi — was certainly not going to submit "No Bears" to the Motion Picture Academy for Oscar consideration. The film was censured by Iran, and withheld. Instead, Iran submitted a film called "World War III," a more fable-like film that Screen Daily reviewed positively. "World War III" was not shortlisted by the Academy. "No Bears," meanwhile, made several critics' top-10 lists, including Justin Chang's in the Los Angeles Times

Condoning censorship

Iran is within their rights to submit whatever film they want, but there is an ethical concern in accepting "World War III" over "No Bears." The Academy, with their twisty eligibility and submission rules when it comes to cinema made outside of the United States, is unwittingly allowing censorship to persist. If a repressive regime chooses to keep a film out of awards consideration, and throws the director into prison, isn't the Academy subtly condoning that behavior by accepting their single, alternate submission? 

"No Bears" has made it to an international audience, thanks to the French distributor Celluloid Dreams, so critics the world over have been able to see the film regardless — and in open defiance — of Iran's actions. The Academy, meanwhile, didn't even consider "No Bears," as Iran didn't submit it. Shrug. Look the other way. Don't cause a stir. The censorship is especially odd with "No Bears," as Panahi, while certainly being pointedly critical of Iran, was also obviously taking the wind out of his own sails. 

It's hard to say what the solution is. If rules changed to allow countries to submit multiple films, then countries with massive film industries — India, way — would be able to tilt the category more heavily. One might hope for a team of "Academy Scouts" to seek out eligible international films, but that would be a too massive an undertaking and would uncover more films for the single five-film international category than the whole of American film output in any given year. 

At the very least, one might implore the Academy to expand the International category to 10 or even 15 entries. This is the entire world outside the U.S. Perhaps more attention ought to be paid.