So kudos to producers Karin Chien, Melissa M. Lee and Maryam Keshavarz (who also wrote and directed the film) for releasing Circumstance earlier this year and to rave reviews.
The movie centers around a pair of free-spirited Tehran teens Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri) and Shireen (Sarah Kazemy) struggling with their burgeoning sexuality under the rigid rules of an oppressive theocracy. The film is set in Iran, filmed in Beirut, edited in Chile, finished in France, and financed primarily by U.S. sources. Circumstance premiered at the 2011 Sundance Awards where it picked up the Audience Award for drama.
However, the controversy surrounding the film has also carried off-screen as Chien recently penned an open letter condemning the Producers Guild Award for labeling Circumstance a foreign film because the film is not in English.
Read Karin’s full letter under the cut.
Recently, a film I produced with Melissa Lee and Maryam Keshavarz, CIRCUMSTANCE, was submitted for the Producer’s Guild of America’s awards consideration. CIRCUMSTANCE is a hard film to categorize: it’s a story of teenage love and personal freedom set in Iran, filmed in Beirut, edited in Chile, finished in France, and financed primarily by U.S. sources. And the film is in Farsi. We knew we were a long shot to be nominated, but we were still excited by the prospect. Producing is often thankless and invisible work, and awards that solely recognize a producer’s contribution are few and far between.
That excitement ended when I received an email from the PGA’s Director of Arbitrations & Legal Affairs on December 1. It informed us “unfortunately under the current rule structure, we are unable to accept foreign language films at this time.”
I wrote back to clarify CIRCUMSTANCE is not a foreign film and received this reply: “We do accept foreign films, as long as they are in the English language. The PGA Rules state that only English language films qualify for awards consideration.”
In the email was attached the regulations for 2012 Award Eligibility. Sure enough, the first paragraph stipulated “the motion picture must … be an English language production.” The rule allows foreign films to qualify, if they are in English and have a U.S. distributor. So the deciding factor in our film’s eligibility came down to the language spoken by our film’s fictitious characters.
It’s possible this rule is a holdover, but from when? It was over a decade ago when Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon broke the $100 million box office mark for foreign language films. Does the language of a movie mean more to the PGA than the nationality of the producers, or the movie’s primary audience?
This rule also meant important independent films by important independent producers have been neglected by the PGA’s 4,000+ members. Films like SIN NOMBRE produced by Amy Kaufman, TREELESS MOUNTAIN produced by Jay Van Hoy, Lars Knudsen, Ben Howe, and MARIA FULL OF GRACE produced by Paul Mezey wouldn’t qualify. Interestingly, SIN NOMBRE, MARIA FULL OF GRACE, and CIRCUMSTANCE all premiered in the U.S. section of the Sundance Film Festival, where the films won Audience and Directing Awards.
Independent producers do not make films to win awards. But producers know how much a nomination, not to mention a win, can contribute to a film’s life and its audience. Awards legitimatize an indie film for an audience, and awards make a difference when Jane Moviegoer is deciding what to spend $12 watching at the theater.
And award eligibility fluctuates constantly. Recently the Motion Pictures Sound Editors union changed their foreign film category to a foreign-language category, in recognition of U.S. members who create incredible sound design on foreign cinema. Globalization is no longer a buzzword. That was the 90s. Now it’s just a fact of financing, consumption, and every facet of business. For example, over 70% of the American film industry’s grosses come from foreign markets. And in L.A. County, where Hollywood and the PGA are based, 56% of households speak a language other than English. It’s time to wake up to the new world order.
The PGA’s English-only stipulation is at best, an outdated, archaic rule. And at worst, it opens the PGA up to the charge of xenophobia.
The PGA’s mission statement starts with “The Producers Guild of America is the non-profit trade group that represents, protects and promotes the interests of all members of the producing team.”
PGA, whose interests do you represent?
IndieWire’s Woman & Hollywood asked Chien why this was such an important issue for her and received this response:
It’s important to me for several reasons. One, it’s about creative freedom. Directors and producers should have the creative freedom to allow their fictitious characters speak whatever language they want. Two, it’s about broadening the definition of American cinema to include films spoken in a foreign language. Why can’t an American film be subtitled? As I pointed out in the letter, over half the households in LA speak a language other than English. Three, it’s about opportunity. There are only two “producer” awards I know of – this one and the Independent Spirit Awards. Think about how many directing, writing, acting awards are out there. If this represents 50% of any producer’s chance to be recognized individually, then I want that opportunity open to all American producers. Producers who choose to film in a foreign language should not be discriminated against, just because the PGA has a hard time communicating with people in other countries (this is their justification, not mine).
How do you feel about the PGA’s guidelines?