Opinion: Symbolics at the Oscars | Film | DW | 05.03.2018
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Opinion: Symbolics at the Oscars

Over and over again, the Oscars ceremony has served as a platform for political statements. But we might be overestimating the gala in the Dolby Theater as a place for protest and politics, says DW's Jochen Kürten.

Of course, it would be wrong to say that the celebrities who take to the stage at the Dolby Theater on Hollywood Boulevard don't draw attention to misconduct. That is something that has often happened in the past.

Sometimes their aim is to increase awareness of the US military presence in distant regions of the world; at others it is the politics of the serving president. Since most of the Hollywood establishment tends toward a more liberal worldview, whenever a Republican is in power in Washington, jabs aimed at the president are made. This is something Donald Trump made visible again over the last year.

In recent years, frustration over the discrimination of African-Americans in the film industry hit a boiling point. At the 2018 Oscars, the topic on everyone's minds was the abuse scandal surrounding producer Harvey Weinstein and the dominance of men in the film industry.

But whoever had anticipated the gala would become a big showdown for equal rights, surely left the evening disappointed. Unlike at the Golden Globe Awards in January, the red carpet show before the event started proved rather traditional. Stars donning black evening wear in lieu of colorful gowns, as was the case for the Globes ceremony, were clearly in the minority last night.

Read more: After #OscarsSoWhite, Oscars organizers invite women and minorities

Symbolism can also create backlash

Without belittling the stars' protest: just what does this symbolic gesture mean? Spanish director Isabelle Coixet recently hit a bull's-eye with her snappy remarks at the Berlinale. Instead of a colored dress valued at $10,000, the actresses would have just worn a black dress of the same value, Coixet said, calling it an easy exercise. The director pointed to the protests of Iranian women who are throwing off their headscarves in a demonstration against the law requiring them and thus attracting the displeasure of conservative clerics. That, the Spaniard said, was a truly courageous gesture.

A few remarks during the opening monologue and from the award-winners' speeches, a couple of jabs from host Jimmy Kimmel, a speech from Frances McDormand after she won for best actress, pins worn in solidarity with the victims of sexual assault: that was the extent of the protest at the Oscar ceremony.

Yet perhaps that wasn't so wrong. The stage at the Dolby Theater is surely not the best place for political and societal confrontations. In spite of all the well-meaning statements and symbols of solidarity, Oscar night is a show, a meeting of celebrities — and should stay that way.

Flat symbolism damages the cause

How quickly such an evening can turn embarrassing was on display at the Golden Globes with the choice of black gowns. The proposal to roll out a black carpet instead of a red one at the Berlinale was quickly buried.

Political statements can and should be made at festivals and award ceremonies. But too much empty symbolism often hurts the real issue at hand. Especially when an event is so clearly marked by the gossip it creates — as the Oscars, where the jewelry selections and ladies' evening gowns usually receive more attention than the films themselves.

Read more: How #MeToo affects the Golden Globes

After the Weinstein scandal, all the world has talked about the issue of women's equality in the film industry — a positive development. And maybe change is slowly being put into motion at film colleges and film funding bodies, in TV editorial offices and producer's offices. It's about time.

Profile image of Jochen Kuerten

DW film editor Jochen Kürten

But don't overload the Oscars event with meaning. The American film prize is already unbelievably overestimated. Just because it is talked about the world over for weeks does not make the prize the best measure. Most of the films which were recognized in 2018 had already been discovered, presented and premiered at festivals for months ahead of their Oscar nominations. "The Shape of Water" and "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" were seen at the Venice Film Festival. The work winning best foreign film, "A Fantastic Woman," was shown at the 2017 Berlin International Film Festival.

And don't forget: around 95 percent of the Oscars focuses on the English-language film world. Other countries are usually left out of the nominations, save for the category best foreign language film. That itself is absurd: five films are selected for the category and are said to represent global cinema.

The Oscar as commercial endeavor

Keep those things in mind. If one were to apply the Oscar criteria at award ceremonies in other arts, such as literature, nobody would speak of the "best novel" or the "best author." The world of cinema, however, is dominated mainly by Hollywood in commercial terms and under the spell of the sophisticated marketing strategists of the major Hollywood studios. They have done a good job looking after a billion-dollar business year in and out. That business, however, does not usually have much to do with culture and art.

That artistically successful films were considered for Oscars for this year (as well as in recent years), is a pleasant development. That was not always the case, of course. All of that should be kept in mind when it comes to the coverage of the Oscars and the classification of this special film award. Incidentally, this is also a task for the journalists and the serious press. In doing so, we can better classify the political speeches and cheap symbolism on the Oscar stage for what it is.


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