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Water's journey to Oscar glory
by: Feb 5, 2007 Print

An Academy Award nomination was not on the horizon for producer David Hamilton when he, writer/director Deepa Mehta and the rest of their crew were struggling to shoot Water, the third film in Mehta's trilogy after Fire and Earth, on location in India in 2000.

"To have ended up here - it's a kind of Cinderella story," he now says of Water's nomination for the best foreign-language film Oscar, announced on Jan. 23. "It's certainly something we didn't have in mind seven years ago in Varanasi. We were just trying to get some film in the can."

Famously, they did not initially succeed. Hindu extremists, suspicious of the film's motives, destroyed the set and forced them to scrap the project, which was later revived in secret and shot in Sri Lanka under a pseudonym with an "anti-publicist" on hand to keep it out of the papers.

The long journey to tell the visually stunning tale of the abuse of a group of Indian widows in the 1930s, starring Lisa Ray and John Abraham, has been well validated. Water was the opening night film at the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival, has earned critical raves, and, between its Canadian release through Mongrel Media and Fox Searchlight in the U.S., has garnered nearly US$6 million at the North American box office.

"It means a lot to me," Mehta told Playback Daily shortly after learning of the nomination. "It's a film that's very personal, and we've had such a difficult time with it, so it feels good."

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences changed the eligibility rules just this year to make foreign-language films in "third" languages eligible. Last year, Water, which is in Hindi, would not have qualified. "It was all very fortuitous," Hamilton says.

The work both ends and begins with an Oscar nomination, he adds. Promoting nominees to Academy voters is a complex task, with rules that read like a passport application. Elaborate publicity packages with rave reviews and freebies, along with receptions targeted to Academy voters, are all verboten. Passes to public screenings and "for your consideration" advertisements are the best distributors can offer.

And the Oscar campaign for foreign-language films differs from higher-profile races such as best director. Only Academy members who have seen all of the nominated foreign-language films in a theatrical setting may vote in that category. Fox Searchlight's job, then, is to get Academy voters out to see all of the nominees, all the while reminding them how great Water is.

Because Water has already had its theatrical run and DVD release in both Canada and the U.S., the campaign will be modest. Telefilm Canada will kick in some funds. There will be some print ads, Mongrel will rerelease Water on a couple of screens, and there are parties scheduled in Toronto and Los Angeles. The point, says Tom Alexander, Mongrel's director of theatrical releasing, is "to help increase the spotlight as much as we can."

Water will vie against Denmark's After the Wedding, Algeria's Days of Glory, Germany's The Lives of Others, and Mexico's Pan's Labyrinth. According to online sportsbook Bodog.com, the surveillance drama Lives is the film to beat, with odds at 4 to 1, compared to Water's 23 to 1.

"I've seen all of them," Mehta says. "The other films are superb. This year is a very strong year for foreign films."

Even if Water doesn't win, that won't dent Hamilton's satisfaction in the nomination. "If you're nominated you've kind of won already," he says. "I know we've got some heavy competition there, but what a compliment."

Mehta echoes the sentiment. "Just to be able to be in that company and walk on the red carpet is a great affirmation," she says.

Other Oscar categories see two nominated Canucks from London, ON. Twentysomething Ryan Gosling is the decided underdog in the best-actor category for his turn in the indie drama Half Nelson, while Paul Haggis is in the mix for the third year running for his work on the original screenplay for Letters from Iwo Jima. It's the fifth nomination for Haggis, who won a pair of Oscars in 2006 for Crash (best picture and screenplay).

The Oscars, airing locally on CTV, will be handed out in L.A. on Feb. 25.

-With files from Marise Strauss




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