Totalitarian regimes and their mark on the human psyche, nostalgic depictions of life in Mexico City riddled with socio-economic and racial divisions, and the toll of poverty and war on children and families are themes of this year's Oscar nominees in the category of Best Foreign Language Film.
'Never Look Away'
The epic drama Never Look Away focuses on the personal journey of Kurt, a young artist from East Germany who tries to find meaning through art after experiencing the murder of family members and the destruction of his country during the Nazi regime and political oppression under Communism.
Academy award-winning filmmaker Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck says dictatorships first try to control art.
"Because it can truly change minds, it can change hearts. But the problem is, as soon as the dictatorship gets its hands on the art, it's no longer art."
The filmmaker says he also wanted to show how the Communist regime in East Germany harbored Nazis.
"Unfortunately, the very characteristics that allow you to rise to the top in a dictatorship like the Nazis will allow you to, in a way, hide your crimes in the next system and rise to the top again," Donnersmarck said. "The sad truth is that a lot of the people who commit the terrible crimes throughout history will go unpunished."
That's why, he says, many survivors of war and political oppression find redemption through artistic expression. In his film, Donnersmarck says, Kurt is the hero who never looks away, who stares crimes in the face and struggles to find a way to express them on canvas.
The filmmaker, who tapped into his personal experiences and his family history for the story, shows how the main character's self-exile to the capitalist West also shaped him.
"The sudden freedom is something very scary. It's very messy. You feel like at least there was a certain solidarity or someone who was supposed to look after you. But I'll take the chaos and the despair of freedom any day over just the death that is slavery," Donnersmarck said.
Pawel Pawlikowski's Cold War echoes Donnersmarck's message about how totalitarianism imprisons the human psyche. It takes place in Communist Poland, and like Kurt in Never Look Away, the main characters in the Cold War — musicians Zula and Wiktor — are stifled by the communist regime. They, too, flee to Western Europe in the 1960s. Cold War also shows the alienation and identity crisis Eastern European exiles often felt in the West.
Critics consider Roma the front-runner of the group, with 10 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. Roma also won the Bafta award for Best Picture. Bafta, the British film awards and the equivalent of the American Oscars, often forecasts the Oscar winners.
Director Alfonso Cuaron's film is a nostalgic depiction of 1970s life in Mexico City, inspired by personal memories of middle-class life and racial and class divisions. In order to make the story as authentic as possible, Cuaron used people who had never acted before, including Yalitza Aparicio, who plays the lead character, Cleo, a tireless and caring domestic worker.
Aparicio, an indigenous woman, has received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. In an interview with VOA, she credited Cuaron for throwing a light on the indigenous domestic workers in Mexico.
"Domestic workers play a very important role at households and are not being recognized," she said. "He showed the world that they are human beings, that they have rights. They need to be respected."
The other Oscar contenders in this category are Capernaum and Shoplifters. Set in Lebanon, the main character in Nadine Labaki's Capernaum is a child suing his parents for bringing him into a chaotic war-torn world.
In Shoplifters, director Hirokazu Kore-eda shows the heartbreak of a Japanese family in extreme poverty.
Regardless of which film wins the coveted award, all of them depict love, freedom and personal honesty as the antidote to political brutality and injustice.
Donnersmarck told VOA that film, like other forms of art, can help wide audiences learn history in a visceral way.
"You are telling the story through the plot," he said. "You are telling the story through the dialogue. You are telling it through the costumes, the production design. It's such a multilayered simultaneous experience. I love movies."