Rojek, directed by Zaynê Akyol, is Canada’s official submission in the Oscar race for Best International Feature. The news was announced today during a virtual press conference hosted by Telefilm Canada. This marks the second time that a documentary has represented Canada in the race after Jason Loftus’s Eternal Spring was tapped for the honour last year.
“In what may have been Canada’s most competitive year ever, Rojek was selected by a jury of industry peers as the film to best represent Canada in the Oscar race,” said Julie Roy, Executive Director and CEO of Telefilm Canada, in a statement. “This announcement marks the beginning of an incredible journey and a one-of-a-kind opportunity for Rojek to reach audiences around the world and give them just a taste of the quality of filmmaking that Canada has to offer.”
“Being chosen to represent Canada at the Oscars with Rojek is a tremendous honour,” added Akyol in a statement from Telefilm Canada. “I would like to express my deep gratitude to the pan-Canadian selection committee for this recognition. Also, a sincere thank you to my dedicated team, who continually pushed the boundaries of creativity and excellence. This moment is the fruit of our shared passion and unwavering commitment to cinema and justice.”
Rojek is a provocative work in which Akyol examines the consequences of war and fundamentalism in Syrian Kurdistan. The director, who was born in Turkey to Kurdish parents and is now based in Montreal, gains extraordinary access to members of ISIS. She looks them in the eye and asks them why they fight, what motivates them, and where they believe their cause will go. The film also takes audiences to refugee camps and tours the countryside to observe how everyday people survive amid conflict in a land that is literally and figuratively on fire.
The film premiered at Visions du Réel in 2022, and then made its North American premiere at Hot Docs where it received the Special Jury Prize in the Canadian Spectrum. Rojek also won Best Documentary at the Vallodolid International Film Festival, the Testimonies Award at the Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival, and prizes at the Gimli Film Festival, the Golden Apricot Yerevan International Film Festival, and the RomeMed Film Festival. POV named it one of the top ten documentaries of 2022.
“Rojek is a work of poetic inquisitiveness years-in-the-making. The film explores how the state recovers from the aftermath of war,” I wrote while reviewing Rojek at Hot Docs. “More provocatively, though, Rojek interrogates the longevity of peacetime as Akyol, a Kurd herself, sits down with members of ISIS to learn what motivates them. This absorbing and admirably even-handed documentary looks the beast in the eye to weigh the context, cost, and consequences of fundamentalism.”
Rojek marks a bold choice for Canada in the Oscars as the film arguably offers a corrective for the lightning rod conversation about ethics and representation that engulfed the documentary sphere during last year’s award season and reignited at Sundance this year. Rojek deftly navigates questions of ethics and point of view while tackling a volatile topic. “I think I have all the legitimacy to talk about this subject. I don’t name anyone—that is not the object of the film,” Akyol said during the press conference, noting that she leaves all judgment up to the audience. “Documentary filmmakers believe in what they do. They can reach the Oscars, but they can also change policy and change people’s minds.”
“We were aware of the polemic at Sundance,” added producer Sylvain Corbeil. “We wanted a strong international run with festivals so that our approach with the U.S. would be bulletproof.” The producer notes that the team listened carefully to conversations happening in the documentary space and took all steps to make sure the doc was legally and ethically sound. (The film also features instances in which Akyol asks interviewees about their preferred language and works with an interpreter when necessary as they share their perspectives.)
Rojek opened theatrically in Canada in January 2023 through distributor Maison 4:3 and will be distributed in the USA by Icarus Films. The film is produced by Akyol, along with Corbeil and Audrey-Ann Dupuis-Pierre for Metafilms. Corbeil previously produced Canada’s Oscar submissions Félix & Meira (2015) and Juste la fin du monde (2016). The latter made the Oscar shortlist. Dupuis-Pierre’s credits as producer include the documentaries Damascus Dreams (2021) and Dave Not Coming Back (2020). Rojek marks the second feature from Akyol as a director. She previously directed the 2016 feature Gulîstan, Land of Roses, which won numerous honours worldwide.
Canada’s Oscar submission is determined by a pan-Canadian committee comprised of industry figures. Telefilm Canada chairs the committee but does not receive a vote. Rojek is the second documentary to be submitted in the Oscar race for Best International Feature this year after Estonia put forward Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, which won the directing prize for World Cinema at Sundance. The Oscar shortlist is scheduled to be released on December 21.