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Israel & the Oscars: Round Three February 3, 2010

There’s a Hebrew saying two acquaintances exchange when unexpectedly running into each other twice within the same day or week:  “If we see each other a third time, you buy me ice cream!”

I thought about that yesterday when the American Academy announced Israeli film Ajami as an Oscar contender in the Best Foreign Film category.  This is the third year running for Israeli films to be nominated in the foreign movie category and I’m hoping it’s “third time lucky”.  Third time ice-cream.

I have to admit, though, that yesterday’s announcement took me by surprise.  I didn’t expect Ajami to make the short list.  And that’s because – and here goes another admission – I made an ignorant, snap judgment about the movie and wrote it off.

Months ago I attended Israel’s  version of the Oscars – the Ophir Awards – and watched, unimpressed, as Ajami knocked out Venice Film Festival winner Lebanon to take top honors.  This will never make it to the Oscars, thought I.  Not that I had seen any of the Best Film competitors…My opinion was based upon seeing the trailers before and during the ceremony.  And I was appalled.  Ajami appeared as an amateurish piece of work featuring non-professional actors and dealing with local crime issues.  This will never get picked up.

After yesterday’s announcement – and considering the fact that I am on deadline to write a story about it- I sprinted to a midday movie screening to come up to speed.

Hours later, I am still processing what I saw.

The film is good.  Really good.  It’s complicated and intense and brilliant and it’s a microcosm within a microcosm  with numerous parallels, messages and sub-plots – so many that it was a bit mind-boggling.  The story takes place mostly in the Ajami Quarter of south Tel Aviv’s mixed Arab-Israeli Jaffa enclave and it deals with issues faced by local residents while simultaneously fanning out as far as the West Bank and southern Israel.

In addressing local issues, it manages to touch on the Arab-Israeli conflict, poverty, organized crime, scandal, co-existence, futility, loss and the simultaneous complex& simple mix that is life  in this part of the world.  The actors were all non-professional – I nailed that one during my trailer viewing – and this is a first film for Arab and Israeli co-directors/writers/producers Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani.

I won’t give away plots or divulge anything about the characters or story but I will say that I walked away with a few distinct impressions:

1) Like it or not, the Israelis and Arabs living in this region are inextricably linked.  For better or worse.

2) That saying “It’s all Good”?  It’s not.

3) I got scared for a bit watching the film and contemplating where I live…the deception, thuggery, payoffs, crime, big shark eats small fish messages.  Then I remembered:  Oh yeah.  It’s the same everywhere.

I’ll be pulling up to the t.v. set on March 7th with my bowl of ice cream.  I hope third time charm works its magic.

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Israeli Oscars September 27, 2009

Last night I slipped into a little black dress and a pair of heels and made my way to Haifa for Israel’s version of the Oscars: The Ophir Awards.

Attending Israel’s upscale events is always an interesting venture. Because, compared to the U.S., they’re pretty scaled down and lacking pretense. Dress codes don’t rule and most anyone can get away with whatever their personal interpretation of gearing up or down might be.  That includes nominees, as demonstrated here by Best Actor winner Sasha Avshalom Agronov for his role in The Loners. Dig the hat.
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Also glaringly absent at these affairs are hulking bodyguards (unless government ministers are present). Sure, there’s security at the entrance but once inside, the press mingles with celebs and it’s a sort of everyone hangs out with everyone free-for-all at the bar and buffet kinda thing.

Which is why I was able to walk straight up to Ajami Producer Mosh Danon, congratulate him on taking best film and wish him luck at the Hollywood Oscars. I grabbed this shot of the film’s Israeli director Yaron Shani as he was being interviewed for radio.  His Arab co-director Scandar Copti was, unfortunately, in Europe.     IMGP0047

I also shook Lebanon film director Samuel Maoz’s hand and congratulated him on his Venice win.  I felt truly sorry that his film didn’t clinch the top seed.  Because imho, the movie based on his personal experience as a soldier during the 1982 Israel incursion into Lebanon, would have been a serious Academy Awards contender for best foreign film.  I’m not sure about Ajami, a story about the crime ridden mixed Arab-Israeli neighborhood of the same name in southern Tel Aviv.   Yes, it’s a microcosm of the Israel-Arab flashpoint conflict at large but it somehow feels too local.

But then, I’ve seen neither  and am basing that rather broad opinion on trailers,  discussions with colleagues and the reception for Lebanon thus far in the world arena.

Here’s a clip.  A reportedly super intense film, it takes place entirely inside an Israeli tank  in Lebanon.  Last night the movie nabbed top honors for Best Supporting Actor, Best Soundtrack, Best Cinematography and Best Design.

A few notes about the ceremony:  The high point was seeing Lifetime Achievement Award recipient Assi Dayan take to the stage.  A legendary Israeli actor and director, he has been plagued by negative press throughout his career for drug abuse, mental instability and domestic violence.  But he is talented.  And his peers gave him a standing ovation.

Heart wrenching, on the other hand, was witnessing producer Uri Segev’s widow and two young children take to the stage to receive an honorary award in his name.  46-year-old Segev died last year of heart complications during the wrap of  Lebanon. The audience, on their feet again, applauded warmly as his wife and children stood at the podium. And there was neery a dry eye in the house as his wife thanked the film academy with broken voice and his 8-year-old daugher sobbed quietly beside her.

A final note to self:  MUST SEE A Matter of Size – a film about a diet club support group that decides to start up their own Sumo Wrestling team.  It looks poignant, funny and visually beautiful.  And Best Actress recipient Irit Kaplan made a distinct impression upon the uber looks-conscious crowd by advising in her acceptance speech that we all go beyond exteriors and start digging deeper to the core where it really counts.

Lacking pretense, indeed.

 

Going Global August 16, 2009

A few years ago when I was living in San Francisco, I shared an ongoing dilemma with an Israeli friend:

I feel torn between being here and living in Israel,” I told her.  “I don’t know where I should be.”

“Why do you have to decide?” she posed.  “Of course you choose a main locale for residence but as far as I’m concerned, the more comfortable you become inside your own skin the more comfortable you become wherever you are once you’ve lived in different places.  And that’s a great place to be.  You become a citizen of the world and you can find happiness wherever you go.

At the time, I couldn’t wrap my head around that concept.  I felt I should make a decision and declare my loyalty on some level to one place or the other.  No in-between nonsense would do. And the concept of “global citizen” or feeling a sort of neutral happiness wherever I might be was way beyond my comprehension.

But, by jobe, I believe I finally got it.

For numerous reasons I won’t go into here & now, I returned to Israel four years ago after a decade hiatus in San Fran.  Since returning, however, each summer I travel with my son to Cincinnati so he (and I) can maintain ties with my family & he can retain his command of the English language and gain exposure to American culture.

My parents and two of my sibs live in “Nati” &  it’s where I grew up.  But when I left there after college – which included a 2-year overseas stint at Tel Aviv University –  I vowed never to return.  Bloody god forsaken conservative place that indicted its own Contemporary Arts Center for running the Mappelthorpe Exhibit (!) was how I viewed matters.  Not for me. Gateway to the North, indeed.  There would be no containing me THERE, thanks.  I longed for the enchanted promise of Seuss’ Oh The Places You’ll Go.

But here I am, years later, turned completely around & feeling the warm glow of “global.”

This summer my son and I spent time in Cincinnati, took a side trip out to San Francisco and now we’re back in Tel Aviv.  And I can honestly say that in each place I found home.  Home in cultural events that included Opera and a World Piano Competition in Cincinnati, the MOMA in San Fran and upon returning to Tel Aviv, a visit to my local gallery to check out the latest exhibit.

I found home in culinary delights in Cincinnati’s trend spots: Bootsy’s for tapas,  Teller’s for rasberry vinaigrette over greens and goat cheese, my mom’s for home-cooked Indonesian chicken and a dear friend’s for backyard grilled Talapia wrapped in lettuce leaves.

I relaxed back into San Francisco food comfort with frighteningly potent margaritas served up at Puerto Alegre & generous, steaming bowls of traditional Vietnamese Pho.  And upon returning to Holy Land Central (aka Israel) I hit the supermarket on a Friday at 2 p.m. – total cold-water immersion into THIS local food culture.

Home, everywhere, is about the people.  I spent neery an idle moment in Cincy thanks to FB and reconnecting with old friends and loved ones who indulged me with tennis,  poolside lounging, movie outings, dinners, drinks and loads of engaging conversation.   Being back “Home” was an absolute treat and there are, by gosh and golly, wide swaths of WILD in Cincy.

In San Fran, I reconnected with my other sib and visited with friends and local merchants I hadn’t seen in years.  Particularly pleasant was sharing a vacation apartment in the city with friends who had flown in from Australia, Manhattan, Berlin and Serbia to be together. My son benefitted from reconnecting with children from his infant and toddler days.

Back in Tel Aviv less than a week, we’ve received separate invites to go snorkeling, camping, to overnight in the country and spend a weekend at a “mango tree resort”.  I am absolutely blessed.  No doubt about it.

I ran into that old Israeli friend last year.  She’s back in Tel Aviv and super busy with two young children and studies.  But she still has that positive outlook and cheerful disposition.  And she still maintains her status as a global citizen.

I believe I’ve joined her ranks.  Fine by me because feeling at home wherever I might be is a wonderful place to be.  But it’s also painful.  Leaving loved ones and engaging aspects of each culture behind isn’t easy.  But I’ll take it.  Because “living globally” far outweighs the absurd compulsion of having to declare loyalty or choose.

 

Crying on the Job May 6, 2009

I think I committed a faux pas.  But I’m not 100% certain.

I cried during an interview.

The interviewee didn’t seem to notice – I didn’t wail or tear at my hair or anything.  My face simply went screwy and got hot and a few tears spilled over my lower eyelids.

That’s probably not something you’re supposed to do if you’re a truly professional journalist.

It happened when I was out on assignment for my Manhattanite book-author friend who I’ve been helping on his latest project.  I interview concentration camp survivors living in Israel in their Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, etc. homes asking questions e-mailed by my friend.

So far the work has been incredible:  hearing stories, witnessing two survivors compare numbered arm tattoos,  looking through old photo albums…

Spending time with survivors I realize how very privileged my life has been and how honored I am to sit with them and document their lives.

But maybe I’m hardened.  Because in all the years I have covered all sorts of stories nothing has reduced me to tears.

And there have certainly been moments.  Like interviewing a man hours before he was to attend the double funerals of his wife and daughter, both killed in a Tel Aviv suicide bombing.  Or witnessing an elderly man sitting despondently in the rubble of his just-bulldozed home.  Or sitting with an inner city teen who stared blankly into space in the aftermath of his sibling’s shooting death.  Didn’t cry.

What did it for me yesterday was a certificate.

To be exact:  The Certificate of Liberation i.e. the “Provisional Identification Card for Civilian Internee of Buchenwald.”

On April 22, 1945 the survivor I interviewed was liberated from Buchenwald Concentration Camp by the American army.  He has held onto the wallet sized, brown leather-bound document signed by American General Bertel something or other  for 64 years.  It’  states that “Herr (blank blank in the interest of privacy) was kept in captivity from 16.4.1944 to 22.4.1945 in Nazi-German concentration camps and was liberated from the concentration camp of Buchenwald.”

It blew me away to see the authentic signed military document.  I traveled in my imagination to the place and time  that document was received and imagined the officer handing it to the survivor and the incredulity on both parts.  The significance of holding onto that document for six decades struck a chord.

I know, though, that I’m not the only journalist who has ever broken down on the job.

Some years ago B.Z. Goldberg’s documentary Promises was shown in cinemas worldwide. In what was the film’s most poignant scene, Palestinian and Israeli children are shown sitting together in the West Bank living room of one child’s home after having spent the day playing, laughing and getting to know each other.  Separated by politics and army checkpoints, they live a mere 20 minutes apart but would have never met had the filmmaker not brought them together.

Suddenly, one of the Palestinian boys begins crying.

What’s wrong? director B.Z. queries.

They’ll go back to Israel today and then we’ll never see them again, the boy answers, knowing all too well the reality of his situation.

The camera then pans to B.Z. who is also crying.

I was awed by that scene because  B.Z. allowed himself to spontaneously shed tears and he kept the shot in the film.

It was nominated for Best Documentary Oscar in 2001.

So about the crying thing…I dunno.  Mypersonal jury’s still out.

 

Oscars Anyone? February 15, 2009

Oscars are a week from today.  I haven’t watched the ceremony in yeeeaaaarrrsss but I always follow the results.

This year, however, I’m changing it up by synching my local Israel time to U.S. ceremony time (read: It’s gonna be an over-nighter Sunday) to watch it live.  I admit: I’m a sucker for the red carpet, the hoopla, the speeches, the controversy and I particularly love seeing trailers from the contenders.

This year I have selfish interests at heart as well: I want to see if Israel’s nominated entry Waltz with Bashir wins in the Best Foreign Language Film category.

I FINALLY got around to seeing Waltz this weekend.  And it far exceeded my expectations.  The use of animation was really apt on many levels.  Also, because the subject matter it addresses has been so very controversial for so long, the film was quite poignant.

Because Director Ari Folman’s animation is a personal testimony to one of the major events that happened in Israel’s 1982 Lebanon War/Invasion, it is tough to dispute what some have denied vis a vis Israel’s role in that event.  I’m being vague, I know.  I don’t want to spoil it.

Watch the trailer.  French Foreign Film Contender The Class also looks quite good  – haven’t seen it yet.   I’d say it’s between the two.  But Waltz With Bashir’s timing in terms of what we just saw happen in Gaza may give Folman the edge…