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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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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…

 

Oscars – Israel Style September 25, 2008

A colleague and I attended Holy Land Central’s (HLC aka Israel) version of The Oscars Tuesday night… Although I haven’t ever physically attended Hollywood’s Academy Awards Ceremony, let’s say I could just tell from years of U.S. couch viewing that the two events were about as far removed from each other as… umm…hummus and caviar.

The first striking difference I noted as our cab pulled up curbside to the ceremony’s Tel Aviv Opera House venue was lacking paparazzi, red carpet and fanfare.  Not that I was expecting it for myself, mind you.  I’m 1) not a celeb and  2) my simple black cocktail dress & black Via Spiga heels accented with a strand of pearls and red silk Dior headscarf were nice enough but not star quality Pay Attention to Me! stunning.

This is HLC where casual is where it’s at.  But I had hoped to see Starz arrive to flashing megawatts and crowds of admirers.  Instead, all attendees – common folk and celebs alike – quietly milled about in the Opera House lobby sipping wine and nibbling cheese.  No bodyguards or cordoned off VIP area.  Politicians in these parts get bodyguards but not actors.  They’re sort of regular folk who appear on t.v. but that you might see at your local cafe.  Oh, there’s so and so.  Wow, he looks different in person.  Can you hold the foam on my latte?

Celebs were easily discernible, however, by their professional styling: complimentary make-up, good hair and brightly hued, glammy sheer and sequined formal gowns.  Actors entered the lobby, pulled poses, photographers snapped and then it was back to the conversation or glass of wine at hand.

The ceremony was painfully under-produced so when, for instance, the Israeli network carrying the event cut to commercial breaks, we the audience weren’t offered any indication of a pause.  Everything simply went quiet following an acceptance speech.  Participants walked off stage and there was a lull.  It was up to us to work out the details.  Oh.  A commercial.  I see. A few minutes later the music would start up again or the hosts would come out on stage.  Back in business.  Here we go. Strange.

As films go, Waltz With Bashir was the evening’s big winner; it took 6 awards including best director and  best film and it will represent Israel as a contender for this year’s foreign film at the Oscars.  An animated semi-documentary, Bashir is director Ari Folman’s autobiographical foray backwards into buried military memories of serving in Israel’s 1982 Lebanon War.

Folman and animation/tech crew spent four years making the film and it’s doing well on the circuit. Sony picked up distribution rights and the L.A. Times‘Clive Barker described it as “ingenious animation” and an “overwhelming anti-war” movie.  Each time Folman made his way onstage to accept an award Tuesday night, he came across as humble and grateful.  An uber-mensch very much admired by the crew members he invited onstage with him to accept the Best Picture Award.

As he and crew made their way up to the lectern for that honor of honors, however, I was horrified to witness half the audience rise from their seats and begin filing out the exit doors.  A little Respect here, People!  Come on!  He just won best film!

Over a post-ceremony glass of wine in the lobby with my friend Ilana who heads Israel’s Film Academy, I mentioned my alarm over the seeming disrespect.

Yeah, it was disgusting, she remarked.  I think it was a simple case of the audience wanting to get back out to here to the alcohol and food.

Shame.  Because they missed Folman’s scant but poignant speech welcoming into the world 8 babies born to staff members during production.  In fifteen years, he said, I hope these kids will watch this film and see it as just another animated movie that has absolutely nothing to do with their realities.

I’ll drink a post-ceremony cocktail to that.

Check the trailer here.