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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.