Israeli Film May Have Lost the Oscar, but It Won Some Hollywood

'Footnote' didn't win an Oscar, but the Israeli filmmakers won praise from Steven Spielberg, kibitzed with George Clooney in Yiddish and had a moving encounter with the Iranian winners.

"At this time many Iranians all over the world are watching us and I imagine them to be very happy," Iranian director Asghar Farhadi said in his acceptance speech for his film, "A Separation," winner of the Oscar for best foreign language film at Sunday night's Academy Awards ceremony. "They are happy not just because of an important award or a film or a filmmaker, but because at the time when talk of war, intimidation and aggression is exchanged between politicians, the name of their country, Iran, is spoken here through her glorious culture; a rich and ancient culture that has been under heavy dust of politics," said Farhadi. "I proudly offer this honor to the people of my country, a people who respect all cultures and civilizations and despise hostility and resentment."

The makers of "Footnote," the Israeli nominee which competed against "A Separation," sat in the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood listening to the Iranian director's speech. "It was pretty much expected," said one of the film's producers, David Mandil, after the ceremony. "The Iranian film won in Berlin, won the Golden Globe and the Independent Spirit, and already had a high profile, and therefore its win was fairly predictable. Still, for us, just getting to this point is a great accomplishment," said the co-producer of "Footnote," a saga about a father and son, who are both Talmudic scholars.


During a break in the ceremony, "Footnote" director Joseph Cedar and the film's two stars, Shlomo Bar-Aba and Lior Ashkenazi, approached the Iranian delegation to congratulate them. Producer Moshe Edery recounts that after shaking hands, Bar-Aba said to the Iranians: "'I hope you purchase our film to screen in Iran, and if that happens, I promise to come!'" Edery rebuked the actor. "Don't promise them you'll come," he quipped "because we won't be able to hand over another 500 prisoners to free you."

Prior to the ceremony, Bar-Aba met the members of the Iranian delegation at their hotel. "I told them our film is about conflict, clashes within the family between a father and a son," recalls the Israeli actor. "And then they said that their film is also about that. It turns out we are all walking family conflicts. The charming Iranian actress told me 'we want to resolve the conflicts between our countries, but we don't have time for it because we are busy with family conflicts and that's where it all starts.' She said the path to reconciliation starts within our own families. 'Look how similar we are,' she said to me."

Edery says that he thought the Israeli entry had a chance but that its director sobered any high hopes. "Cedar kept telling us: 'Lower your expectations because there is the Iranian film and if it doesn't win, there is still the Polish and the Canadian ones. We don't have a chance.' But that's Cedar. He also told us that there is no chance we would be in the top five (foreign film nominees ) and at Cannes he also rushed to board the plane (before the end of the ceremony ) because he didn't think he'd win. (Cedar won the best screenplay award at Cannes and had to fly back to accept it. ) But that's Cedar's greatness," says Edery. "He is a modest person."

While the Israelis involved in "Footnote" missed out on an Oscar, they got several other accolades. "At one break in the ceremony, after the Iranians won, Steven Spielberg came up to us and said: 'You've got a fine film,'" says Bar-Aba, who plays the father, Eliezer Shkolnik, in the movie. "Then he asked me: 'Hey, are you the guy who plays the old man? I don't believe it; you're really just a kid!'"

Meryl Streep, who won the best actress award, also complimented Bar-Aba on his performance. "She came up to me and shook my hand and said: 'I heard you're a comic at home and that doesn't surprise me, because I know that only a comic can perform such a moving role in a drama.' The encounter with all these stars is something dazzling," continues Bar-Aba. "After all, we're all just kids from development towns, and suddenly I meet George Clooney and he is joking with me in Yiddish.

"I allowed myself to enjoy these encounters with stars, just like a kid who goes to an amusement park for the first time. But of course after the ceremony the hairdos flop, the makeup smears and everyone takes off their shoes and discovers the blisters. From the start, everyone realizes that it's all one big show." "Footnote" is the tenth Israeli film to compete for the best foreign film. Israeli nominees have been in the running three consecutive years, with "Beaufort" (2008 ), "Waltz with Bashir" (2009 ) and "Ajami" (2010 ), but no Israeli entry has won the coveted prize yet.

Despite the disappointment, Katriel Schory, the head of the Israeli Film Fund, the main body that funds Israeli movies, notes that this string of nominations is an impressive achievement. "Four Oscar nominees in five years is an accomplishment unmatched by any other country of our size," said Schory on Sunday after leaving the Hollywood ceremony. "We should remember that before then, from 1985 to 2008, we didn't have any nominees; that is, we spent 23 years in the desert. After so many years when it seemed like something that is beyond our reach, to come back with four nominations in five years is an amazing thing and a huge accomplishment. Israeli film is now on the world map. There will be more films, we will keep trying and because I already know what films we have in the pipeline, I'm really not worried." This was the second Oscar ceremony for Edery, Mandil and Cedar; the first was in 2008 when their film "Beaufort" was nominated for best foreign film. "When we were here with 'Beaufort we said we'll be back. And we say the same thing now," says Edery. "Cedar told us we'll be back a third time and then it will be okay. I believe that by tomorrow morning, he'll already be asking, 'what do we do now to get to the next Oscar?'"