Israeli Director Nominated for Oscar: ‘As a Jew, I Don’t Feel as Safe in America as I Once Did’

Guy Nattiv tells Haaretz about the American neo-Nazi family and the Israeli racism that inspired his work

Guy Nattiv poses after receiving the Fipresci Special Presentation Award for 'Skin' at the 2018 TIFF Awards Ceremony, Toronto, Canada, September 16, 2018.
Jeremy Chan / Getty Images / AFP

Guy Nattiv’s film “Skin” on the skinhead world and racism in America – where the director says he no longer feels so safe – has been nominated for an Academy Award for best live action short film.

Nattiv is known in Israel for his 2011 drama “The Flood” on a dysfunctional family and his 2007 “Strangers,” which takes place during the 2006 soccer World Cup and the Second Lebanon War. He says he moved to the United States four years ago to jump-start his career.

“I knew that to interest the American actors and producers, you have to show them something that’s American. They don’t really understand a movie like ‘The Flood.’ So Sharon Maymon, who has been a good friend since we were in school ... joined me on this,” Nattiv said.

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“I once saw an article about a neo-Nazi father who led a violent group of skinheads and taught his son how to shoot and carry a gun. He taught him to hate. One night the father came home drunk and the son thought he was an intruder. So he shot his father in the head and killed him. It left a mark on me.”

“Skin” was filmed a year and a half ago; as soon as it was edited, it was submitted to the HollyShorts short-film festival in the United States, where it won first prize.

“The movie isn’t yet known to the public. I did some Academy screenings and got very strong responses. Most members of the Academy are from the left, and I think they understood the need to tell a story about racism in America,” Nattiv said.

“There has been a wave of such films in the last few years; I expect this wave to grow even bigger and stronger in the coming years,” he added.

An image from the film 'Skin': A family tragedy that begins with education for racism and violence.
New Native Pictures / Salaud Mor

“But in 2018-2019, after the [Pittsburgh] synagogue massacre; these are things that haven’t happened with such frequency in the United States for many years. As a Jew, I don’t feel as safe in America as I once did. Suddenly, it’s not so simple to be a Jew. You think twice about whether to put on a kippa in public. It’s disturbing.”

At the Oscars in 2004, Nattiv’s “Strangers” made it to the shortlist of 10 films but not the final five. “It was submitted to the Oscars by Fox Searchlight without our knowledge,” he said.

“Then one day we got a call from the Academy saying, ‘Congratulations, you’ve made the shortlist of the 10 nominees for Best Short Film.’ We were in total shock. When we watched as they announced the final nominees on TV and we didn’t make it, we were crushed.”

Nattiv says his new film is based on a familiar Jewish theme, ancestral sin.

“It’s the cyclical nature of racism,” he said. “Everyone who read the script was very enthusiastic, and that helped us raise the money for the movie,” which is due to be shown at the Berlin International Film Festival.

Nattiv says growing racism in Israel was a starting point.

“Ultimately, Israel is a microcosm of the United States. You don’t have neo-Nazis in Israel, but there are many other aspects of racism. In the movie, a white guy meets a black guy and plays with his kid in the supermarket, and this leads to a blowup,” he said.

“If the film had been set in Israel, it could have been an encounter between a Jew and an Arab or between an Ashkenazi and a Mizrahi, or between a religious person and a secular person. Just seeing the reaction that Shmulik Maoz got for ‘Foxtrot,’ when people threatened to burn his house down, made me realize how serious the situation is in Israel,” Nattiv added, referring to the 2017 drama in which a couple is told their son was killed in action.

“He visited us a year ago and told me that he had received death threats. You could say that I made this film from the vantage point of a foreigner in America who’s already familiar with racism from home.”