Israeli Filmmaker Guy Nattiv's 'Skin' Wins Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film

'This film is about education,' Nattiv says, pointing to the kind of bigotry his grandparents experienced during the Holocaust

Guy Nattiv and Jaime Ray Newman celebrate backstage with their awards for Best Live Action Short Film for the film "Skin," February 24, 2019.
REUTERS/Mike Segar

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

"Layla tov Israel," Nattiv said as he accepted the award. “My grandparents are Holocaust survivors. The bigotry that they experienced in the Holocaust – we see that everywhere today, in America, in Europe. This film is about education, about teaching your kids a better way.” 

At a press conference, Nattiv said that a full-length film based on "Skin" would be released in July. Now the Israeli will have a chance to follow in the footsteps of  Damien Chazelle, whose short film “Whiplash” was later an Oscar nominee in many categories. 

>> Interview with Guy Nattiv: ‘As a Jew, I don’t feel as safe in America as I once did’ ■ Why so many Israeli horror films take place in the army 

“We went on a spaceship and landed here,” said Jaime Ray Newman, the producer of “Skin” and Nattiv’s wife, after their film won Sunday night. “I don’t know how this happened.”

When asked if the work had a political message, Nattiv said he didn’t “think we were trying to make a political statement necessarily. In short, we explored [how] what you teach your children is going to influence the next generation.”

Newman added that “the beauty of Guy as a filmmaker is he doesn’t pound anything over your head” – he offers questions rather than answers.

The New York Times and Variety had predicted that Nattiv would win. Variety called him “an undeniably gifted filmmaker” and the film a “stunner.”

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

Nattiv and Newman promoted the movie nonstop; they attended screenings of the film for journalists and members of the Academy, provided interviews and called press conferences. According to reports on American entertainment websites, Lady Gaga and Spike Lee, who also won Oscars this year, offered them advice.

Culture Minister Miri Regev said Monday: “The win is another success story of Israeli cinema .... The fact that the film, which deals with hatred and racism, won the prize is an important cinematic chapter in the uncompromising battle for awareness against those who choose racism as their way of life. I congratulate Guy and all those who took part in the film and say to him: ‘Guy, I’ll be happy if you come back to create in Israel.’”

President Reuven Rivlin added, “Dear Guy, the favorable words about ‘Skin’ are all for you, for Sharon [Maymon, a co-writer] and for Jaime Ray, but the film is a gift for our children and grandchildren, and for the future we want for them so that they can fulfill all their dreams.”

Nattiv was already 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.

“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.

“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 told Haaretz in January.

“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.

“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 said "Skin" was 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 said 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.”