The Israeli Who Won the Oscar, Without Getting an Oscar

Sharon Maymon, screenwriter for the Oscar-winning short film 'Skin', returned home without a statuette, but he's not wasting time worrying about that

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Sharon Maymon
Credit: Daniel Tchetchik
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman

The door to Sharon Maymon’s apartment is still covered with colorful signs of congratulations. When he got back from Los Angeles last week, neighbors on his Tel Aviv street had attached a big sign saying “We’re on the map!” to one of the benches, and friends and neighbors in his building had plastered his door with excited good wishes, a testament to the thrill that many Israelis felt the morning after the Oscars.

Maymon, who wrote the screenplay for the Oscar-winning short film “Skin,” may have returned to Israel without a statuette – two were awarded to director Guy Nattiv and his wife Jaime Ray Newman, the film’s producer – and his name hasn't always been prominently featured in the publicity surrounding the win, but he isn’t about to waste any energy worrying about that. “From the start, I decided I would only be the screenwriter on this film. I thought the Oscars would go to everyone but I guess I was naïve about that. I could sit around all day and grumble about it but I made my peace with it early on in the project and now I’d rather be thinking about my next film.”

In most of his previous films, including “A Matter of Size,” “The Farewell Party” and “Flawless” (which was just announced as an official competitor in the Tribeca Film Festival), Maymon was involved in both the writing and the direction. This time, though the idea for the film was his, he entrusted Nattiv with directing it. And as very often happens when a film wins lots of acclaim and awards, the screenwriter is pushed to the margins while all the focus is on the director. “That’s part of being in the screenwriter’s shoes,” says Maymon.

(From left) Guy Nattiv, Sharon Maymon and Spike LeeCredit: Guy Nattiv

The idea for “Skin” first came to him in early 2017, watching the Ethiopians' ongoing battle against discrimination in Israel. “They decided to stand up and say, ‘No more,’ and then the police responded harshly, more harshly than with other protestors. It was fascinating to see them taking to the streets, blocking roads and saying, ‘No more. Our blood is no different than yours.’ I really do think that skin color still makes a difference in Israel. And the easiest example is that everyone knows who Gilad Shalit is but not everyone knows who Avera Mengistu is. You hardly hear about him in the news".

Maymon had the idea to make a short film about a racist young white man who mobilizes his friends to attack a black man who dared to smile at his son – and the ensuing revenge by the black man who was beaten and humiliated in front of his own son. To avoid any spoilers, we won’t say more than that. “Because this story is so extreme, so much so that it sometimes feels a little like ‘The Twilight Zone,’ I realized it couldn’t be made in Israel. It wouldn’t be credible to set such a story here,” says Maymon. “America, however, could be a believable background for it. In today’s Trump-land, anything can happen. Racism is seething. And even if my idea arose here, everything is global now, including all that’s related to racism.”

The next stage was picking up the phone and calling his friend who had moved to America five years earlier. Maymon and Nattiv met at the Camera Obscura school and Maymon helped Nattiv and Erez Tadmor write their feature film “Son of God.” He called Nattiv in Los Angeles. “I told Guy, ‘Hey I’ve got an idea for a short film that will win us an Oscar.’ I wanted to make him understand that I had a really, really good idea, because I believed that this story told a special tale about racism."

Nattiv was enthusiastic about the project. The two wrote the script together in Hebrew (it was later translated into English) and thought about co-directing, but conflicting schedules made that impossible. “So I let it go. We agreed on which credits we would get, and I moved on,” says Maymon. “Guy sent me some of the auditions and stills from the shoot, and then we he sent me a rough cut – my jaw dropped."

In search of a charger

This isn't the first time Maymon has had Oscar hopes within his reach. Seven years ago, “Summer Vacation,” a short film he made with his creative partner Tal Granit, was one of the final 10 nominees for Best Short Film but didn’t make the cut for the final five (The same happened with Nattiv and Tadmor’s film “Strangers”). Then, too, they sat in front of the TV and filmed themselves waiting for the announcement, as the Academy asks all nominees to do.

But this time, when he filmed himself and the other Israeli collaborators on the film (sound designer Ronen Nagel and editor Yuval Orr) shouting with joy when the film's nomination was announced – the video took off on Israeli social media (together with a video of Nattiv’s ecstatic reaction overseas) and set the tone for the ceremony.

He flew to Los Angeles for the first time three weeks before the Oscars to attend a special breakfast for all the nominees. “It was nice and surreal. Small talk with Lady Gaga, Steven Spielberg and Elton John – one after the other – that’s not something that happens every day,” he says. He came to the Oscars with his partner Itay and their 5-year-old son Yonatan.

When he describes meeting Spike Lee at one of the parties, he doesn’t try to hide his smile. Two Israeli white guys make a movie about racism in America and get compliments from Spike Lee – that’s certainly something to brag about.

Sharon Maymon, the text on his hand reads, "#Free Avera Mengistu."Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

“He told us that he supports the film, that he stands behind its message, that he voted for the film and persuaded other people to vote for it,” Maymon says. “When I heard that, I was like, Okay, we don’t even need to win.’”

Maymon also addresses the less flattering reviews “Skin” has received. Some critics complained about the parallel drawn between the neo-Nazi gang and the gang of blacks and the kids who join them. “In most American films that deal with racism, when a black guy or girl runs into violence at the hands of a white man, usually another white guy will come into the picture and rescue them. We didn’t want the solution to come from a white man. We didn’t mean to compare neo-Nazi violence with the violence of the blacks. The aim was to avoid the familiar trope in movies where the black hero isn’t allowed to solve the problem on his own."

Still from the film 'Skin'Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures

At the Oscars, he felt confident that “Skin” would take the prize. “I felt it was a film with the right story at the right time,” he says. “No subject is more powerful in America these days. There were other nominated films about this subject too.” Maymon decided to record the winning moment with a selfie video on his phone. The gamble paid off, and the clip of him and Nattiv and Maymon whooping for joy and excitedly taking the stage became a hit. “For me, it was kind of like hiding behind the camera and giving another angle on what was happening. I just filmed it. In those moments, you don’t know what’s going on with you. The shouting is out of your control, it’s euphoria."

You guys really didn’t hold back.

“Yeah, we’re less inhibited than the Brits and the Americans. Though Spike Lee did jump into Samuel Jackson’s arms. But yes, we did inject a little action into the proceedings. It was a pretty sleepy ceremony until we got up there, I think."

They left the auditorium right after the win and didn’t see the rest of the ceremony. “Every year I sit and watch, the red carpet and everything, but I didn’t this year. The phone calls started coming right away, our batteries ran down quickly, we were doing interviews on just three-percent,” he said.

They went from party to party the whole night, including the official Oscar party and the Vanity Fair party, met lots of celebrities, were congratulated everywhere they went and tried to find phone chargers while they were at it. “Then there was Madonna’s party and then Elton John’s party after that, but we had to go to bed at that point. We were totally exhausted."

The tuxedo that Maymon rented on Ben Yehuda Street in Tel Aviv is still hanging in his living room. “Just 2,000 shekels,” he says, smiling. He had to cover all the expenses of the past weeks himself. “And it adds up to a huge amount – I must have spent at least 40,000 shekels.” Still, he’s hopeful that this win will help him and Granit raise funding abroad for their next film, “Bombay Baby,” which has already garnered the support from the Israel Film Fund.

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