Oscar Aspirations Are a Trap for Israeli Cinema

It’s nice that Israeli cinema is gaining traction abroad, but what's really important is how films impact our own society, a culture still taking shape.

When Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat handed out the Ophir Award for best Israeli film last September, she lavished predictable praise on the current blossoming of Israeli cinema, noting the international recognition it brings to our small country.

Not one word was said about the central role cinema plays in contemporary Israeli culture, though, or its importance or contribution to our lives. Not one word was said about the winning film, Yuval Adler’s “Bethlehem.” Even before the winning film was announced, the minister saddled it with a national mission, the big dream of Israeli filmmaking: Bringing home the most coveted international film prize, that golden statuette called Oscar.

Well, it won’t happen this year, since “Bethlehem” didn’t make the shortlist of nine films from which the five nominees for best foreign language film will be selected this week.

Since 2007, there has been only one year (2010) in which there was no local representative among the contenders. That 2007 film – Joseph Cedar’s “Beaufort” – broke a 23-year absence, being the first Israeli nominee since Uri Barbash’s “Beyond the Walls” in 1984. In 2008, Ari Folman’s “Waltz with Bashir” was among the films competing for the Academy Award. In 2009, it was “Ajami,” by Yaron Shani and Scandar Copti. And in 2011 it was “Footnote,” again by Cedar.

Last year, Rama Burshtein’s ultra-Orthodox drama “Fill the Void” was overlooked, but two locally produced films competed for best documentary feature – “5 Broken Cameras,” by Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi, and Dror Moreh’s “The Gatekeepers.”

While listening to Livnat’s speech at last year’s Ophir Awards ceremony, the irony didn’t escape me that this same minister had complained only the previous year that “in recent years, too many films that libel Israel are produced here.”

The parts of the Academy Awards where prizes are given for the categories in which Israeli films have been contenders – best foreign language film and best documentary feature – are those in which TV viewing figures drop dramatically in the United States. When these sections start, water consumption spikes due to the rush of viewers taking bathroom breaks.

In Israel, by contrast, speculation about our chances starts a day earlier, and viewers who stay up to watch the ceremony live hope that the night becomes golden. This has yet to happen in the history of the Oscars, and anyone watching the ceremony on Sunday March 2 will have to suffice with finding out what’s crowned best film, along with the best director, actors and actresses awards. Nominees will be announced this Thursday (January 16).

Things aren’t so bad, though. I’m happy when an Israeli film is a nominee, and I’ll be happy when one finally wins an Academy Award. But among the goals, dreams and ambitions of current Israeli filmmaking, the Oscar one seems less important. Yes, winning one does bring honor and fame to the film and its maker (albeit temporarily – can you recall the winner of last year’s best foreign language film?), and international recognition of the Israeli film industry is important. But this pining for the Oscar dream and what it represents, beyond the provincialism it exudes (for which, to be fair, I have some affection), contains some elements that are dangerous for Israeli cinema.

It’s nice that Israeli filmmaking is flourishing and is recognized abroad, receiving numerous prizes at different film festivals. But its only true significance lies in what it achieves within our own society, a culture still taking shape. If this distinction is marginalized or forgotten, it could deflect local filmmaking away from its impressively developing course.

Centrality in Israeli culture

Several acclaimed Israeli films have been released recently, including “Big Bad Wolves” by Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado; Tom Shoval’s “Youth”; Adler’s “Bethlehem”; Ami Livne’s “Sharqiya”; Amos Gitai’s “Ana Arabia”; and Johnathan Gurfinkel’s “S#x Acts.” Also soon to be released is “Sweets,” by Joseph Pitchhadze. This would be an impressive collection in any country’s film slate.

Each one of these films set itself a different kind of challenge in its form and ideas, and each testifies to the diversity within Israeli filmmaking. They also reflect the schisms within society and the local culture in which they were produced. Each of them tells an individual story that is projected onto the collective within which it operates, touching on the central issue that has always been at the center of Israeli culture – the place of the individual within the collective – and the ideological confrontation that develops between them.

After many decades in which Israeli films lived mainly on the periphery of Israel’s cultural awareness, their centrality in Israeli culture can no longer be contested. The deepening and broadening of this awareness should serve as the guiding light for policy makers and funders of local filmmaking. However, looks are directed outward, searching for the next Israeli film that will win an international award, possibly even including that coveted statuette called Oscar.

The international recognition won by Israeli films has had two positive effects, but also a problematic aspect. First, that recognition and the skills demonstrated by local filmmakers have led to many coproductions with overseas partners. This has brought funds to the local industry, but the growing reliance on external producers brings the inherent risk that they will also determine the character of movies being produced here. Local directors now need external funding in order to obtain local funding.

Second, one wonders at the sheer number of films by first-time filmmakers that appear every year. I anxiously await more films by these directors. These debut features suggest an obstinate search for the next big talent that can bring us honor on the world stage. Consequently, this often pushes aside veteran filmmakers, whose talents have already been proven, as well as young directors whom the local establishment doesn’t see as being capable of delivering such prestige. These directors may have a potentially excellent movie, but if it doesn’t deal with one of the topics that interest viewers abroad, it becomes just another good movie with little chance of being funded – to our detriment.

The Oscar dream symbolizes many of the limitations that confine the local film industry. Since the movie that wins the Ophir award for best film is automatically entered for the Academy Awards, this affects its selection. “Bethlehem” – a thriller about a Shin Bet security service agent and a young Palestinian collaborator in the West Bank – seemed the perfect choice, directed with a mainstream skill and dealing with the conflict in a balanced ideological way that highlights the human aspect above the political one, as if this is possible.

It is important that we separate the awarding of the Ophir prize from the selection of Israel’s Oscar candidate, so irrelevant considerations do not enter the process. Until that happens, the dream – not the net worth of the film – will drive the process.

I don’t really care that we haven’t won an Oscar yet or that we don’t have a contender this year. The inclusion of an Israeli film in the awards serves as a propaganda lever – and even when the film is good and I like it, I am deterred by propaganda.

I’ll be just as happy to see the next good Israeli movie as I would be seeing an Israeli Oscar winner. I’ll be disappointed if an Israeli nominee doesn’t win, but even more so if the next film I see isn’t a good one.

Looking outward is probably inevitable, but it’s much more important to gaze inward, and current Israeli filmmaking is caught between the two. These sometimes meet successfully, but if they don’t, Israeli filmmaking may suffer.

Let’s not forget that, after all, this is only a 34-centimeter tall trophy weighing 3.85 kilograms, and is only plated in gold.

AP