This Oscar season, the big buzz in Tinseltown is about the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science's new rules for the oft-forgotten Best Documentary Feature category. For the first time in Oscar history, all of the academy's nearly 6,000 members will vote on the five doc feature finalists, which in another first include not one but two entries from Israel.
These, of course, are "5 Broken Cameras," a chronicle of Palestinian nonviolent resistance co-helmed by Israeli Guy Davidi and the cameraman himself, Palestinian Emad Burnat; and Dror Moreh's "The Gatekeepers," a compilation of interviews with former Shin Bet heads woven together into a damning censure of Israel's occupation of the West Bank.
In the past, voting was restricted to those who attended special screenings of all five films – no easy feat in a season already packed with red carpets and press fetes, and all the boozing, schmoozing and name-dropping that comes with.
This year, however, the Academy sent out the screeners for the five docs (and documentary shorts), so that everyone can watch them from the comfort of their own homes (which in Hollywood, usually means a state-of-the-art, surround-sound, better-than-movie theater-quality home studio).
Whether or not the rules shift will be a game changer remains anyone's guess.
Consider the Los Angeles Times' recent demographic study, which found the Academy members to be overwhelmingly white, older and male. At 94% white, 77% male, Oscar voters’ median age was 62. The study also found that only 14% of the members are under 50.
In a city that has a large percentage of Jews, I’m guessing that at least that same percentage of those 5,765 predominantly white, older men are Jewish. (Salon also says that here). Jews of Hollywood – especially over 50 – tend to be democratic, liberal and pro-Israel. And “pro-Israel,” to that generation translates as “showing Israel in a positive light.”
That may not bode well for “5 Broken Cameras” and “The Gatekeepers” – neither of which leave the viewer singing Zionist ballads. Which is a good thing – actually, it’s philo-Semitism, not anti-Semitism.
If my theory is correct – and it’s only a theory, mind you – it won’t bode well for “5 Broken Cameras” or “The Gatekeepers,” both of which are scathing in their Zionist critique. Israel has never won an Oscar, despite fielding an impressive 10 nominees in the much flashier Best Foreign Language Film category. But if it were to win, it's more likely the Academy would nod for a warm-hearted family saga like Joseph Cedar's "Footnote," which was nominated for best foreign-lingo pic in 2011, than for "Waltz With Bashir," Ari Folman's animated coup de matre about the Lebanon war, which competed in the same category in 2008.
Then again, there are a lot of competing theories when it comes to gaming the Oscars. In a piece for New York magazine, Mark Harris contends that Oscar campaigns are very much like political bids. Films are framed as narratives, and their stories and actors are touted with feel-good taglines such as "The Little Movie That Could," "The Tale of a Low-Budget Indie," and "A David Among Studio Goliaths."
To adherents of this theory, "Cameras" and "Gatekeepers," then, are under a double crunch in an already crowded race. As two pics summed up by the same bottom line – "Occupation Not Great" – they will likely split voters.
But this is Hollywood, and there's always another spin to the story. Some folks believe the film that does best at the box-office, the biggest crowd-pleaser, will take the glory, and if that's the case, then Malik Bendjelloul's Swedish/British documentary "Searching for Silverman" will win the night. Others contend the statue goes to The Pic that Highlights An Important Issue, which means David France's investigation of AIDS activists, "How to Survive a Plague," will be crowned the winner. But then again, it could be said that "Invisible War," Kirby Dick's look at rape in the U.S. military, looks at an Even More Important Issue.
This is Hollywood, kids, where luck can shift by the day. Who knows which theory will prevail? By now, the votes, which were cast on Tuesday, are sealed. So sit back, enjoy the show, and simply hope that the best film wins.
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