Avi Nesher seemed to have everything going for him. There was the cult film of his past, "Halahaka" (The Troupe); his $3 million new film, "Sof Ha'Olam, Smola" (Turn Left at the End of the World); a team of famous actors - Yisrael Katorza, Ruby Porat Shoval, Nati Ravitz, Rotem Abuhab and others.
There was also a well publicized quarrel with one of the actresses, Porat Shoval, a strong distribution company, United King, which simultaneously screened the film at 40 theaters, and an exceptional number of 350,000 viewers.
"An American Oscar never looked so close," said film critic Shmulik Duvdevany in a glowing review of the movie, published on Ynet web site.
Despite all these omens, when the Israeli Film Academy published its official final list of candidates for the Ophir Prize, the Israeli equivalent of the Oscar, two weeks ago, it turned out that Nesher himself was not nominated for any of the prizes to be awarded at a ceremony next Monday - not for Best Picture, whose winner automatically represents Israel at the Oscar Awards, Best Producer nor Best Screenplay.
Still, the film is nominated in six Ophir Prize categories - Best Actress, Liraz Charchi; Best Supporting Actress, Neta Garty; Cinematography; Artistic Design; Costume Design and Soundtrack.
But these nominations were not good enough for Nesher, and he reacted angrily, comparing the members of the academy to members of the Likud Central Committee. He told Ma'ariv their vote was "a minority opinion that pokes fun at the legitimacy of the majority."
United King said it was "a slap in the face to the 350,000 people who have so far gone to see the film."
Who's a racist?
In the past two weeks Nesher has gained outspoken support from Maariv. Almost every day the paper publishes an article denouncing the Film Academy and its members' decision not to nominate the film for the three premium awards.
Most journalists present the academy's members as an old Ashkenazi hegemony that is unwilling to admit the suffering it caused to immigrants from North Africa, who are represented in Nesher's film by a family of Moroccan origin stuck for 10 years in a godforsaken town in the south of the country.
"Is the academy continuing this denial?" asked Michal Ohayun, a behavioral science expert, in her article. Dan Margalit surmised that the suppression of the film by the academy "attests to the fact that the establishment has still not opened the window of its sealed fortress."
Even Ma'ariv's editor Amnon Dankner and his deputy, Avi Bettelhiem, published a joint article under the headline "Cultural scandal," in which they propose that the academy's decision was rooted in racism. "The members of the academy disqualified the film because they are unable to cope with the harsh problem the film raises. From their point of view, the past must be buried," wrote Dankner and Bettleheim.
Transportation Minister Meir Sheetrit also had his say on the pages of Ma'ariv, contending that the decision made the academy's members "irrelevant to reality." Sheetrit's article included the erroneous and misleading statement that the film had not been nominated in any category.
Ma'ariv's outraged journalists, who claimed that racist considerations had influenced the academy's selections, chose to ignore that in previous years the same academy had awarded the Best Picture prize to "Late Marriage" (2001), which related the story of immigrants from Georgia, and to "Magic" (1995), Hana Azoulay-Hasfari's film about a Moroccan family in a southern Israeli town.
For some reason, these journalists also protested that the film "To Take a Wife, " directed by Shomi and Ronit Elkabetz, which also deals with a Moroccan family, earned only nomination in the coming competition.
They also neglected to mention the heterogeneous makeup of the Israeli Film Academy, which includes a mixture of all backgrounds and disciplines - from the most influential producers and directors to the last of the set workers, among whom, of course, are both Ashkenazis and Sephardis.
The journalists also left out "The Schwartz Dynasty," a film by Shmuel Hasfari and his nephew Amir Hasfari, which also was not nominated for any major prizes, despite having Ashkenazi creators. The film was submitted to all 13 categories, but won only three nominations - Best Actor (Tal Friedman), Best Supporting Actor (Yehuda Levy), and Best Supporting Actress (Anya Bukstein).
"We accept the academy's decision with understanding," says Azoulay Hasfari, "just as I was understanding when the academy did not award me the Best Screenplay prize for `Sh'chor' and awarded it instead to Assi Dayan for `Electric Blanket.'"
He said: "The moment one decides to play the game one cannot later say `time out' and kick the bucket just because they didn't choose me. If the academy's members were racist, then it is logical they would be racists against `Magic' and `Late Marriage,' too. The academy members' taste is more European and less commercial American."
Azoulay said this explained why "Turn Left at the End of the World" is not among the five Best Picture nominees this year. "I enjoyed Nesher's film very much. It is not an exemplary work, but I enjoyed its multicultural spirit, with its cute Hollywood message. There is no such thing as a natural candidate for Best Picture, and there are no rules as to who should be a candidate and who should not. The academy's members have the right, according to their perception, to decide this - that is their job."
There were 23 films submitted for the Ophir prizes this year and for Israel this is a record. The 682 members of the Israeli Film Academy were asked to view the films and to fill out a voter ballot indicating their choices for the 13 categories.
This year choosing was much harder than in the past - at least half of the competing films had already proved their worth as candidates, either by attracting an audience or earning accolades and awards at important festivals around the world.
"Walk on Water" and "Turn Left at the End of the World" were surprising box office successes - 200,000 people have seen "Walk on Water." Their creators chose not to enter the local festivals but to focus on a massive marketing effort and let the audiences judge for themselves.
"Walk on Water" was also honored with opening the prestigious Panorama program at the Berlin Festival. This year two Israeli films were decorated at the Cannes Festival - Keren Yedaya's "Or" won the rare honor of the Camera d'Or for an artist's first work, and "Thirst" by Palestinian-Israeli Tawfik Abu Wael won the FIPRESCI international film critics award.
"Campfire," directed by Joseph Cedar, was also praised at the Berlin Festival. After the academy had already voted it was announced that "To Take a Wife" captured two awards at the Venice Festival and that "The Syrian Bride," directed by Eran Ricklis won four awards at the International Film Festival in Montreal, Canada.
It is impossible to say what guided all the academy's members in their votes. Even if it's a shame, it is difficult to conclude that all of them voted only for the films and the creators whom they liked best. It is reasonable to assume that some of them had other considerations. Who, for example, was chosen by Moshe Edri, a member of the academy and one of the most influential people in Israeli film today, the owner of United King distributors and Cinema City in Glilot (in partnership with family members Leon, Ilanit and Limor)?
The Edri family invested in no fewer than five films competing for Ophir Awards - "Turn Left at the End of the World," "Walk on Water," "The Schwartz Dynasty," "Columbian Love" and "Metallic Blues."
One could try to guess that Edri, considering that "Turn Left at the End of the World," "Walk on Water" and "Columbian Love" have already proved themselves at the box office, might choose to give his vote to "Metallic Blues."
That film has received positive reviews and could benefit from the box office boost that an Ophir Award would give it. One way or the other, the films ultimately chosen by the academy as finalists for Best Picture together form an interesting mix of cinematic genres.
"Or" and "Thirst" are artistic, "Campfire" is very Israeli, "Walk on Water" is communicative and "Metallic Blues," is both artistic and communicative.
Why such fuss?
Is there still some justification in Nesher's claims and does the audience's preference carry more weight in choosing the year's best film?
There is no doubt that many viewers of "Turn Left at the End of the World" could have helped the film win an award in the Audiences' Favorite category. But there is no such category.
Still, it's hard to imagine the creators of "Spiderman 2," which has so far netted $800 million worldwide, complaining that their film is not an Oscar nominee. Neither would the creators of Chouchou, the box office favorite in France in 2003, complain their film was not nominated for a Ceasar Award.
As noted above, it was Shmulik Duvdevany, Ynet's film critic, who declared in his review of "Turn Left at the End of the World" that "an American Oscar was never so close." This statement was later used by the producers to promote the film in the media, but Duvdevany also agrees there is no connection between the audience a film attracts and the academy's choices.
"When the academy chooses," says Duvdevany, "a film must not be punished for its success. A film's success, however, is not an automatic entry ticket to the final nominees list. Anyone suggesting a connection between the two harms both the academy and the film.
Duvdevany said there may be complaints about the academy's voting methods since they do not differentiate between the Best Picture award and the selection of the Israeli representative for the Oscar competition, but no one should criticize the body or its members.
"I never claimed that `Turn Left at the End of the World' was the year's best picture, just that it could be an excellent representative of Israel at the American Oscars. Just as the song sent to the Eurovision contest is not the country's best one, but the most suited to the genre, so too is the case in this competition."
Yossi Oren, the artistic director of the Yehoshua Rabinovitch Foundation agreed. "Films that are nominees for an award at the academy's ceremonies have a different value entirely, independent of the number of viewers." Oren, a former member of the academy's directorate and a partner in the drafting of its constitution, said he congratulated Nesher on his film's success, but thought all the fuss around the nominations was idiotic.
"I am sure," says Oren, "that it helped sell a few more tickets, and I am happy about that, but Nesher's basic contention is twisted. The ceremonies are not about audience favorites. Just as Nesher knew better than to enter his film in the local festivals, he should have known that if he submitted to the academy, there was no guarantee he would win. If you participate in a contest, it is considered fitting to accept its results."
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