Israeli Cinema's Most Important Year

An unprecedented number of excellent local films have been selected for the various categories of tonight's Israeli Film Academy awards ceremony.

Israeli film viewers have become accustomed this year to seeing a poster advertising an Israeli film at almost every cinema, and sometimes even more than one, alongside posters for American, French or Korean films. If for many years there was a feeling that, in the consciousness of the Israeli public, local movies existed as an appendix to all the other films, this year there is a feeling that it has become deeply assimilated into the overall cinematic reality and become a natural part of it. Consequently, the Ofir Prize ceremony of the Israeli Film Academy, which will be held at the Center for the Performing Arts in Tel Aviv this evening (broadcast live on Channel 2 at 20:45), will wind up one of the most important years in the history of Israeli cinema.

The first indication is in the numbers: 23 new Israeli movies competed this year for a place on the list of the five nominations for best film. The five films that made the list are: "Or" by Keren Yedaya, "Walk on Water" by Eytan Fox, "Campfire" by Joseph Cedar, "Metallic Blues" by Danny Verete and "Atash [Thirst]" by Tawfik Abu Wael. In the past, members of the Israeli film industry were convinced that quantity would produce quality; in other words, if a reasonable number of films were produced each year in Israel, some of them were bound to be good. This assumption was accompanied by the claim that it is not good for artists to have to work in a wilderness. In the years in which the number of films produced here could be counted on one hand (sometimes leaving fingers over for the next year), there was often a feeling that Israeli directors were forced to work all alone in an arid wilderness, in splendid isolation.

It was not a good feeling, and was certainly not effective or productive, because an artist needs to feel that something is going on around him, that he is in a state of interaction not only with his own narrow social surroundings, but also with an entire cultural reality.

This year, on the other hand, two very different films that deal with memory of the Holocaust can be compared to one another ("Walk on Water" and "Metallic Blues"), and the stylistic choices of Yedaya in "Or" and Abu Wael in "Atash," can be compared with those of Cedar in "Campfire" and Avi Nesher in "Turn Left at the End of the World." The fact that Nesher's film was left out of the list of nominees for the best film category, and that Nesher himself was left out of the best director category, created a contrived and embarrassing mini-scandal. What is especially surprising about this scandal, which has already been discussed to death, is the fact that Nesher cooperated with it.

After all, he lived and worked in Hollywood for over 20 years and should understand how things work, and that protests of this kind do not bring honor to any of those involved. He certainly knows that the frequent protests of Barbra Streisand and her fans against the fact that the American academy ignored her and her films have long become the butt of farcical satire in American sitcoms.

Avoiding a sweeping victory

I have not yet seen one of the films whose name appears on one of the lists of nominees for various prizes ("The Schwartz Dynasty," which arouses considerable curiosity, thanks to Shmuel Hasfari's previous film Sh'hur, which is still one of the best and most important films every made in Israel). However, among the films that will be mentioned this evening are six that can be described as good to very good: "Or," "Campfire," "Atash," "Ushpizin" by Gidi Dar, "The Syrian Bride" by Eran Riklis and Joseph Pitchhadze's "Year Zero." There is also "Metallic Blues" which, despite its flaws, has some fine scenes.

It is to be hoped each of these films will receive some kind of award. In previous years, when so few films were produced, usually the most outstanding film of that year won most of the prizes. That is what happened with "Late Marriage," "Broken Wings" and "Nina's Tragedies." But a sweeping victory of that kind, even if joyfully welcomed by the makers of the winning film, marks creative limitation. One can only hope that this evening will be different, and that even if "Campfire" is named the best film (as most forecasts predict), other films will also receive recognition for their achievements. "Campfire," which has been nominated in 13 categories, is a film with numerous good qualities, but when broken down into its artistic components, such as direction, screenplay, cinematography and editing, it is clear that other films made in Israel this year were greater achievements.

There is usually something absurd in awarding a prize for the best film and best direction to two different films (because how is it possible that the best film was not directed by the best director?). Nevertheless, if "Campfire" in fact takes the big prize this year, it would be right to give the prize for direction to one of three other directors: Keren Yedaya, Tawfik Abu Wael or Joseph Pitchhadze (since "Year Zero," one of the loveliest and most moving films of the year, does not appear on the list of nominees for best movie, Pitchhadze's chances of winning for best director appear slim). Variety in the distribution of prizes this evening is required for two main reasons: First, only in this way can the ceremony reflect the richness and variety that characterized the Israeli film industry in the past year; second, the prize ceremony is an event that should send a message and it would be unfortunate if the only message to come out of this evening is the one that comes from "Campfire."

Despite the fondness for Cedar's film, it is an expression of mainstream, even conformist theater. Do we want Israel to produce only films like "Campfire?" Why shouldn't Israel have a broad and rich cinematic scene in which there is room for "Campfire" and "Or" and "Atash;" where Cedar can continue to make his films, but so can Pitchhadze and Dar? The Israeli cinematic world should be polarized and filled with contrasts that complement and contradict one another, just like Israeli reality itself. Israeli cinema has been moving in that direction for over ten years, but in order for this trend to be meaningful, more than good intentions are needed. A large number of films are required so that they can represent and realize it. This year, it happened more than any other year in the past, and if the results of the Ofir prize ceremony do not reflect this, a great deal will have been lost.

Who needs a committee?

The film that is named Best Film will be sent to represent Israel in the American Oscar competition in the hope that it will be chosen among the five nominees in the best foreign film category. So far, this system has not succeeded, and since "Beyond the Walls" by Uri Barbash in 1984, no Israeli film has made it into the top five (and no Israeli film has ever won an Oscar). In view of this situation, a debate has developed in the Israeli film industry as to whether the current system should be continued, or whether a separate committee of experts should be formed to decide which of the Israeli films each year has the best chance of being nominated by the American film academy. It seems that this idea should be abandoned, and the film sent to the Hollywood competition should be the one that the Israeli film industry itself, as represented by the members of the film academy, has decided is the best one for each year. Only in that way will the choice represent a measure of authentic local truth. But what is more important is to learn to forget about the dream of winning an Oscar, which expresses a considerable and sometimes pathetic degree of provincialism. The importance of this dream and the desire to make it come true should not be belittled, and if the day comes that an Israeli filmmaker can embrace the golden statue with trembling hands in front of a Los Angeles audience, it will be a moving moment. However, despite the glory and glitter attached to the Oscar, it should be taken in the right proportion.

Of all the international prizes an Israeli film can win, the Oscar for best foreign film appears the least important. The history of this prize is paved with bizarre choices of nominees, and winners who soon after fell into oblivion. For most of the members of the American academy, this category is made up of films they have never heard of, made by directors whose names they cannot pronounce. But unrelated to the American dream, it is important to maintain Israeli cinema's place in Israel's current social and cultural reality. It is hoped that the ceremony this evening will celebrate the fact that local cineastes have succeeded in penetrating the center of the Israeli experience and have shown they can work within it in a rich and fascinating manner. Clearly, not all Israeli films will be successful and success is not always fair (in other words, sometimes good films fail and films that are not as good become hits), but that is how it is. The most important thing is that the possibility of going to see an Israeli film will no longer be looked upon as something anomalous; instead, it will be part of the regular habits of the Israeli moviegoer. For now, it looks as if this trend will continue and the list of Israeli films now in the pipeline is long and impressive.