Awards ceremonies are invariably full of surprises, but when the Israeli film world descends on Ashdod for the “Israeli Oscars” on Tuesday evening, two things seem certain.
First, Samuel Maoz’s “Foxtrot,” which just won the Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival and dazzled critics at the Toronto International Film Festival, will walk away with an armload of Ophir Awards – including, in all probability, Best Movie (which automatically makes it the country’s contender for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2018 Academy Awards).
Second, Culture Minister Miri Regev will be conspicuously absent from proceedings, after Israel Academy of Film and Television Chairman Mosh Danon disinvited her and other politicians from the ceremony.
These two certainties are not a coincidence: Regev has had a charged and hostile relationship with the arts community since entering the ministry in the spring of 2015. She has repeatedly threatened to withhold state funding against any artistic expression that she views as overly critical of the state and its policies, saying they “play into the hands of our enemies.”
“Foxtrot” is the latest target of her wrath. Telling the story of a Tel Aviv couple and their son’s military service in which he mans an isolated checkpoint, the film delves into the charged issue of the occupation and its effect on Israeli society.
When the film premiered in Venice recently, Regev released a statement calling the film a “disgrace” that “shamed the reputation of the IDF” and showed “contempt for the state and its symbols.”
While admitting she had not yet seen the film, Regev probably based her statement on accounts of the disturbing finale and Maoz’s previous film, “Lebanon” (2009), which also won international acclaim (winning the top prize at Venice) and took an unflinching view of the harsh events he experienced as a tank gunner in the first Lebanon war.
Maoz told one reporter in Venice this month his hope was that “Foxtrot” would trigger discussions in Israel over what happens in the military, and its consequences.
“I feel that people prefer to repress it, to deny it, to bury it,” he explained. “If I had done a movie about a terrible crime in the police, the next morning [people] would say nothing happened – they would understand it was a film. But if you touch the army, it’s very sensitive.”
Asked if he was concerned about being viewed as a “traitor” in Israel, he replied: “The opposite. Every human society should strive to be better and improve itself. The basic and necessary condition for improvement is the ability to accept self-criticism. If I criticize the place [where] I live, I do it because I worry. I do it because I want to protect it. I do it from love.”
“Foxtrot” is not the only reason Regev is unwelcome at this year’s Ophir Awards, which celebrate the best Israeli films and television of the past 12 months. Since Regev took the reins at the ministry 18 months ago, there has been as much drama in the ceremonies and public events she has attended as in the art being honored.
She makes no secret of her displeasure with the Israeli artistic community, which she believes is both left-wing and controlled by the old Ashkenazi elites (Regev has been vocal in her support of Mizrahi culture, referring to works produced Jews of Middle Eastern or North African origin). Regev has launched a full-on crusade against plays and films she feels portray Israel in a negative light, or which she feels violate the sensitivities of the religious community with displays of nudity.
Although she has threatened to withhold state funding from projects she finds unacceptable, she’s had a hard time backing up her words with action. That’s because the film committees doling out state funds are mainly independent bodies – though artists fear Regev is working to stack the selection committees with those who would do her bidding.
In his statement last week, the Academy’s Danon said his organization was determined “to do everything in its power to prevent a repeat of [previous] regrettable incidents.”
Danon was referring specifically to the 2016 Ophir Awards, when Regev stormed out of the hall when performers Tamer Nafar and Yossi Zabari took to the stage to recite Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s “ID Card.” She left her seat in protest at the recitation and, as she said later on stage – in a speech interrupted by jeers and booing – because Darwish was a writer who “called for the destruction of the State of Israel.”
Danon said there was no protocol that dictated a culture minister must be invited, and that since Regev had failed to “respect” the industry in the past, he preferred for her to stay away rather than spoil the celebration with words of criticism, not congratulation.
It isn’t difficult to imagine that “Foxtrot” and Regev would have been a combustible combination. She already chose to slam the movie when its Silver Lion prize was announced earlier this month, taking to Facebook with a post that was anything but congratulatory.
“When an Israeli film wins an international prize, the heart fills with pride and my natural desire is to strengthen and encourage the Israeli success,” Regev wrote. “This rule has one exception, and it takes place when the international embrace is a result of self-flagellation and cooperation with the anti-Israeli narrative.”
Regev added in a follow-up statement it was “outrageous that Israeli artists contribute to the incitement of the young generation against the most moral army in the world by spreading lies in the form of art.”
The culture minister plans to broadcast a speech live on her Facebook page during Tuesday’s ceremony, to push back against the “cowardly and undemocratic” effort to “silence” her – and in which she will surely have harsh words for “Foxtrot.”
While Regev shows no tolerance for Maoz’s decision to grapple artistically with the toll that army service and the occupation takes on families and society, viewing it instead as national defamation, critics have found the film’s themes of grief and guilt to be universal.
“There are moments in this film that are funny and others that are beautiful, but more than anything else there is a sadness that is truly profound,” Jordan Hoffman wrote in Vanity Fair.
Unlike Regev, it is clear to Hoffman that “this is an allegorical film and, although its temperament is very Israeli, its content could just as well be about any nation and its Army.”
Hoffman added that, ironically, Regev’s very public objections to the film may prove to be an effective tool in “boosting the movie’s profile.”
But it seems the film won’t need the controversy in order to be noticed. Website Firstshowing.net was unsparing in its superlatives, critic Alex Billington giving “Foxtrot” 10 out of 10: “Oh my goodness, this film is brilliant. You won’t be ready for this when it hits you, no matter how prepared you think you may be. ‘Foxtrot’ is the new film from Israeli director Samuel Maoz and clearly confirms that he’s a master filmmaker who has so much to show us. ‘Foxtrot’ is both the story of a family, and the story of a soldier. It’s distinctly an Israeli film, criticizing not only the society and culture of the country, but especially their military and the idea that they’re supposedly doing good. I had heard great things before, but I was still completely floored by this film when I saw at the Venice Film Festival. It’s the kind of perfect film that leaves you speechless at the end, you don’t even know what to say other than ‘Wow.’”
Several other critics and film aficionados who viewed “Foxtrot” at Venice or Toronto took to Twitter to share their enthusiasm:
Unlike Regev, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin says he will reserve judgment on “Foxtrot” until he actually sees the film. “I did not watch the film, but I’m going to watch it. I do not know if I will like it, but I will watch it as I try to watch every Israeli film,” Rivlin told a visiting delegation of Hollywood producers and executives to Israel last week.
“In general, I am a great fan of Israeli cinema, which is a symbol of freedom of expression and the strength of Israeli democracy. Israeli cinema is one of the most important ambassadors of Israel in the world because of its quality, and because of the way it reflects different aspects of life in Israel, with all the challenges and magic within it,” he added.
Although Regev will not be in attendance on Tuesday night, her comments over the weekend ensured she will still be the main talking point. She told Channel 2 TV that with the current agreement for film funding expiring next year, “I’m telling you now that what has been going on will not continue.” She added that anyone “who thinks we’ll allocate the [state] budget to the same film funds” is in for a surprise.