Opinion

Why Hasn't Israel Won an Oscar Yet? It Might Be the Occupation

The American Academy of Motion Pictures has grown weary of films about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Samuel Maoz accepting the Grand Jury prize at the Venice Film Festival for 'Foxtrot.'
TIZIANA FABI/AFP

Israeli director Samuel Maoz expressed disappointment last month that his film “Foxtrot” wasn’t named as one of the five Oscar finalists for Best Foreign Language Film. In a recent interview with Neta Alexander in Haaretz, Maoz offered the explanation that while the film was a favorite, the American voters were far outnumbered by the Europeans.

Maoz’s disappointment is understandable, given that since September, when his film won the Grand Jury prize at the Venice Film Festival, he was confident he was on the way to the Oscars, all the more so following all the free PR the film received courtesy of Culture Minister Miri Regev’s vocal criticism of it, which undoubtedly gained it some new supporters overseas.

Still, it’s not so easy to accept Maoz’s argument that “the cultural boycott of Israel, particularly in Britain, worked against me,” seeing that “Foxtrot” was on the list of nine finalists for the Oscar, having beaten numerous other films. Maoz could just as well ascribe the film’s failure to win a Golden Globe, for which it wasn’t even nominated, to that award being given by the members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. But that would be a lame excuse that belittles the quality of the other films in the competition (that maybe were just better).

Surprising hits

Let me cautiously suggest another possibility: The members of the American Academy of Motion Pictures and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association have grown weary of films about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They really don’t feel like seeing any more movies about the occupation. They’d rather watch films about everyday subjects, like “Loveless,” the Oscar-nominated Russian film by Andrey Zvyagintsev, about a divorcing Moscow couple fighting over custody of their son; or Swedish entry “The Square,” directed by Ruben Östlund, about a modern art curator who learns to appreciate his life anew after his cell phone is stolen.

Israel holds an unflattering Oscar record: Israeli films have received 10 nominations for Best Foreign Language Film, without ever taking home the award. Ephraim Kishon’s “Sallah Shabati” was the first nominee, in 1964, followed by Kishon’s “The Policeman” in 1971. But most of the films submitted by Israel (since 1991, the winner of the Ophir Award for Best Picture has automatically been submitted for Oscar contention) focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its wider implications, extending to wars in neighboring countries. These include Uri Barabash’s 1984 film “Behind the Walls,” Joseph Cedar’s “Beaufort” from 2007, and Ari Folman’s 2008 “Waltz with Bashir.”

This shift in mood and interest may also be a factor right here in Israel. Just look at the top two Israeli films currently: Matan Yair’s “Scaffolding” and Ophir Raul Graizer’s “The Cakemaker.” Both are surprising box-office hits, whose directors were both likely taken aback by what an enthusiastic reception they’ve gotten. Both tell a small, human story about ordinary folks and have nothing to do with heroic or broken soldiers back from the battlefield. Both of these movies are quite European in terms of their direction, production and cinematography.

Over the past decade, many of the winners in the Best Foreign Language Film, including Michael Haneke’s “Amour” and Paola Sorrentino’s “La Grande Bellezza,” seem to indicate that flashy Hollywood productions have become less appealing to Academy voters. One can’t help but wonder what would have happened had “Scaffolding” or “The Cakemaker” been submitted as Israel’s Oscar entry. Perhaps a movie like that would have been better able to break through.