Israel at the Oscars - The World's Eyes on Israeli Cinema

Israel at the Oscars – The World’s Eyes on Israeli Cinema


One facet of ‘that Middle Eastern question’ which draws us in and kicks us around year after year: what, if anything, is the Israeli identity? Trapped between the ancient and the progressive? Cornered by its political geography? Schizophrenic to the point of fracture? Surely, at the very least, its identity is one of multiplicity; so why then does all our interest fall on the nation’s relationship to its neighbours? For the Israeli film industry, this has been a point to exploit and contend, as the past decade of Oscar nominations has just begun to reveal.

2007 (a year of violence on both sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict) marked the beginning of a string of accolades for new Israeli films: Beaufort [dir. Yossef Cedar] was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, followed by Waltz with Bashir [dir. Ari Folman] in 2008, and then the award of the coveted Golden Lion to Lebanon [dir. Samuel Moaz] at the 2009 Venice Film Festival. These three ground-breaking films ended a thirty-year spell of international near-obscurity for Israeli cinema, but they all have one thing in common: they are all about Israel’s history of warfare with its northern neighbour. Our fascination with Israel as a ‘nation-at-war’ is natural; our sole exposure to the country is via an indisputably blood-lustful Western media. This fact does not go unnoticed by the citizens of Israel and the Palestinian regions, nor by its journalists, nor its filmmakers. It is no wonder that, in 2007, the Jerusalem Post predicted that the Academy would take to Beaufort’s guns-and-bombs fragmentation of Israeli reality [1]. What is surprising, as with all scratching under the surface, is the story of a lesser-known film, also Israeli, also released in 2007, which reaped more local awards than it could sticker its DVD cover with but which was almost completely ignored Stateside…

As a rule, any film which wins the Ophir Award for Best Film (Israel’s highest cinematic accolade) becomes the country’s automatic submission for the Oscars. This was not the case with 2007’s The Band’s Visit [dir. Eran Kolirin]: it was disqualified for not including enough of its native language (a rule now revoked) and thus Beaufort took its place. A tragedy? Perhaps not, but what The Band’s Visit has to teach us about Israeli cinema is invaluable. It is a simple film, delicately-crafted, quiet, with a subtle complexity that floats just underneath the surface of its characters. It is a story not just about the Jewish-Arab relationship and the conflict of Self and Other that bubbles underneath; it is a tender look at the ennui of the abandoned Israeli under-culture (the jobless, seemingly culture-less towns that pepper the country) in the same cathartic-comic vein as Academy Award winners Life is Beautiful [Italy, 1997] and Mediterraneo [Italy, 1991]. The Band’s Visit escorts us through a different Israel (via the muddle of an Egyptian police band’s clueless misadventure): a place of roller discos, phone boxes, cabaret singers, virgins, family members, friends and strangers. It is imbued with that very-Israeli sense of multiplicity, and with a sensitivity which perfectly balances the everyday power struggles of all life with the reality of a conflict that, for the moment, will always underlie everything Israel says and does.

Today, Israeli cinema continues to walk the same tightrope for the international audience: how will it balance individual, personal expression with its inescapable burden of representation? Responses continue on both sides. Recently, Fill the Void [dir. Rama Burshtein], an exceptional portrayal of married life in the Jewish Orthodox community, reached nomination stage for the Golden Lion in Venice. Meanwhile, two controversial political documentaries (The Gatekeepers [dir. Dror Moreh] and 5 Broken Cameras [dir. Guy Davidi & Emad Burnat]) competed alongside each other for recognition at this year’s Oscars. The unprecedented success of these two works is the very crystallisation of our interest in the conflict; we do not even require the fiction. This is one possible future for the success of Israeli film worldwide. The other contains its own kind of challenge, the challenge of building a unique voice that can be heard in the midst of a riotous din, but it is in the very nature of this challenge that we find the most exciting potential. All political art must have its personal-political counterpoint; otherwise the cinema especially risks not just losing its humanism, but also growing stale in the process. The eyes of the world are on Israel, as they have been for its entire existence. It is obvious that for the future of its political environment and film industry alike we will be watching closely.

[1] Miriam Shaviv, 2007:
Photo: The Bands Visit

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