The Ophir Awards (aka the Israeli Oscars), the prizes of the Israel Academy for Film, will be held on September 26 in Tel Aviv and this year, the competition will be fierce. That's because there are a number of excellent films in contention. Some of these films premiered at the Jerusalem Film Festival in July and others will be shown at the Haifa International Film Festival, which will run from October 3-10.
Ajami, the movie that won the Wolgin Award at the Jerusalem Film Festival is also my bet to win the Ophir for Best Picture. While once, only a handful of industry insiders paid attention to the Ophir Awards, now that Israeli films (Beaufort and Waltz with Bashir) have received Foreign Language Academy Award nominations back-to-back, a lot more people are keeping track of it. The winner of the Ophir for Best Picture automatically becomes Israel's official selection to be considered for one of the five Best Foreign Language film nominations. Ajami is an impressive film for several reasons. It takes place in Jaffa and exposes the seamy crime world there. Focusing mostly on Arab residents, it shows conflicts between Christians and Muslims (as well as problems between Arabs and Jews) there and does so with a Quentin Tarantino-like quirkiness and non-linear structure.
But as interesting as all this may sound, Ajami's secret weapon is its back story. It was made by two directors, Scandar Copti, a Christian, and Yaron Shani, who is Jewish. Their collaboration in itself is worth a story these days. They are both young, enthusiastic and worked incredibly hard, in spite of their lack of a track record, to get the movie made. The cast is mostly non-professional and the film already received a special mention in the Camera d'Or category at Cannes last spring.
Ajami will also be competing at the Toronto International Film Festival, which begins next week, along with Shmuel Maoz's Lebanon, another one of the very impressive films first shown at the Jerusalem Film Festival. These movies and several new Israeli films, notably Eyes Wide Open, about homosexuality among the ultra-Orthodox, and The Loners, a fact-based drama about Russian immigrant soldiers in a military prison, will be opening throughout Israel soon and playing at other international festivals.
Speaking of Toronto, there has been a ridiculous flap over the Toronto festival's decision to feature a cinematic tribute to Tel Aviv in honor of that city's centennial, including films such as Assi Dayan's Life According to Agfa. Canadian director John Greyson chose to boycott the festival, withdrawing his 15-minute documentary about a festival for gays in Sarajevo. Greyson and others who support the boycott gave all the usual reasons, accusing Israel of apartheid and citing the war in Gaza and the occupation of the West Bank. If I had a hundred pages, I wouldn't have space to exhaust the ironies of anyone choosing to boycott a festival because he feels that showing such films as Assi Dayan's almost indescribably negative and bleak portrayal of Israel provides sparkling public relations for the country. This movie depicts Israelis as so deeply racist and irreparably corrupt, if Theodore Herzl could have seen into the future and caught a screening of it, he would have converted to Buddhism and retired to the Himalayas. Abused wives, exploited prostitutes, noble Palestinian mechanics and their lazy-slob Jewish bosses, and a selfish womanizer who trashes the lives of everyone around him are just a few of the characters featured in the other films planned for the tribute, including Danny Lerner's Kirot, Keren Yedaya's Jaffa, and Uri Zohar's Big Eyes. Eytan Fox's The Bubble is a thoughtful and, I think, generally underrated film about the culture clash that takes place when a gay Palestinian comes to live in one of Tel Aviv's chic, bohemian neighborhoods. However, anyone who would call The Bubble pro-Israeli propaganda, when it focuses on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and has a hero who falls in love with a Palestinian, is so absurd as to defy any logic. It's quite possible that there is no other city in the world where mainstream (and often government-supported) filmmakers have been so staunchly and relentlessly critical of their government.
By the way, the organizers of the Tel Aviv program at Toronto have not backed down.