When the stars start to walk the Red Carpet at the 85th annual Academy Awards (which will take place at 3:30 a.m. local Israeli time on February 25, and will be broadcast live on both the HOT and YES networks), many in Israel will be wondering whether the one of the two documentaries by Israeli directors, Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi’s 5 Broken Cameras and Dror Moreh’s The Gatekeepers, will take home the gold.
While in other parts of the world, people will be arguing about whether Argo will beat Lincoln, here the suspense will peak somewhere in the middle of the broadcast.
This year’s documentary category is considered particularly strong, as was the short list of 15 from which the five final nominees were taken. That’s due in part to a change in Academy rules that allowed all members of the documentary branch, and not a select committee, to choose the nominees, as was the case in the past. All Academy members get to vote on the Oscar winners, but, as in the Best Foreign Language Film category, they have to have seen all the nominated films in order to vote. That’s so that more obscure films will not be totally overshadowed by a better known one. It’s a good rule and guarantees that a smaller but more devoted group will vote in these categories.
But because the voters must see all the films, it’s actually a harder category to predict. Unlike in the acting categories, where you can predict based on facts such as, “Everyone loves Meryl Streep” or “Christopher Plummer has never won before and he’s 83,” the documentaries are far more likely to be judged on their merits.
Before considering the chances of the nominees from Israel, let’s take a moment to be clear about the fact that they are not “Israeli” films. People tend to get confused about this, and understandably so. In the Best Foreign Language Film category, every country may put forward one film for consideration to become one of the five nominees. The film chosen by each country is almost always a feature film and not a documentary.
Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir, which received an Oscar nod in the Best Foreign Language Film category, was technically a documentary but was also an animated cartoon, and defied categorization. So in the Foreign Language Film category, each film actually does represent its country of origin. This year’s Israeli choice for consideration in the Best Foreign Language Film category, Rama Burstein’s Fill the Void, did not receive a nomination.
In the Best Documentary category, though, the films are simply documentaries that the documentary filmmakers who voted on the nominations enjoyed. Five are chosen from a short list, regardless of national affiliation. Generally, the films nominated are American.
Occasionally a British film will make the cut, but it’s rare to have subtitled films among the nominees.
When one does get through, usually it was directed by an extremely high-profile filmmaker, such as Pina (Wim Wenders) or Encounters at the End of the World (Werner Herzog). So to have two subtitled films by unknown directors from a single country is extremely unusual.
It reflects the overall strength of Israeli documentary film-making. Lia van Leer, the founder and director of the Jerusalem Cinematheque and the Jerusalem Film Festival told me a couple of years ago that the hardest part of preparing for the festival was deciding which 14 out of the nearly 200 Israeli documentaries she received would be included in the festival. There is certainly no shortage of fascinating subjects here. If you move a rock, chances are very good that you’ll uncover a subject for a documentary here. The DocAviv documentary festival is wildly popular, and the most buzzed-about movies at the Jerusalem and Haifa Film Festivals tend to be documentaries.
That said, it’s not inconceivable that the two Israeli documentaries will split the votes of all those interested in the Middle East. The two films are very different, even if their political outlooks are similarly on the Left.
Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi’s 5 Broken Cameras is essentially a collection of home movies by Burnat that chronicles the resistance in his West Bank village, which were edited and shaped into a feature film by Davidi. Dror Moreh’s more ambitious The Gatekeepers features interviews with all the surviving heads of the Shin Bet and explores their critique of the current political situation. Both of these films are effective and have received numerous prizes, but The Gatekeepers has the makings of a classic. I can imagine film students watching it in 20 years and trying to emulate it.
If just The Gatekeepers were nominated, I would say it would have a pretty good chance. But with two nominees, it’s too much of a good thing.
David France’s How to Survive a Plague, about the AIDS epidemic, has also won numerous awards and received rave reviews. I worked as a typist with France at the New York Post in the mid-Eighties (yes, kids, there was such a job many years ago) and wish him all the best with his debut film. Kirby Dick is a veteran documentary filmmaker, and his latest film, The Invisible War, about sexual abuse in the US military, has been highly praised.
But there was one documentary that Academy voters I spoke to for this article (none of whom wanted to be named) all raved about: Malik Bendjelloul’s Searching for Sugar Man. The least overtly political film of the bunch, it tells the story of two South African fans’ search for their musical idol, a Detroit folk singer named Rodriguez who was rumored to be dead. Music is an important element in the film, and everyone agrees that it’s a real crowd pleaser. So it seems likely that this is the film that bring home the Oscar gold this year.
In any case, many in the world film-making community have taken note of the rare success of the two films from Israel, and the attention this double nomination has brought to the industry here has been very positive.
Although some feel that these films are overly critical of the government, it’s been my experience that those who have actually seen them don’t feel that way. Documentaries tend to look critically at their subjects – puff pieces don’t get nominations, or make for very interesting viewing.
So keep your fingers crossed, and remember that in a sense, the Israeli film industry has already won.