Minister Miri Regev.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Sand Storm, a drama about two strong Bedouin women, won the Best Picture Prize at the Ophir Awards, which were presented in a ceremony at the Performing Arts Center in Ashdod on September 22. Sand Storm is now Israel’s official choice for consideration for a nomination for the Best Foreign Language Oscar.
This is the first time that a movie entirely in Arabic has won the Ophir Award for Best Picture. But the evening was marred by an ugly and unprecedented confrontation between the audience and Minister of Culture and Sport Miri Regev.
It had its origins in a controversy over a performance by Palestinian rapper and actor Tamer Nafar, who starred in Udi Aloni’s Junction 48. Nafar, and Itamar Ziegler won the prize for Best Original Music for the film (it also won Best Soundtrack), and Nafar, a Palestinian rapper who starred in and co-wrote the film, thanked the academy and called Junction 48 “a Palestinian movie.” Nafar had previously said he would refuse to appear at the ceremony over a controversy concerning his decision to perform a musical rendition of a poem by Mahmoud Darwish , but he did perform the poem.
Regev said, just before the Best Picture Prize was awarded, that she had left the auditorium during Nafar’s performance because she did not approve of the lyrics by Darwish and said that no other Israeli should either.
She spoke strongly against the words and spirit of Darwish , the late Palestinian poet, and drew scattered cheers, many boos and some walkouts. It is an anomaly of the Israeli award system that the current Israeli minister of Culture and Sport always appears during the ceremony.
In the past, the ministers have confined their remarks to praise for the achievements of Israeli filmmakers. Regev broke decisively with this tradition, even as the ceremony ran more than three and a half hours, and refused to leave the stage till she had finished, in one of the most acrimonious appearances by an Israeli government official in recent memory.
Actor Roy Assaf, known for his left-wing views, tried to jump on stage to express his disagreement and was hustled off, while Mosh Danon, chairman of the Israel Academy for Film, went onstage to plead with the audience to quiet down. Moshe Edery, who, along with his brother Leon Edery, is one of the most prolific producers in the Israeli film industry (and also owns the Cinema City chain), looked agitated while Regev spoke.
He did not leave, though, since he was one of the producers of Sand Storm, which everyone knew at that point was likely to win the top award. The Ederys also produced Junction 48. Regev went on, speaking for nearly 20 minutes, saying that the Israeli film industry shouldn’t be “a closed club,” and complaining about the industry’s lack of “equal opportunity for everyone,” a particularly odd complaint during a year when the most ethnically and religiously diverse group of nominees and winners ever was recognized by the Israel Academy for Film.
She ended with a veiled threat to the film making community, saying that she was making up her mind about what cultural institutions to support.
The final presenter of the evening, Palestinian director Ibtisam Mara’ana , railed against Regev for several minutes before presenting the Best Picture Award to the producers and director of Sand Storm. Elite Zexer won the Best Director Award for Sand Storm, her debut film. As she accepted the award for Best Picture, she spoke about how her cast and crew had included Jews, Muslims and Christians and how they had worked together to make the best film possible.