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Ajami, a dramatic story of crime in Jaffa that was co-directed by a Palestinian and a Jew, Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani, won the Best Picture award at the 20th Ophir Awards, the prizes of the Israeli Academy of Film, which were awarded Saturday night at a ceremony at the Haifa Auditorium in Haifa.
The film will now go on to represent Israel as the official selection to be considered for an Oscar nomination for the Best Foreign Language Film. In the past two years, two Israeli movies have been nominated for an Oscar in this category, Waltz with Bashir and Beaufort.
This is the first time that a film that is primarily in Arabic has won the top prize in the Ophirs. It won four other awards: Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Score, and Best Editing. It had previously won a Special Mention at the Cannes Film Festival in May and the Wolgin Award at the Jerusalem Film Festival in July.
As the evening wore on and Shani (Copti is abroad) mounted the stage over and over, he seemed to run out of things to say and people to thank.
When it won the Best Picture Award, one of its producers, Mosh Danon, invited the cast and crew to join him at the podium, and the stage filled with a mixture of Jews and Arabs, including Muslim women in head scarves. Nothing could be more effective in countering those who call for a cultural boycott of Israel than this image and the fact that an Israeli institution has bestowed its highest honor on a movie that focuses mainly on Arabs (although there are Jewish characters and storylines in Ajami) and was made jointly by Arabs and Jews. It was also made with significant government funding, which Danon acknowledged.
The main competitor for the top prize was thought to be Samuel Maoz's Lebanon, which won the Golden Lion in Venice earlier this month. This hard-hitting film, which is shot entirely from the point of view of soldiers in a tank during the early days of the first Lebanon War, won four prizes, including Best Supporting Actor for Zohar Strauss, Best Cinematography and Best Sound Design.
Strauss, thanking Maoz in his speech, said, "Maybe Lebanon has a chance after all," referring to the fact that Ajami was considered the favorite. Many thought that this film would not win the top award simply because of its subject matter, since both Beaufort and Waltz with Bashir, Israel's two previous nominees, also dealt with the first Lebanon War. Members of the Israeli Academy are understandably conscious that the film they choose will be Israel's representative to Hollywood, and many presenters mentioned this. Co-hosts Moni Moshonov and Avi Kushnir even referred to this in one of their sketches, with Moshonov asking, "Is it like Eurovision? If we win the Oscar, is the ceremony in Israel in the next year?"
THE BIGGEST suspense during the evening probably concerned actor/director/screenwriter Assi Dayan. The actor, who has struggled with drug addiction in recent years, has often behaved erratically in public. Dayan has starred in such recent films as My Father My Lord and Things Behind the Sun, as well as the acclaimed television series, Betipul, which inspired the American HBO series In Treatment, and older films as Operation Thunderbolt and He Walked in the Fields. The son of Moshe Dayan, Assi was subdued and grateful as he accepted the award, although he seemed frail. He thanked his 92-year-old mother, Ruth, who sat next to him at the ceremony.
Dayan had a brief flirtation with Hollywood early in his career, when he appeared in a few American films. Hosts Kushnir and Moshonov joked about Israeli actors who have made it in Hollywood recently, mentioning Ayelet Zurer, who starred with Tom Hanks in Angels and Demons, among others. They even claimed Robert De Niro for Israel, joking that his real name is Danino.
The Best Actress Award went to Irit Kaplan, who played a Weight Watchers dropout in the comedy A Matter of Size. The actress joked that "this is the first time I'm bursting from joy and not from shawarma." She also made a plea to concentrate on what's inside people and not focus on appearances. Just to ignore that for a moment and focus on appearances, Kaplan looked lovely in a low-cut black sequined dress. And, in contrast to previous years, all the actresses and even some of the actors dressed nicely for the occasion. The closest thing to a fashion faux pas was actress Evelyn Hagoel's gold-and-red dress that was cut a bit like a belly-dancing outfit, but it actually looked quite good on her.
BEST ACTOR went to Sasha Agrounov, a recent Russian immigrant who played a soldier in Renen Schorr's The Loners. The film marked Agrounov's acting debut and he exuded delight as he won, thanking God "for bringing me here out of Egypt" and his director for "having the courage and the balls to cast someone who had never acted before."
Best Supporting Actress went to veteran actress Levana Finkelstein, for her role as the hero's mom in A Matter of Size.
The Best Documentary Prize went to The Shakshuka System by Miki Rosenthal and Ilan Aboudi, a film about influence peddling and corruption in the political system.
As usual, the long show was marked by long periods of chit-chat by the hosts and appearances by representatives of bodies sponsoring the event, such as the Israel Lottery, and politicians. Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat made a plea for broadcasting authorities to pay what is owed to filmmakers, an ongoing controversy in Israeli entertainment.
But thanks to the wins for Ajami, all of the dull patches could be forgiven. As Shani stood alongside his diverse cast and crew and posed for photos at the end of the evening, there was real excitement in the air and the feeling that Israeli film truly lives up to all the hype.