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The most recent good news concerning international festivals and Israeli films is that two Israeli features will be part of the ultra-competitive Berlin Film Festival, which runs from February 8-18. Joseph Cedar's Beaufort, the story of the last IDF unit stationed in Lebanon, will have its world premiere there as part of the main competition. Eytan Fox's The Bubble, an Israeli-Arab romance set in Tel Aviv, will be screened in the Panorama section.
IN THE LAST two weeks, Israeli films have been big winners at the Sundance Film Festival, the premier showcase for independent film, but failed to earn any Oscar nominations. This may seem puzzling, but if you take a closer look, it makes sense. Dror Shaul's Sweet Mud, which also won the Ophir Award for Best Picture (the Israeli Oscar), was awarded the World Cinema Jury Prize at the Sundance, one of the four most important prizes, in an extremely competitive year. Although Israeli documentaries have occasionally been recognized at Sundance, I can't remember an Israeli feature film that took home an award. So how did Sweet Mud break through? Although it's set on a kibbutz in the Seventies, it's much more than a period piece. It's an intense film that tells of a boy's struggle to help his mentally-ill mother in a community that just wants to be rid of her, which should resonate with audiences anywhere in the world. Shaul participated in a Sundance Institute workshop a few years ago to work on the Sweet Mud script, which couldn't have hurt its chances. This didn't insure its success, of course: There are many films developed in Sundance workshops that don't make even make it into the festival, let alone win major prizes there. The irony is that Shaul wasn't admitted to the prestigious Sam Spiegel School of Film in Jerusalem yet ended up triumphing at one of the most competitive festivals in the world. And there can be no underestimating the power of a Sundance prize. When I was a critic at the New York Post, we would get press releases describing the many honors that films had won and an editor advised me: "If it isn't from Cannes or Sundance, don't even bother to mention it."
The second Israeli film that took home a Sundance honor this year, the documentary, Hot House, about Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, directed by Shimon Dotan, was awarded a Special Jury Prize in the World Cinema Documentary Competition. This was less of a surprise, since Israeli documentaries have won awards at Sundance in previous years. Sundance has always positioned itself as a platform for strongly political documentaries and there is always interest in Israeli-Palestinian politics. Local TVviewers get to see it Sunday evening on Channel 1.
THE US ACADEMY OF MOTION PICTURES Arts and Sciences passed Israel by this year. Sixty-one countries vied for five Foreign Language Film Oscar nominations and Sweet Mud did not even make the shortlist. Yael Klopmann's Storm of Emotions, a look at the 2005 disengagement from Gaza from the point of view of IDF soldiers, was on the documentary shortlist, but in the end, it didn't make the cut. The films that did receive the five nominations are easily categorized: two deploring US involvement in Iraq (My Country, My Country and Iraq in Fragments), an expose on the dangers of global warming and the Bush administration's failure to take action (An Inconvenient Truth), a look at a religious right-wing camp (Jesus Camp) and the story of a pedophile priest who was protected by the church (Deliver Us from Evil). All of these concern what are called "hot-button" issues in the US. Most Americans probably don't even remember the evacuation of Jewish settlers from Gaza, if they knew about it in the first place.
ONE MOVIE ABOUT ISRAEL, although not by an Israeli, did make the Oscar cut: Ari Sandel's "West Bank Story," a nominee in the Best Live Action Short category. It's a silly but funny West Side Story spoof, featuring dueling hummous stands in a West Bank village, one run by Palestinians, one by settlers. I found it hilarious, although it's sure to offend some. Check out the trailer at http://www.westbankstory.com/html/trailer.html to see what you think.
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