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The biggest surprise - the only real surprise - when the Oscar nominations were announced was that Paradise Now, the suicide bomber drama that won a Golden Globe, was nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film category. The reason it was a surprise is that it is the first film to be nominated from the Palestinian Authority. In previous years, representatives of the PA proposed such films as Hanna Elias' The Olive Harvest and Elia Suleiman's Divine Intervention (which took the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes), to be considered in this category. Many members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences felt that the Palestinian Authority did not meet the requirements for an official country and so did not want to consider those films. In any case, they were not nominated. The argument that the Palestinian Authority is not an official country and so its films cannot compete for Academy Awards does not really hold water, however, since a film from Puerto Rico was once nominated for Best Foreign Language Film. Several films from Hong Kong were nominated previous to that country's becoming part of China, but I imagine if a good film from Hong Kong were to come along today, it would be a Hong Kong nominee rather than a Chinese one.
To clear up any confusion, and this can be a confusing category, most countries have their own version of the Oscars (we have the Ophirs) and the winner of that award will be considered by the Academy for nomination in the Best Foreign Language Film category. In some countries, a government committee selects the film, but in all cases, only one film can represent each country. As it is there are between 40 and 60 films a year in the running for the five nominations, and if countries could submit more than one film, it would be impossible for the nominating committee at the Oscars to get to them all. Although occasionally films made in Israel by Palestinian filmmakers do compete for the Ophir Awards (Atash and In the Ninth Month are two examples), in recent years, Palestinian directors (even if they are Israeli Arabs like Suleiman or Hany Abu-Assad, the director of Paradise Now) prefer that their films be proposed for consideration from the Palestinian Authority and not Israel. It's more an ideological than a practical question for most of them, but the reality is that in the past, films in Arabic have won only minor Ophir Awards, if any. Most do not even get nominated. This year's Ophir Award winner, What A Wonderful Place, is not nearly as interesting or well made a film as Paradise Now.
Did the Academy voters nominate Paradise Now purely on its artistic merits or because it is politically correct and trendy? Academy members seem to make every decision in every category based on what is politically correct and trendy, so why should the Foreign Film award be any different? But the fact is, it is a good film and far more honest about the motivations behind terrorism than Steven Spielberg's Munich.
One further controversy that will probably resurface if Paradise Now wins is that director Abu-Assad made it known that he preferred the film be listed as a nominee from Palestine rather than the Palestinian Authority. The Academy has chosen (in most of its publicity materials) to use the term Palestinian Authority.
An Israeli film has never won in this category, although five have been nominated. The last time an Israeli film competed in this category was Beyond the Walls in 1984. Paradise Now could well be the winner this year, but since both Israeli and Palestinian films have been experiencing a renaissance over the past few years, it's likely that in coming years, both Israeli and Palestinian movies will be frequent Oscar nominees.
I HAD EXPECTED Walk the Line, the Johnny Cash biopic, to win a Best Picture nomination, probably because last year, Ray, the Ray Charles baiography, did. But Johnny Cash was a white man whose only disability was a drinking-and-drug problem, while Ray Charles was black and blind, as well as battling a drug habit. In the world of the Oscars (as opposed to the real world), a disability is a great advantage. Capote, the movie that got the nomination I had thought would go to Walk, will have its premiere this week at the Jerusalem Cinematheque on Tuesday night at 10 p.m. Capote, another film biography, looks at the life of the brilliant, witty, gay novelist Truman Capote.