(photo credit: AP)
By now, Israel's first Oscar controversy is history: The Band's Visit, which won the Ophir Award and was submitted by the Israeli Academy for Film to the Oscars, was rejected for having too much English, and the new official Israeli entry is Beaufort, which garnered the second-highest number of votes.
But what's the story behind the story?
Let's not forget, first of all, that this year, four out of five of the Ophir nominees won awards at major international film festivals. This situation is unprecedented, and it's to be expected that this embarrassment of riches would cause serious competition among moviemakers for the prize that has so far eluded the Israeli film industry: the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Every Israeli director would like his or her film (by the way, this year there were two female directors in the Ophir competition, Ayelet Menachemi for Noodle and Shira Geffen, the co-director of Jellyfish) to be the first Israeli movie in 23 years to get an Oscar nod and maybe even win Israel its first Oscar.
But the Best Foreign Language Film category has strict rules that state that eligible films must be "predominantly" in a language or languages other than English. This rule is intended to give a boost to non-English film industries worldwide. It is hard to garner distribution for films that need subtitles in the US, even if they have won prizes all over the world. It is only in this category that films not in English have an advantage. The US Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) further safeguards these films by requiring those members who want to vote for the winner in this category to show that they have seen all five nominees at a screening. They can't just vote for the most famous movie without seeing the other contenders.
It doesn't take much to know that Eran Kolirin's The Band's Visit, a bittersweet and whimsical comedy-drama about an Egyptian police band that spends the night in a Negev town, is mostly in English, which is the only language the Israeli and Egyptian characters have in common. Officials at the Israeli Academy had to have known that: Some industry insiders suggested that they simply thought they could get AMPAS to bend its rules, even though the organization has been a stickler in the past. In fact, this year, Ang Lee's Lust, Caution was rejected as Taiwan's official selection (although it won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival) because there were not enough Taiwanese in the cast and crew. Others suggested that it wasn't simply a case of Israeli arrogance but hinted that the movie's foreign distributor, Sony Pictures Classics, may have indicated it had influence with AMPAS. In any case, it was the Israeli Academy that backed down.
It's not clear how much Israeli voters pick the Best Picture Ophir Award with the Oscars in mind, but it's possible that some felt Band's was more likely than Joseph Cedar's Beaufort, a searing, large-scale anti-war tragedy, to turn heads in Hollywood. My theory is that Beaufort is the more likely Oscar nominee and winner, since it presents Israelis as soldiers, which is the only way Americans tend to see us. However, a producer with whom I spoke, although he personally had voted for Beaufort, said he thought that Band's (which he also admired - I didn't interview anyone who didn't appreciate both films) was the more feel-good film and thus far more likely to earn an Oscar.
Who knows? We'll find out for sure if Beaufort captivated AMPAS voters on January 22, when the Oscar nominations are announced.
Neither Kolirin nor Cedar could have been very pleased with the way the Academy handled the situation, and it's very much to their credit that neither director has resorted to the kind of public sniping at each other and the Academy that has virtually become a national sport. Given the high stakes for them and the pressure they've been under, their grace is even more admirable.
In any case, maybe all's well that ends well. Beaufort is one of the strongest films ever made in this country and will do Israel proud, while executives at Sony Classics vowed to campaign for Band's to be nominated for an original screenplay award, a category in which language is not an issue. Pedro Almodovar won in 1999 for his screenplay for the Spanish-language Talk to Her, so anything is possible.