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(photo credit: United King Films)
Every year, the Ophir Awards, the prizes of the Israel Film Academy, get more professional, more tasteful and much less fun. In short, they're more and more like the Oscars. This year's ceremony takes place Thursday in Tel Aviv and will air Friday evening on Channel Two. In preparation, here's a short guide to a few aspects of the Ophir Awards that are still reliably Israeli.
The nominees for best picture this year are Aviva My Love, the story of a working class woman who wants to be a writer; Someone to Run With, an adaptation of David Grossman's novel about a teenage boy searching Jerusalem for a girl who has disappeared; Sweet Mud, a bitter coming-of-age story set on a kibbutz in the Seventies; Things Behind the Sun, a look at dysfunctional family; and Three Mothers, the story of triplet girls from Egypt who move to Israel. If you've seen even one of these films, you are probably:
1. the movie's director
2. the director's mother
3. an usher
4. a movie critic
Unlike the Oscars, which celebrate movies that have generally been shown at theaters throughout the US, most of the Ophir nominees haven't opened yet. Only Aviva My Love and Someone to Run With have been released, although all these movies were shown at the Jerusalem Film Festival and have been shown once or twice at cinematheques. It's hard to generate interest in a ceremony when very few members of the general public have seen the movies, but a couple of years ago it was even worse. Then, the movies had only been shown at private screenings for academy members. At least now, a highly motivated filmgoer has a shot at seeing them before the ceremony.
Until a couple years ago, the Ophir Award for best picture was presented by:
1. the most famous movie star in Israel
2. the most gorgeous young Israeli starlet
3. a well-known star from the US or Europe
4. the Minister for Culture,Science and Sport
It's hard to fathom, but the answer is 4. I remember my surprise when I attended the ceremony for the first time six years ago and saw Matan Vilnai - a star in the Labor Party, perhaps, but not in the film world - ascend the stage to present the final award of the night. This ministry with the oddly Soviet-sounding name still exists, but a few years ago, the ceremony's organizers wised up and started using popular actors and actresses to give the evening's big award. There are, however, still always a couple of politicians who present awards, a reflection of the fact that the vast majority of Israeli movies receive government funding.
True or false: The most popular movie of the year is a shoo-in to come home with the most awards.
False! Often, the most popular movies aren't even nominated for Best Picture. Director Avi Nesher made headlines two years ago when he complained that his latest movie, Turn Left at the End of the World - the biggest domestic box office success in Israeli history and what happened to be a very good movie - did not garner a Best Picture nomination. It ended up winning only a couple of minor trophies.
The same year, Eytan Fox's Walk on Water, which made more money internationally than any other Israeli film (about $7 million, which is small change for Hollywood but a lot by Israeli standards), won Ophirs only for best music and best sound. (In the most competitive year ever, Joseph Cedar's Campfire won best picture.)
Once again, Eytan Fox was snubbed by academy voters this year when his latest film, The Bubble, a Palestinian-Israeli gay love story set in Tel Aviv, was not nominated in any of the major categories, although it got some rave reviews, has been doing a brisk business and was accepted to the hyper-competitive Toronto International Film Festival. What's the reason for these snubs? Nesher thought it stemmed from sour grapes. It's also possible that academy voters wanted to focus on movies that needed a boost. Either way, it's a handicap for a movie to be a box-office champ when it comes to the Ophirs.
True or false: The winner of the best picture Ophir is nominated for the Oscar for best foreign film.
Again, false. The winner becomes Israel's official selection to be considered for a foreign film nomination. In spite of the recent resurgence in the Israeli film industry, no Israeli movie has been nominated for a best foreign film Oscar since Beyond the Walls in 1984. And no Israeli movie has ever won. I'd be very surprised if this year's Ophir winner breaks through, although there are some fine films among the nominees.
So that's the Ophirs - nominees few have seen, politicians handing out statuettes and little chance for a real shot at an Oscar. The best way to watch the awards is to sit back and enjoy them as a fashion show. At one time, everyone but a handful of actresses used to come wearing jeans and sneakers, but now the crowd has gotten more stylish. Unfortunately, the most entertaining fashion victim, actress Ronit Elkabetz, the Cher of Israel, isn't nominated for anything this year, though maybe she'll be presenting. In past years, her outfits have provided the Ophir Awards' most entertaining moments, so keep your fingers crossed.
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