As the red carpet begins bustling with stars at the Oscar ceremony at 5:30 p.m.
in Los Angeles, Israelis will be wondering if Joseph Cedar’s Footnote, the
nominated movie from Israel in the Best Foreign Language Film category, will
take home the Oscar.
It’s the tenth nomination for an Israeli film in
this category, and the fourth in five years. But no Israeli film has ever
won the award, although last year, the documentary short from Israel, Strangers
No More, won an Oscar in its category.
Joseph Cedar – a soft-spoken,
American-born, Jerusalem-raised, Tel Aviv-based, left-leaning, religiously
observant director and perhaps the most unusual and the best good-will
ambassador Israel has ever had – has been making the rounds in Hollywood for the
past month, attending events such as the luncheon for the Oscar
So whether or not Footnote
wins, his nomination has given a
boost to the entire Israeli film industry, and to his own career as
well. This is the second nomination for a film by Cedar, whose 2007 film
was an Oscar nominee in 2008.Footnote
won the Best Screenplay
Award at the Cannes Film Festival. It’s a demanding and ambitious film about the
rivalry between a father and son who are both Talmud scholars.
director certainly never imagined that his film would be so successful abroad.
He tries never to let his expectations get too high, no matter how many honors
come his way. After the nominations were announced last month, he told The
, “pessimism is a way to survive.”
An Iranian film, Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation
, is also
nominated in this category, and many in the press looked forward to some kind of
confrontation between the two directors, which would mirror the tense relations
between the countries they represent.
But there was no such confrontation
and it is unlikely there will be one. The two directors have both been gentlemen
and have resisted any temptation to speak ill of the other.
symposium for the directors of the movies nominated for Best Foreign Language
Film in Los Angeles on Saturday morning, Cedar was asked about how he got the
idea for Footnote
. Reminded that he had been nominated for an Oscar before, he
smiled and said, “I want to say that it originated here.”
explained that although “it’s about recognition and awards and all the
conflicting emotions that go along with needing to stand up on the podium,” the
idea came to him when he was at a low point in his career. He was notified that
he had won an unexpected honor, and assumed that it was intended for his father,
Howard Cedar, an Israel Prize-winning scientist. As he waited to hear whether it
was him or his father who was getting the honor, the idea for the film was
Cedar also said, “One of the great pleasures of this project was
that people’s expectations were so low.”
Most Oscar watchers predict A
to win, but when you are trying to figure out what will win in the
Best Foreign Language Film category, it’s best to turn your gaze away from the
films and look at the voters.
Unlike most categories, Academy members can
only vote for Best Foreign Language Film if they have seen all five films in the
category. That means those who vote must attend screenings of the nominated
films rather than watch the movies on DVD. This rule was introduced in order to
combat a very real problem in these categories: That often one nominated film
had generated enormous publicity before the awards, much more than all the
In most other categories, members can vote for whomever they
want, whether they have seen any of the nominated films at all. In this one,
however, the Academy wanted to level the playing field so that voters would not
simply choose the only film they had heard of. That is a noble goal, but in
practice, what it means is that only Academy members with time to sit through
five films in theaters in less than a month can vote. No director or actor in
the middle of making a film will have time to do this.
I asked an Academy
member active on the committee that selects nine foreign films from the short
list from which the final nominees are drawn if it was possible that a tiny
number of voters choose this award, perhaps as few as 20. Yes was the answer I
Statistics published this week revealed (to the surprise of few)
that Academy voters are overwhelmingly white, male and over 50. The conventional
wisdom is that they also tend to be somewhat conservative in their taste,
especially the older voters.
Keeping in mind these facts, how are the
nominated films likely to fare? The Belgian nominee, Bullhead, a crime drama
about control over hormone-fed cattle, seems like an eccentric choice and the
longest of longshots. The Canadian film, Monsieur Lazhar
, features cute kids in
a story of a new teacher coming home to replace a beloved older one who dies,
and cute kids are always a draw in this category. The films that the media has
been hyping as the two front-runners, in a highly symbolic battle, are, of
and the Iranian nominee, A Separation.
These films are
both dramas about troubled families, and both feature characters that are not
conventionally likable. Footnote
, I fear, is too cerebral, witty and complex for
the voters, who tend to go for moral uplift and cuteness. This explains why it
did well at Cannes, a festival that tends to give prizes to more complicated and
ambitious films. A Separation
is about a man who pushes a pregnant woman down a
staircase and a good deal of the suspense turns on the questions of whether or
not he knew about her condition – not exactly a feel-good film.
leaves the Polish entry, In Darkness
. It’s a true story of Jews hidden in the
sewers under the Lvov ghetto by a morally ambivalent Pole during the Holocaust.
It’s got suspense, drama, redemption, and, yes, a couple of cute kids. It was
directed by Agnieskza Holland, who is no stranger to the Oscars: Her film
(1992), also a Holocaust drama, was nominated in 1992. I have
interviewed her, and she is charming and self-deprecating, which never hurts.
But the critical fact about her, which Oscar prognosticators tend to ignore, is
that she is the only one of the five directors who has worked quite a bit in
Hollywood. Recently, she directed episodes of the prestigious HBO series,
and Treme (she has even been nominated for an Emmy), and she made
with Ed Harris and Washington Square
with Jennifer Jason
Leigh. So she has is extremely well connected in Hollywood, and can prevail upon
her friends there to sit through all five nominated movies and vote for In
Darkness. This, coupled with the quality and subject of her film, is likely to
propel it to a win.
So Cedar – whose film, Beaufort
, about Israeli troops
in Lebanon, lost the Oscar to the compelling Holocaust drama, The
, in 2008 – looks likely to be bested by another film on the
Shoah. An Israeli director losing out twice to Holocaust films? It’s an irony
Cedar’s characters, and the director himself, would appreciate.