In 2000, the first year I attended the Ophir Awards, the biggest thrill was when Aki Avni (who won Best Actor for his role in Time of Favor, the first film by a young director named Joseph Cedar) walked in hand in hand with his beautiful fiancée, Sendi Bar.
Except for a few teenage fans who waited around to get Avni’s autograph, few outside the film industry had any interest in the awards. Now Aki and Sendi are divorced, but that isn’t the only thing that will be different tonight when the ceremony takes place and is broadcast on Channel 10 at 9 p.m.
A great deal of the interest in the Ophir Awards is because the film that wins the Best Picture Award becomes Israel’s candidate for consideration for one of the five nominations for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. But this year, even before the winners are announced, Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev has made the Ophirs into a political issue with a campaign against one of the frontrunners, Samuel Maoz’s brilliant Foxtrot, which recently won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Regev used last year’s Ophir Awards ceremony to let loose a tirade against the Israeli film industry, which she claimed – in a year with the most ethnically and religiously diverse slate of winners ever – lacked diversity.
This year she has called Foxtrot a “disgrace” that “shamed the reputation of the IDF” and “showed contempt for the state and its symbols.” However, and this is a telling detail, she admits she has not seen the film, which opens throughout the country at the end of the month. Call me old fashioned, but I believe you shouldn’t weigh in on a movie without seeing it.
That said, there is no chance that she would appreciate or enjoy Foxtrot, a complex story about the death of a young soldier and his family’s grief that is unquestionably told from a left-wing point of view, by a masterful director. But the fact that she did not bother to see it makes it clear that she has no interest in this movie, or in movies, or culture at all. She simply wants to win support from voters and advance her career, and movies are an easy target. Her cynicism about and contempt for the ministry she oversees is palpable.
Given her tirade last year, the Academy chairman Mosh Danon chose not to invite her – or any politician – to the ceremony. This won’t silence her – she recently made a statement criticizing the lack of Arab, settler and ultra-Orthodox voices in the film world. Once again, this is a bizarre criticism in a year when one of the frontrunners is Israeli Arab Maysaloun Hamoud’s In Between, and when ultra-Orthodox director Rama Burshtein’s The Wedding Plan (formerly called Through the Wall in English) about a young religious woman, and Emil Ben-Shimon’s The Women’s Balcony, the story of a religious, Mizrahi and politically conservative community in Jerusalem, have won accolades all over the world. But this truth seems to have eluded her and she has threatened on several occasions to cut funding to the film industry.
If anything, her condemnation of Foxtrot may have increased its support in the Israel Academy. Two other very good films nominated for Best Picture suffer from having similar subject matter: Matan Yair’s Scaffolding and Eliran Elya’s Doubtful are both about teachers and students in working-class high schools. Savi Gabizon’s Longing is a conventional, undistinguished movie that nevertheless has its fans. Foxtrot’s real competition is Hamoud’s In Between, an original and moving look at three young Arab women living in Tel Aviv.
It should be clear from Israel’s record of Oscar nods in the Best Foreign Film category over the past 10 years – four, for Joseph Cedar’s Beaufort and Footnote, Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir and Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani’s Ajami – that the Academy voters are strongly focused on the Academy Awards, which makes sense.
This year’s race carries echoes of the Ophir competition eight years ago. In 2009, just after Maoz’s first film, Lebanon, won the Golden Lion, the top prize at the Venice Film Festival, it lost the Ophir to Ajami, which was co-directed by an Israeli Arab and an Israeli Jew. I think the Israel Academy liked the idea of sending an Jew and an Arab to the Oscars to represent Israel. Like Ajami, In Between is the result of a collaboration between Hamoud, a Muslim, and producer Shlomi Elkabetz, the brother and directing partner of the late Ronit Elkabetz, who is Jewish.
Any other year, I would have said that In Between would have a lock on Best Picture. Hamoud and Elkabetz are both extremely charming and outgoing and would do a great job promoting In Between to Oscar voters.
But I defer to Yair Raveh, who did a survey of Ophir voters on his always informative Cinemascope website. He’s done this poll for 13 years and has only missed once, and his conclusion is that Foxtrot will win and by a large margin.
It seems inconceivable that Maoz would not win Best Director as well, although in past years, Ophir voters have divided up the awards when there are two strong contenders. For example, in 2014, Ronit Elkabetz and Shlomi Elkabetz’s Gett won Best Picture, while Talya Lavie won Best Director and Best Screenplay for Zero Motivation. So Hamoud could take home the Best Director honor.
It seems possible that Longing’s director/screenwriter Gabizon, who is an established figure in the industry, will win Best Screenplay.
As for the acting awards, it looks like Lior Ashkenazi, the star of Foxtrot, who has made bold statements opposing Regev, will add a third Ophir Award to his previous trophies. Politics aside, if that’s ever possible these days, he gave an impressive performance.
The Best Supporting Actor Ophir will go to one of the many fine actors from the two films about high schools, either Adar Hazazi Gersch from Doubtful or Ami Smolartchik from Scaffolding.
Shaden Kanboura, the star of In Between, will likely win Best Actress for her portrayal of a young, devout Muslim student, and Mouna Hawa, who played her more free-spirited roommate, should also win in the Best Supporting Actress category.
Giora Bejach should win Best Cinematography for Foxtrot.
It’s a good bet that Regev’s presence will hover over the ceremony like a ghost and that whatever wins, she will be displeased, and not only because she didn’t get a chance to wear the dress adorned with the Jerusalem skyline again that drew attention to her at Cannes last spring.