Politics shared the stage with the winners at the Ophir Awards, the prizes of the Israel Academy for Film and Television, which were given out at a ceremony in Ashdod on Tuesday night.
The winner of the Best Picture Award was Samuel “Shmuelik” Maoz’s Foxtrot, the story of a grieving family and their son, a soldier. It also won awards for Best Director, Best Actor (Lior Ashkenazi), Best Cinematography (Giora Bejach), as well as for editing, music, artistic design and soundtrack.
is now Israel’s official candidate for consideration for a Best Foreign Language Oscar nomination.
The movie, which won the Silver Lion Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival earlier this month, has a strongly leftist perspective and became the focus of a political storm including strong criticism by Culture Minister Miri Regev.
Regev attended the Ophir Awards last year, when she gave a speech against what she described as the elitist film industry. She has continued to attack
the industry in general and Foxtrot
(which she said she had not seen) in particular in the run-up to the awards this year.
Members of the Foxtrot
cast and crew have received death threats on Facebook, something unprecedented in the Israeli film industry. Foxtrot
’s leading actor, Lior Ashkenazi, who criticized Regev, was shocked when death threats were made against his five-year-old daughter.
The culture minister was disinvited from this year’s Ophir Awards and she took to Facebook Live a few hours before the ceremony to give a speech.
There she pulled no punches
, slamming Mosh Danon, the chairman of the Israel Academy for Film and Television, as well as the director and actors of Foxtrot
, which was nominated for 13 prizes. She also vowed to cut the state funding the academy receives the next time its agreement is renewed.
Regev said she just couldn’t stay home and keep silent on the night of the awards.
“I’m here tonight uncensored and unedited,” she said, “I am proud of Israeli cinema, I want to strengthen it, and to honor it, but not at any price.”
She devoted much of her criticism, as she has over the past few weeks, to Foxtrot, which has been warmly accepted abroad, at the Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals as well as Venice. Regev said the film depicts the IDF and its soldiers negatively and harms the name of the State of Israel.
“My criticism of Foxtrot
is not against the freedom of expression,” she said, “But against the freedom to distort and to twist the character of the IDF – and to do it with the funds of the Israeli public.”
The fact that the film won the Silver Lion at the Venice International Film Festival “shouldn’t excite anyone,” said Regev. “Any up-and-coming director knows that if they make films that defame Israel there will be those in the world who will warmly accept them.”
Maoz also won the Golden Lion at Venice in 2009 for his first film, Lebanon
In a Facebook post on Tuesday, Maoz blamed Regev for the death threats that he and Ashkenazi had received, as well as those against Ashkenazi’s daughter.
”The job of a minister is to restrain the belligerent,” he wrote. “An argument about art should not deteriorate to threats, and certainly not against a five-year-old girl. But instead of calming and moderating [things], [Regev] continues to incite and fuel the flames.”
Maoz concluded his post: “Mrs. Regev, if something bad happens, the responsibility is yours.”
Speaking on Tuesday night, Regev said she had heard that she was being blamed for incitement.
“It started by keeping me out of the ceremony,” she said. “You decided that my voice, which represents the Israeli majority, should not be heard.”
But now, she added, you are “taking another cheap and fake shot,” and “have moved to the height of incitement, to remove any responsibility from yourselves.”
Regev also repeated her vow that when the Israel Film Academy renegotiates its deal for state funding next year, “the deal that was is not what will be.”
Danon gave an impassioned opening statement at the Ophirs ceremony, saying, “We are storytellers, not traitors.”
Israeli filmmakers are sometimes critical of Israeli policies, he said, and “sometimes tell the Israeli-Palestinian story,” but “we all tell the Israeli story.”
Nearly all the winners and presenters alluded to the controversy in their remarks.
Maoz, accepting the award for Best Picture, said, “I wasn’t born a director. Once I was a soldier. Foxtrot
is a movie I did out of love for this place and for the people who live here, and for cinema of course.” No “lie or slander” could destroy the power of this film, he said.
Ashkenazi, who won his third Ophir for his performance in Foxtrot, was extremely emotional as he accepted the award. “Foxtrot
is the most Israeli movie made here,” he said. “There is no Israeli who won’t find himself there.”
In an interview after his win, he said he hadn’t filed a police complaint in response to the death threats, and was surprised “to have been caught in the eye of the storm.”
Shaden Kanboura won the Best Actress award for her portrayal of a devoutly Muslim young woman in Maysaloun Hamoud’s In Between
, the story of three Israeli Arab women roommates in Tel Aviv. In a speech that mixed Hebrew, Arabic and English, she said, “I wanted to bring out the truth of Noor [the character she portrayed] and so many other women and I’m glad you believed me.”
Quoting Martin Luther King Jr., she said, “Freedom is never given voluntarily by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed,” and vowed that she and her colleagues would keep fighting for freedom.
Mouna Hawa, the Supporting Actress winner for her portrayal of an Israeli Arab lawyer in In Between, spoke of her gratitude for having been given the opportunity to act in this film, and noted that this was one of those times when “smiles are mixed with tears.”
Lamis Ammar, an Israeli Arab who was nominated for Best Actress last year for her performance in Sand Storm
, and who presented the award for Best Supporting Actress this year, talked about feeling pressure to hide her identity and said Arabs would not stop creating art, “with funding or without” and “from prison if necessary.”
Elite Zexer, the director of last year’s Ophir Best Picture winner Sand Storm, and producers Haim Mecklberg and Estee Yacov-Mecklberg, gave the speech they weren’t able to give a year ago when Regev spoke at length on stage and they couldn’t get a word in.
Whether or not Foxtrot
goes on to get an Oscar nod, it was a triumphant night for Maoz and the film’s cast and crew, and another skirmish in Israel’s ongoing culture wars.