The Ophir Awards, the prizes of the Israeli Academy of Film, will be given out in a ceremony in Ashdod tonight, which will be broadcast on Channel 10.
The reason anyone outside the Israeli movie industry cares about these awards is that the winner becomes Israel’s official choice to be considered for one of the five nominations for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
This is arguably the most competitive Oscar category.
Last year, there were 83 submissions for the five slots. The odds may seem impossibly high, but since 2007 Israel has received four nominations in this category – Beaufort (2007), Waltz with Bashir (2008), Ajami (2009) and Footnote (2011).
By contrast, France received only two nominations in this category during this period.
In the 1960s and ‘70s, Israel received five nods, and one in the 1980s.
As the industry has flowered, it has seemed more likely that an Israeli feature would take home a statuette, but this year’s crop of Ophir nominees is unlikely to produce a winner.
In some ways, it’s just the luck of the draw, as many of Israel’s most established directors are currently working on new films, movies that will likely be Oscar bait.
While once the Israeli film industry produced only two kinds of films – high-minded dramas with a political agenda or silly, slapstick movies, the so-called seretei bourekas – now there is a wide variety of movies made here.
Israel now has slick, middle-brow movies that appeal to a date-night audience, which is good news for producers who invest in these movies but bad news for anyone who wants to see Israel win an Oscar. The epitome of these is Shemi Zarhin’s The Kind Words, a successful dramedy about three Jerusalem siblings who go on a quest to find their biological father after their mother’s death. It’s amiable and well acted, and judging from the 12 nominations it received in virtually every category, the Academy voters really, really liked it, and it’s the most likely to win.
Elad Keidan’s Afterthought (aka Stair Cases) is an artsy look at two men wandering separately through Haifa. It premiered at Cannes and is far too esoteric to win the Ophir Best Picture Award.
Keidan did not receive a nod for Best Director, a clear indication that this isn’t a contender.
Erez Tadmor’s Wounded Land and Nitzan Giladi’s Wedding Doll are serious-minded movies about serious issues – the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and how it affects our humanity, and the lack of tolerance for disabled people – that may win over Academy voters. Wedding Doll has received good reviews around the world, notably at the Toronto International Film Festival, and Ophir voters may take this into account.
But the movie that would get my vote and is by far the best Israeli movie I’ve seen this year is Yuval Delshad’s Baba Joon, an intense, beautifully made story of a family of Iranian immigrants in the Negev. If there is one movie brilliant and original enough to win Israel another Oscar nomination, it’s Baba Joon (Farsi for “dear dad”).
Navid Negahban, the Iranian actor best known as Abu Nazir on Homeland, stars in Baba Joon but did not receive a nod. Presumably he was snubbed because most of his performance was in Farsi, but I don’t see why that should matter. Sasson Gabai won a Best Actor Ophir in 2007 for a performance mainly in English in The Band’s Visit.
It’s been a very good year for actor Roy Assaf, who is nominated for his leading roles in both Wedding Doll and Wounded Land and for Best Supporting Actor for The Kind Words, and he’s likely to win for Wedding Doll. And, like Dana Ivgy last year who won both Supporting Actress and Best Actress, he may also win for The Kind Words.
His Wedding Doll co-star, Moran Rosenblatt, has both talent and beauty and should win for her role as a disabled young woman, especially since playing characters with physical or mental problems is always a good way to win awards. Asi Levi, who plays her mother in the film, should pick up a Supporting Actress award.
Only one of the brilliant comic ensemble in Dror Shaul’s black comedy Atomic Falafel, Mali Levy Gerson received a nomination, in the Supporting Actress category. Atomic Falafel is too funny and too controversial to receive nominations in any other major category.
Perhaps the most glaring omission is the lack of a Best Cinematography nomination for Shai Goldman for Avishai Sivan’s Tikkun. The movie, a slow-paced, black-and-white film about a yeshiva student losing his mind, is certainly not for everyone, although it won four awards at the Jerusalem Film Festival, including Best Feature Film, and three at the Locarno Film Festival (including an award for Best Cinematography). Whatever you think of Tikkun, the cinematography is stunning, and it should have been recognized by the Israeli Academy.
One more quibble: For years, the Ophir ceremony was always held in Tel Aviv. Then it started moving, but only once has it been held in Jerusalem in the past 15 years. The Jerusalem Film Fund has worked hard to increase the number of movies made in the capital, and it would be nice to see the ceremony held in Jerusalem again.