US Jews, Arabs more focused on 'Benjamin Button' than 'Bashir'

Film buffs in Israel prepare to stay up for the 3 a.m. Academy Award broadcast.

Waltz with Bashir good 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Waltz with Bashir good 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Last year, after Joseph Cedar's film Beaufort missed taking the foreign-film honors at the Oscars, Israel's consul-general in Los Angeles vowed to take this year's gong - and have a bigger party to celebrate. But on Sunday, as film buffs in Israel prepared to stay up for the 3 a.m. Academy Award broadcast to see whether Ari Folman would win the country's first Oscar for the animated documentary Waltz with Bashir, their counterparts in America took a decidedly more muted approach to this year's foreign-language contest, preferring chatter about whether the underdog from India, Slumdog Millionaire, would prevail over big studio productions like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button for Best Film. Whether it was the day's gloomy weather forecast in Los Angeles, the steady patter of negative economic news over the past weeks, or "Gaza fatigue," few seemed preoccupied with the prospects for Bashir, a searing look at Folman's efforts to come to terms with his memories of serving as a teenage conscript in the 1982 Lebanon war. Instead of hosting his own party, Israel's consul-general, Yaakov Dayan, planned to attend a star-studded event benefiting children's charity Children Uniting Nations at the Beverly Hilton hotel, run by Israeli-American Daphna Ziman, according to a consulate spokesman. Though Bashir sparked a spirited debate in Israel and received glowing reviews in the US press - where one reviewer, writing in the midst of the Gaza offensive against Hamas, called it "feverishly urgent" - it has not touched off the same debate in either the American Jewish community or the Arab-American one as was seen elsewhere, even in Beirut, where the movie screened last month. "I'm an American; I have no dog in the fight," said James Zogby, head of the Arab-American Institute, a lobby group based in Washington. He said he hadn't seen Bashir because he wasn't sure he was ready to watch a film about "someone playing out his feeling for what he did." "It's not about what happened to the people there or what they felt," said Zogby, who noted that the film had provoked almost no response in the Arab-American press. Folman himself, who declined formal interview requests in the days leading up to the awards ceremony, told a Canadian journalist who found him at the bar of the Beverly Wilshire hotel - made famous in Pretty Woman - that "it would be great if we win, but nothing dramatic is going to happen if we don't." "Either way, my life is not going to change," the Toronto Star quoted Folman as saying - though either way, his life may return to something like normal starting on Monday, when he returns home to Israel. Folman, the eighth Israeli nominated for the Oscar, was heavily favored against competitors from Austria, France, Germany and Japan, particularly after his win at the Golden Globe awards in January. His nomination followed one for Beaufort - a film about an IDF unit evacuating a fortress in Lebanon in 2000 - which was Israel's first nomination in two decades. The Academy has, however, recently lavished attention on films wrestling with the situation in Middle East - including a nomination in 2006 for the Palestinian film Paradise Now. Yet some pegged the obscure Japanese film Departures for an upset win - not unlike 2008's gong for the Austrian film The Counterfeiters - while Frenchman Laurent Cantet got a buzz boost after his film The Class, which won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival, took the top prize at Saturday's Independent Spirit Awards in Santa Monica.