Will Cedar’s ‘Footnote’ take home an 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.

'Footnote' director Joseph Cedar in Hollywood 390 (R) (photo credit: Mario Anzouni/Reuters)
'Footnote' director Joseph Cedar in Hollywood 390 (R)
(photo credit: Mario Anzouni/Reuters)
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 nominees.
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 Beaufort 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.
The 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 Jerusalem Post, “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.
At the 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.”
But, he 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 born.
Cedar also said, “One of the great pleasures of this project was that people’s expectations were so low.”
Most Oscar watchers predict A Separation 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 others.
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 got.
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 course, Footnote 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.
That 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 Europa, Europa (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, The Wire and Treme (she has even been nominated for an Emmy), and she made Copying Beethoven 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 Counterfeiters, 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.