Will Oscar go to Jaffa?

‘Ajami’ faces tough competition at the 82nd Academy Awards ceremony tonight.

ajami 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
ajami 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Academy Awards ceremony begins in Los Angeles tonight (3 a.m. Monday, local time) , the question here is: will the third time be a charm? Will Israel’s third Oscar nomination in as many years bring gold to the blue-and-white?
Although this may be a cliché, Israel has already won by being there. The inclusion of Ajami, directed by Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani, is a triumph both for the directors and for the entire Israeli film industry, especially in light of certain recent events. In the fall, a group of prominent filmmakers asked the Toronto International Film Festival organizers to reconsider their decision to feature a week of films spotlighting Tel Aviv (Ajami was shown at Toronto this year, although in a different category). When the organizers refused to back down and the week marking Tel Aviv’s centennial went on as planned, some filmmakers boycotted the festival. The arrogance and ignorance of the boycotters is a subject for another article. But it is both ironic and laughable in light of the fact that the movies that sparked their indignation were critical of almost every aspect of Israeli society, including government policies, and, in almost all cases, received significant government funding. There have been rumblings about boycotts at other festivals, and some filmmakers, notably Ken Loach, have refused to attend film festivals in Israel. For the most part, though, the international filmmaking community has remained very open to Israeli films, and this third Oscar nomination in a row – which follows nominations for Joseph Cedar’s Beaufort and Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir, both about the first Lebanon War – just underscores that fact.
The nomination for Ajami is also a personal triumph for its directors, Copti, an Israeli-Arab Christian, and Shani, an Israeli Jew. It’s hard to overstate the symbolic value of the collaboration and friendship between these two, who are from different ethnic groups, religious affiliations and backgrounds. They spent seven years working on this gritty film about the crime-ridden Ajami neighborhood in Jaffa, which they managed to get into the Cannes Film Festival, where it won a special mention. These two young, first-time directors who had to live with relatives while making the film because they had put all their money into it, have seen it win honors and rave reviews on three continents. They are the toast of Hollywood, and are undoubtedly meeting some of the filmmakers who inspired them as they visit Los Angeles to attend the ceremony. If they choose, they can sign a contract with a Hollywood agent who will promote them in the US.
AS COPTI and Shani prepared for their trip to the Oscars, along with their producers and eight of their actors, their publicist (when the film was shown at the Jerusalem Film Festival last summer, they didn’t even have one) said they were too busy for interviews. Their star, Shahir Kabaha, one of the many non-professional actors they used in the film, had to take a vacation from his job making burekas at his father’s bakery in Jaffa to make trip to Los Angeles.
But will they actually come home with an Oscar? The truth is, the Best Foreign Language Film category is the hardest to pick, and I say this as someone who has been predicting the Oscars for newspapers for over 14 years. It’s a category that has a very precise and unusual set of rules for nominating and voting. Every country is allowed to submit one movie to be considered for the five nominations. This film is usually the movie that wins its local Oscar (in our case, the Ophir Award), although in some countries there is a committee that selects the nominee. Whereas once, few countries outside Europe and Japan submitted film, this year 65 countries submitted. Most of these movies have not yet opened in the US, and few ever will. The selection of the nominees is a long, complicated process, involving committees on both coasts of America. The voting process is also unusual. Only voters who have seen all five nominees in theaters and can prove it (by means of a stamped card) are allowed to vote in this category. This rule is also in place in the short-film categories and for documentaries. It may sound odd, but it’s a sensible rule, because it insures that movies by the highest-profile filmmakers won’t automatically win. For example, voters might be tempted to pick a movie by Spanish director Pedro Almodovar because it might be the only film they had seen theatrically or even heard of in a given year.
But it also means that only Academy voters with the time and motivation to see all five nominees in a theater can vote. Now that might not seem to be asking a lot, but Academy members who are working will often be on the set from five a.m. till after midnight – not a lot of time to see five movies. Many voters in other categories see most of the nominees on DVD. Those who do vote in the Best Foreign Language Film category tend to be older and retired, and, critics say, more conservative. That might explain the fact that, often, the safest and most sentimental choices win, like last year’s unheralded film, Departures, from Japan, which beat Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir, even though Waltz had won most of the critics’ awards and many film festival prizes. Waltz, an animated documentary about soldiers in the first Lebanon War, was an unusual and demanding film.
It’s a safe bet to assume that relatively few voters determine the outcome in this category. What no one knows is how few. I spoke this winter with a member of the Executive Nominating Committee in this category and asked whether it was possible that just 20 or so voters determined the outcome. She said it was possible and that it wouldn’t surprise her if the number wasn’t much higher than that. 
SO WHAT competition does Ajami face? Conventional wisdom is that the film to beat is The White Ribbon, which won the Palme d’Or, the top prize, at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Directed by Michael Haneke, this German film is set in a small town before World War I, where a series of unexplained and brutal crimes takes place. The film, which is in black and white, is a critique of the repressive child-rearing philosophy of that era, which many have theorized helped create the breeding grounds for Nazism. But it’s a slow, dark and heavy film with barely a single likable character, not the sort of movie Academy Award voters tend to enjoy.
The French nominee, Un Prophete, directed by Jacques Audiard, won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes. It is a gritty story of young Muslims in a French prison, and I fear it will appeal to the same viewers who might vote for Ajami. The nominee from Peru, The Milk of Sorrow, won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. The only nominee directed by a woman, Claudia Llosa, it tells the story of a woman living in the aftermath of a rape, but it has not generated the same buzz as the other nominees.
Although I wish with all my heart that Ajami comes home with the Oscar,I feel that the most likely winner is the fifth nominee, The Secret in their Eyes,an Argentine film. It’s a suspenseful drama, about a mysteriouskilling, that involves political corruption, features a well-drawn,sympathetic hero, and even has a bit of romance. Argentina has had itsown cinematic renaissance in recent years, and the film’s director,Juan Jose Campanella, was nominated for an Oscar several years ago for Son of the Bride. Few realize that Campanella has spent the last few years in Hollywood, directing episodes of such shows as Law and Order: Special Victims Unit,and has undoubtedly made a few friends there, which may come in handywhen small numbers of voters determine the outcome of the award.
Butwhatever film wins the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar on Sundaynight, I hope that people will be dancing in the streets in Jaffa, andall over Israel, as our nominees get to smile for the cameras oncemore.