Waltzing out of Hollywood

Will a local film ever bring home an Oscar?

folman bashir crew248.88 ap (photo credit: AP)
folman bashir crew248.88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
By the time Ari Folman arrived at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on Sunday, Oscar-less, the $1,000-a-plate crowd that had turned up to watch the Academy Awards ceremony - including a contingent from the Israeli Consulate - seemed mostly to have gone home for the night, replaced by younger party-goers more interested in charity poker and B-list celebrities than in celebrating cinematic achievement. The hotel's International Ballroom looked more like a senior prom on the Las Vegas Strip than a posh Beverly Hills gala; Folman himself, dapper in a slim tuxedo and mirror-bright patent dress shoes, looked ready for a shaken martini, rather than the glass of water he was holding. From the academy's buttoned-up Governor's Ball, held immediately following the ceremony, he could have headed to one of the glam A-list parties happening up on Sunset Boulevard or retired to the relative quiet of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel bar, but instead he had returned to the room where, just a few weeks ago, his Hollywood peers honored him with a Golden Globe for his animated documentary Waltz with Bashir. This time, instead of an ovation, or even a formal welcome from Los Angeles's Israeli community, there was just a handful of reporters cornering him behind a column, asking how it felt to lose. If Folman was upset, he didn't show it. He smiled gamely and blamed his bad karma for the loss; he said he was ready to trade the grueling press gauntlet for the simple pleasures of being at home with his young children. "It's a game," he said, before begging off to go find a real drink. Folman, now at the far end of an awards season that has made him the world's best-known Israeli filmmaker, knew what he was talking about. The Oscars exist to honor the art and science of making movies, but in practice they're more like the Olympics or the Super Bowl - an event that boils down to who wins and who loses, magnified through an array of private betting pools, prediction lists and on-line scoreboards, never mind the content of the performances in question. But that didn't stop the Internet from lighting up almost instantly with theories about why Folman, who was widely tipped to take home Israel's first Oscar, went home empty-handed. On Facebook, disappointed fans said the academy just didn't know what good filmmaking was - "What do they know about making a good movie?" asked one Israeli - while others speculated that the film may have been "too inconvenient" for members interested in shielding Israel, or themselves, from criticism. Others took the opposite view: One film reviewer based in Denver, Erik Buckman, said he thought the academy's decision to honor the little-known and less-seen Japanese film Departures, about an unemployed cellist who winds up working as a ritual funeral "encoffiner," indicated "a naked bias." "Well sir, I believe it has to do with the academy's clear anti-Israel agenda," Buckman wrote on the Web site examiner.com. But Oscar has always been capricious with his foreign favors, and those lines of reasoning depend on considering the substance of Folman's film, an intensely personal examination of his own actions as a 19-year-old IDF soldier in Beirut, circa 1982, as the massacre was taking place at Sabra and Shatilla. Inside the Hollywood hothouse, the theories ran along more technical lines. As early as Saturday night, when French director Laurent Cantet won an Independent Spirit award for his film The Class - which also won the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 2008 - buzz shifted in his direction; by Sunday, reporters were trading speculation that Departures might take the gong, fueled by reports on a Los Angeles Times blog that both The Class and Waltz with Bashir were shoehorned into the running by the academy's foreign-language committee, which has the power to add films that have been overlooked in the nomination process. In that view, the win for Departures was hardly a vote for or against Israel, any more than it was a vote for or against France (or Austria or Germany, for that matter). It was simply a function of academy rules governing its least predictable and fussiest committee - whose chairman, Mark Johnson, proudly told a panel audience the day before the awards that only the select few academy members who have the time to see all the nominated foreign films in the plush screening room at the academy's headquarters on Wilshire Boulevard are entitled to vote in the category at all. That narrows the crowd down to a few hundred committed voters - many of them, not coincidentally, retirees with the time to see films on the academy's schedule, rather than on DVD screeners that are regularly distributed in the main categories. It's a rarefied group, and one perhaps less inclined to go along with the raw violence and thumping music of Waltz - which Folman has repeatedly said he made to appeal to a young audience weaned on video games - and more interested in a visually lovely film about, well, natural death. "Everyone I talked to voted for Departures," The Jerusalem Post heard from one would-be voter, who was disqualified for making it to only two out of the five films. Of course, Waltz could have been considered in other categories - namely best animated feature, a category perennially dominated by wonderful but G-rated fare like Wall-E or Kung Fu Panda, or in best documentary, where it would have gone up against the much-adored Man on Wire, about tightrope daredevil Philippe Petit. But even then, there is the chief unwritten rule of academy voting, which Kate Winslet sagely pointed out years ago, albeit on the British satire program Extras: "If you do a film about the Holocaust, you're guaranteed an Oscar." Sure enough, Winslet herself finally took home her golden statuette, on her sixth nomination, for her turn as an illiterate SS guard in The Reader, and the German short film Spielzeugland - about a young Aryan boy whose mother invents a place called Toyland to explain where the Nazis have taken his best friend, a Jewish boy called David Silberstein - triumphed over a field of well-received contenders. The corollary of the Holocaust rule seems to be that films about war, especially in the Middle East, never do well; last year's Israeli contribution, Beaufort, lost to an Austrian film about the Holocaust, The Counterfeiters, and the controversial Palestinian film Paradise Now, about suicide bombers planning an attack on Tel Aviv, was overshadowed by the South African film Tsotsi. Even in the main categories, the academy has been ill-disposed toward films about the region. Steven Spielberg's Munich, about Israel's retribution for the Black September murders at the 1972 Olympics was passed over for best picture in 2005. Films about America's involvement in the Middle East have fared even worse; last year's slate overlooked films like A Mighty Heart, about the murder of Jewish journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan, and also ignored Redacted and Rendition, about Bush administration policies, though Tommy Lee Jones was nominated for In the Valley of Elah, about a father whose son was killed in Iraq. Not since the days of Oliver Stone's Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July - both released more than a decade after the conclusion of the Vietnam War - has the academy seriously considered the nuances of war. And Waltz with Bashir, for all its glowing reviews, has failed to ignite a serious debate in the US about what happens when a country sends its young into wars they're not prepared to fight - the real subject of Folman's film. The American Jewish community, distracted by the growing economic crisis and split over this winter's offensive in Gaza, seemed to retreat from a work that trafficked in war's infinite shades of gray, rather than engaging in the same kind of soul-searching the film prompted in Israel over the summer. Meanwhile, the broader population continued to affect its steadfast ambivalence on any parallels to American actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Israel, the question needed to be dealt with head-on; Folman said, without regret, that once he saw how suppressed his own memories about Lebanon were, he had no choice as a filmmaker but to bring them to the screen. "For me it was the only choice," he told the Post. The irony is that the HBO television series In Treatment - the American remake of the Israeli drama B'tipul, which features a troubled soldier character originally written by Folman - may have had a deeper impact on American viewers, without their even knowing they were watching the same ideas working themselves out. The lack of cultural awareness wasn't for lack of effort on Israel's part; as Folman told a panel, the country's film offices have put their full support behind his movie. The consul in New York recently complained to reporters that he wished he could have been more involved in helping Sony Pictures Classic promote the film; that didn't stop the Foundation for Jewish Culture from partnering with the Jewish Agency's education department to produce a viewer's guide. "This is the type of propaganda the Israeli government couldn't buy for money," Folman said at a screening just before the Golden Globes. After Sunday's upset, though, Folman declined to speculate on whether the timing of Operation Cast Lead against Hamas in the Gaza Strip at the same time as academy voting might have colored his prospects; after all, he said, it boils down to "500 anonymous voters, and I don't know a single one." "It doesn't really matter," Folman said. "Once you lose, the next time you win - I can't define what happens."