If you are not an Oscar geek or a filmmaker hoping for a nomination, you probably didn’t notice that the Academy of Motion Pictures announced its shortlists for several awards categories on December 21 and, once again, Israel’s official selection – Orit Rotem Fouks’ Cinema Sabaya – did not make the cut for the Best International Feature shortlist.
Best International Feature, once known as Best Foreign Language Film, is the category in which countries pick an official selection, usually the winner of that country’s film awards (here it’s the winner of the Ophir Awards). Over 90 countries submit movies in this category, which are winnowed down to a shortlist of 10-15 and the five nominees are chosen from the shortlist.
Those looking for ways to debunk the antisemitic myth that a cabal of Jews runs Hollywood should not neglect this fact: Israel is the country with the most nominations in this category without a win, 10 nominations in all. In the first golden age of Israeli cinema, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Israel had a number of nominations: movies by Ephraim Kishon and Moshe Mizrahi scored two Oscar nominations each, for Kishon’s Sallah Shabati (1965) and The Policeman (1971), and Mizrahi’s I Love You Rosa (1972) and The House on Chelouche Street (1973). One other Israeli film, Operation Thunderbolt, the Golan-Globus drama about the Entebbe rescue, was nominated in the ‘70s, and the Israeli-Palestinian prison drama, Beyond the Walls received a nod in the ‘80s. But no Israeli movie was nominated from 1985-2008, when Beaufort, Joseph Cedar’s Lebanon War drama, broke through and received a nomination. Over the next four years, three other Israeli films were nominated, Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir (2008), Scandar Copti and Yaron
Shani’s Ajami (2009) and Cedar’s Footnote (2011). It seemed that the Israeli film industry had turned a corner.
But Israel has not had a single nomination in over a decade, since Footnote, and it has not even made the shortlist since 2017. Yet many wonderful Israeli movies have been released in the past decade, many of which have won prizes at festivals around the world and some of which have even been tapped for foreign-language remakes.
Why have Israeli movies dropped off the Oscar radar?
It’s hard to figure out just why Israeli movies have dropped off the Oscar radar. Looking back on the choices of the industry organization that picks the movies, the Israeli Academy of Film and Television, there seems to be a certain distinct disconnect between the movies that Ophir voters prefer and movies that will travel well.
LAST YEAR, for example, the Ophir voters chose Eran Kolirin’s Let It Be Morning over Avi Nesher’s Image of Victory, and Let It Be Morning did not make the shortlist, in spite of winning many prizes at film festivals. Both are fine films, but Let It Be Morning, based on a novel by Sayed Kashua, demands that viewers understand the difference in status between West Bank Palestinians and Arab citizens of Israel. For audiences who don’t grasp that distinction – and it seems likely that many US viewers would be confused by this – much of its plot would be baffling.
Yet Image of Victory, an antiwar epic that looks at both sides of the War of Independence, focusing on the battle over Kibbutz Nitzanim, is a rousing, thought-provoking film that it seemed to me would have been far more likely to move American audiences. But the Ophir voters thought otherwise and we will never know how Image of Victory might have fared.
This is the place to mention the Academy’s strange disregard for Nesher over the years. Once he returned to Israel in the early 2000s after over a decade in Hollywood, following an earlier and extremely successful career in Israel, he made a number of outstanding films that heralded Israel’s new golden age of cinema, but his movies have not found favor with the Israeli Academy. Turn Left at the End of the World (2004) was a critical and commercial success and has become a staple of Israeli movie TV channels, but it did not even receive an Ophir Best Picture nomination. Until Image of Victory, his films received only a few nominations in major categories, in spite of the fact that critics around the world have praised them and they have been warmly received at the Toronto International Film Festival and other festivals around the world.
But the problem is bigger than just the Academy’s odd blind spot for Nesher’s films. There are many terrific movies that failed to charm the Academy’s voters. Talya Lavie’s Zero Motivation, about bored female soldiers, which won the Best Narrative Feature Award at the Tribeca Film Festival, and Maysaloun Hamoud’s In Between (which won 16 international awards), about three Arab young women sharing an apartment in Tel Aviv, are both edgy and true in a way that might have connected with Oscar voters, showing a side of Israel rarely seen on screen, but neither film took home the Best Picture Ophir in their respective years.
Sameh Zoabi’s Tel Aviv on Fire (which won two awards at the Venice Film Festival, including Best Actor), an irreverent comedy about an Arab soap opera writer and his collaboration with a border policeman, or Michal Aviad’s Working Woman, billed as the first #MeToo movie, both might have been a hit at the Oscars. But in 2019, the year they were in competition, the Israeli Academy instead chose to reward Yaron Zilberman’s Incitement, a movie about Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin, which failed to crack the shortlist.
Nir Bergman’s Here We Are was accepted to the Cannes Film Festival and would have competed there if the festival had not been canceled due to COVID, but it did not get the top prize at the Ophirs. It’s hard to find a pattern, but many of the movies that were also-rans at the Ophirs have been successful in theatrical release abroad.
It’s reasonable to argue that the Academy should not think about the Oscars and just keep picking what they feel is the best film each year. If that’s the case, then their voters should be fine with this decade-long stretch without nominations. But for those who long to see Israeli films getting international attention, it’s been a disappointing time, with no end in sight.