Israel and the Academy Awards — One Miss and One Hit
Israel missed one crack at an Oscar but won another, as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced the qualifying nomineers in the first elimination round on Tuesday (Feb. 9).
A total of 93 countries, from Albania to Vietnam, entered their respective top movies in what used to be called the best foreign language film category but has now been changed to a less chauvinistic designation as best international feature.
Films from 15 countries made the first cut, but Israel’s entry, “Asia”, was not among them.
On the brighter side, a group of inventive Israelis from Tel Aviv University and the startup Amimom industry in Ra’anana were selected for the Academy Award in the Scientific and Engineering category. The group developed a wireless video technology now used throughout the global film industry.
This Oscar may be not as glamorous as one bestowed on a movie queen but will arguably have a longer lasting impact on film studios throughout the world.
The movie title “Asia” has nothing to do with the continent. Rather it is the given name of the Russian-born mother (actress Alena Yiv), who emigrates to Israel with her 17-year old daughter Vika, who suffers from an apparently incurable degenerative motor disease.
Vika is played by Shira Haas (familiar to fans of the Netflix series “Unorthodox”) who clings to life (“I don’t want to die a virgin”) and hangs out with pot-smoking skater punks – more akin to juvenile delinquents in American movies than our image of clean-cut Israelis toiling away on a kibbutz).
The film is saved by the empathy between mother and daughter, lovingly portrayed by the two actresses.
In a phone interview, director Ruthy Prieber noted that in the film, “I try to look at the beauty in their lives and not the ugliness… to look at what cards we are dealt with and how to make the best of it.”
“Asia was slated for its American premiere at the Film Forum in New York City but the pandemic has put a hopefully temporary halt to the film’s distribution to the country’s shuttered movie houses.
Neil Friedman, president of Menemsha Films, the American distributor for “Asia,” hopes that in the meanwhile the film can be viewed via television, Jewish film festivals and other venues.
By tradition, this annual column on the Academy Awards focuses on films submitted by other countries, this year from 93 nations, ranging from Albania to Vietnam. The rationale underlying this personal choice is that the big name categories -– best film, best actor, best director etc. – are already covered to a fare-thee-well by the general media.
The other rationale is that the choice by other countries on what films to submit reflect to some extent the current crises and historical memories of the participating countries.
For instance, year after year, different countries will submit films dealing with some aspect of the Holocaust, contradicting the assumption that some 76 years after the fall of the Third Reich the general public was tired of the subject.
year after year, different countries will submit films dealing with some aspect of the Holocaust, contradicting the assumption that some 76 years after the fall of the Third Reich the general public was tired of the subject.
The following entries did not make the list of 15 surviving nominees, but the assumption is that they will be available via TV, Jewish film festivals and other venues.
The following countries, in alphabetical order, have submitted films whose content should be of special interest to Jewish viewers.
Armenia entered the film “Songs of Solomon” which, however is not about the wise and wealthy biblical king of a unified Israel (and whose reported 700 wives of royal descent and 300 concubines would have required too large a cast.) Rather, the title character is Armenian Archbishop Solomon (1881-1915).
Belarus’ entry, “Persian Lessons” was unfortunately eliminated by the Academy, because too much of its creative talent was not from Belarus, but one would hope that it will be shown at other venues.
Reminiscent of Roberto Benigni’s “Life Is Beautiful,” the Belarus entry raises the question whether a film about the Holocaust can dare to include some humor and absudities.
In this case, a Belgian Jew is sent to a concentration camp but hopes to survive by claiming to be a non-Jewish Iranian. Unfortunately, a Nazi officer at the camp plans to open a restaurant in Teheran after the war and sets up a schedule of lessons with the pseudo-Iranian, who is forced to invent a fake language. According to the film’s introduction, the plotline is based on an actual Worrld War II occurrence.
The German entry is “And Tomorrow the Entire World.” With a woman director , Julia von Heinz, and a female heroine, the film tells the story of a young girl from an upper class family who joins an antifa (anti-fascist) group to oppose a rising neo-Nazi movement.
Jordan’s entry “200 Meters” is the only entry dealing directly with Middle East tensions. The movie focuses on a Palestinian husband and wife, who live in two villages 200 meters apart, but are separated by the Israeli-built wall.
By contrast, the Palestinian entry “Gaza, Mon Amour” (“Gaza, My Love”) – despite the title and its creators, doesn’t touch at all on the enclave’s border clashes with Israeli troops.
Rather the plot concerns a 60-year old Gaza fisherman, secretely in love with a woman who works in a market stall. His life changes drastically when he finds a ancient phallic statue of Apollo in his fishing net.
Bearing most directly on the Holocaust is the Slovakian film “The Auschwitz Report,” a Slovak/Czech/German co-production. Based on actual happenings, the film’s focus is on two young Slovak Jews, who with the help of other inmates escape in Apil 1944. Their goal is to inform the outside world of the horrors of Auschwitz but to their dismay their eyewitness accounts are too harrowing to be acceped by those who have not experienced them first hand.
The Academy Awards were originally scheduled for February 28 but have now been postponed to April 25. The format is still under discussion but will depend on the status of the pandemic and other factors. ”We find ourselves in unchartered territory,” noted Kary Burke, president of ABC entertainment, whose network will televise the event.
One possibility is to emulate the recent Emmy Awards, in which the hosts and award presenters were on stage, but the nominees spoke from their homes or other remote locations.