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Israeli film hopes to waltz to Oscar victory

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A still from "Waltz with Bashir." ()

A still from “Waltz with Bashir.” ()

Filmmaker Ari Folman in September 2008 at the film festival in Telluride, Colorado. (Stits / Creative Commons)

Filmmaker Ari Folman in September 2008 at the film festival in Telluride, Colorado. (Stits / Creative Commons)

NEW YORK (JTA) — If you believe the buzz leading up to Sunday’s Oscars ceremony in Los Angeles, Israel never has had a better shot at taking home a statuette than this year with Ari Folman’s animated masterpiece “Waltz With Bashir.”

Israeli films have been nominated eight times for Academy Awards; they came up empty the seven previous times.

"Waltz With Bashir," a psycho-historical investigation into one man’s inability to remember what he did during the 1982 Lebanon War, already has won a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film, and critics and audiences around the world have embraced the film.

Should the film prevail Sunday night, it would mark a substantial step forward for an Israeli artistic community already enjoying increasing favor with the world’s cultural arbiters.

“I’m sure it will boost the Israeli film industry in one way or another,” said Meir Fenigstein, the director of the Israel Film Festival in New York.

But what’s good for Israeli artists isn’t necessarily good for the Israeli state, whose recent military campaign in Gaza has given rise to the latest spate of war crimes charges leveled by the country’s critics. “Waltz With Bashir” excavates another controversial episode from Israeli military history: the murder of scores of Palestinians by Lebanese Phalangists in the Israeli army-controlled Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.

Folman was one of the soldiers stationed nearby when the massacres took place. Yet as he discovers in the film’s opening minutes, he can barely remember a thing, so he sets about interviewing his comrades in an effort to piece together what transpired. The result is a film that suggests a nation caught in the depths of a profound collective amnesia, unable or unwilling to come to grips with one of the most troubling episodes in its history.

To a certain breed of pro-Israel activist, that goes a long way toward explaining the exuberance with which the film has been greeted in some European and Arab circles known for their less-than-warm embrace of things Israeli.

But the film has been embraced in Israel as well, draiwng large audiences there. And on an official level, not only was "Waltz With Bashir," like most Israeli films, financed with government funds, the Foreign Ministry is actively promoting the movie, with diplomats insisting that it will actually help to bolster Israel’s image abroad.

"Our only problem is that Sony Pictures Classics doesn’t let us be more involved and help a little more,” said Yoram Morad, the Israeli consul in New York for cultural affairs.

The cultural arm of the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency’s education department, in partnership with the New York-based Foundation for Jewish Culture, produced a viewer’s guide that is to be distributed through various American Jewish groups. And a description of the film on the Web page of Israel’s culture office in New York calls the film a “gripping” and “powerful denunciation of the senselessness of all wars.” For a nation that much of the world sees as brutal and militaristic, that’s either an astonishing admission or a savvy PR move.

Unless, of course, it’s both.

After a screening of the film at Hollywood’s Arclight Theatre during the Golden Globes weekend last month, Folman offered two reasons for the Israeli government’s positive response to the film: It made Israel look like a tolerant country, allowing soldiers to talk openly about their experiences in the war, and when it was screened in Europe it made many people there realize for the first time that it wasn’t the Israeli troops that committed the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacres.

“This is the type of propaganda the Israeli government couldn’t buy for money,” Folman told the crowd, a day before winning the Golden Globe. “So they kept sending the movie out.”

David Saranga, the Israeli consul for media and public affairs in New York, said as much in a recent interview with JTA.

“One of the challenges is that people in the world see Israel as responsible for what happened in Sabra and Shatila, and this movie shows that it was Lebanese who killed Palestinians,” Saranga said. “Second, the fact that the person who is asking the tough questions is an Israeli shows the morality of the Israeli society and the Israeli soldiers. So it’s important to show what are the moral values that the Israelis and the Israeli soldiers have. So I don’t find it as something that can hurt our hasbara [public relations], not at all.”

The film’s mounting critical acclaim also is seen as providing an image boost on another level: “Waltz With Bashir” is a cultural product, Israeli diplomats have come to believe, that merits active promotion as the bearer of an image of the Jewish state distinct from war and conflict. Despite the film’s subject matter, one could scarcely imagine a more powerful symbol of Israel’s normalcy than a tuxedo-clad Israeli filmmaker accepting one of the movie industry’s most prestigious honors.

Yet some pro-Israel advocates still have concerns about the image projected by the film.

“The concern is the timing,” said Shoham Nicolet, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Israeli Leadership Council. “Following the Second Lebanon War and the operation in Gaza, the movie might strengthen a false image of Israel as an aggressive country victimizing its enemies. Unfortunately, some of the ideas and vocabulary used in the movie can be taken out of context and might reinforce the misleading anti-Israel propaganda.”

Isaac Zablocki, the executive director of the Other Israel Film Festival in New York, which showcases films about Israeli Arabs, has fended off similar criticisms of the movies he has chosen to feature. But while Zablocki defends his festival as demonstrating how a democracy deals with sensitive internal issues, he also has his reservations about the success of “Waltz With Bashir.”

“I feel that with everything coming out of the Israeli film industry today, the world doesn’t have to see Israel as a place where we fight wars and a country that’s just obsessed with the military,” Zablocki said. “In some ways, the [Adam Sandler comedy 'Don't Mess with the Zohan'] was the best film to represent Israel. It shows beach life in Tel Aviv as well.”

But for Fenigstein, who runs the Israel Film Festival in New York, there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Besides, he says, it’s “not a negative film” — and even if it were, cinema is an art and art isn’t always pretty.

“Let more people see it, let more people talk about Israel,” Fenigstein says. “For me, as somebody who runs a film festival, I think getting an Oscar, that’s what’s important."

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