LOS ANGELES (JTA) — This was the year Israel was finally going to win an Oscar for best foreign language film after being nominated seven previous times.
After all, Ari Folman’s animated psychological drama "Waltz with Bashir" had been named by the American National Society of Film Critics as the best overall picture of 2008, and had garnered a Golden Globe as best foreign language film.
So much for the “experts” or, if you prefer, the peculiar ways of Academy Awards voters: Even after Japanese director Yojiro Takita walked off the stage Sunday night clutching the statuette for his film "Departures," he acknowledged in a backstage interview that "Waltz" had been the front-runner all along.
For Israelis, an Oscar win would have meant nearly as much as the country’s first Olympic medal.
Folman, his wife and four animators attended the ceremony while some 60 supporters, including Israeli diplomats and media, as well as the two German producers who raised half of the film’s budget, watched the broadcast at the Beverly Hilton Hotel.
"Waltz With Bashir" focuses on a moment of national shame — the murder of scores of Palestinians by Lebanese Phalangists in the Israeli army-controlled Sabra and Shatila refugee camps — yet was embraced in Israel, drawing large audiences there. And on an official level, not only was the movie, like most Israeli films, financed with government funds, the Israeli Foreign Ministry has been actively promoting "Waltz With Bashir."
Diplomats insisted that the film would 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, a few days before the awards ceremony.
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 the tuxedo-clad Israeli filmmaker accepting one of the movie industry’s most prestigious honors.
Critics and audiences around the world, along with the Golden Globes voters, have embraced "Waltz With Bashir," a psycho-historical investigation into one man’s inability to remember what he did during the 1982 Lebanon War.
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. And it also explains why 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.”
The potential for concerns about the film is what prompted the Foundation for Jewish Culture to co-produce a guide about the film, according to the organization’s president and CEO of the foundation, Elise Bernhardt. The foundation, which provides grants to help produce films of Jewish interest — including $25,000 to help produce "Waltz With Bashir" and the guide — was the only American backer of the film, which cost $1.3 million to make.
Much of the guide is based on Israel’s own investigation into Sabra and Shatila, and presents the history of the battle and its aftermath. The guide also includes conversation points and frequently asked questions about the film and its subject.
“Some people will see it and immediately assume that it is anti-Israel. That is why we made this guide,” Bernhardt said “This is to address those people who they would see it and say it is anti-Israel, to say to them ‘No, it is not. Look at the questions they are asking. Get in there and wrestle with it.’ It also addresses those people who say, ‘Oh, this is just more fuel for my anti-Zionist fire.’ "
On Oscars night at the Beverly Hilton, where Israeli diplomats and journalists had gathered, the festive mood turned grim when "Departures" was named the top foreign language film.
Israeli Consul General Yaakov Dayan did not hide his disappointment.
"I’ve been in Los Angeles for two years," Dayan said. "Last year ‘Beaufort’ was nominated but didn’t win. This year it was ‘Waltz With Bashir’ and it didn’t win. Maybe I’ll have to resign before we can take home an Oscar."
Trying for a more cheerful note, one observer recollected that between the 1984 nomination of Israel’s "Beyond the Walls" to the 2007 nomination of "Beaufort," some 23 years had elapsed.
"Now we’ve had Israeli films nominated for two years in a row," the observer said. "That shows we’re getting stronger. Besides, there’s always next year."