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Arts & Culture Even Hollywood Conservatives Calm As Academy Considers Palestinian Film

January 16, 2004
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The ripple effects of Middle East politics are spreading as far as Hollywood’s glamour-studded Oscar awards.

On Jan. 27, when the nominations for the Academy Awards are announced, movie makers from 55 countries will be waiting most intently to learn the names of the five finalists in the category of best foreign-language films.

So there was some puzzlement when the “country” of Palestine appeared on this year’s list, represented by the film “Divine Intervention.”

A year ago, the same film was denied entry by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, leading Arab media to air heated charges of Zionist conspiracies.

But this year the film was accepted for consideration.

“As a basic guideline, we try to be as inclusive as possible, to look for reasons to include, rather than exclude,” said producer Mark Johnson, chairman of the Foreign Language Film Selection Committee. “In a perfectly ordered world, we would only accept entries from recognized countries. But in reality, we have now entries from Hong Kong, which is part of China, and from Taiwan, which is not recognized by the United Nations. In the past, we’ve included Puerto Rico, a U.S. commonwealth.”

Johnson said he asked his 12-member executive committee to review the Palestinian case, and they voted unanimously to accept “Divine Intervention,” directed by Elia Suleiman, an Israeli Arab.

Israeli Arab films can be considered Palestinian when they are selected by the academy’s Palestinian selection committee.

The reason the same entry was rejected last year, Johnson said, was that entries can be submitted only by a country’s duly constituted body of actors, writers and directors.

Last year, “Divine Intervention” was submitted instead by its French producer, which was not acceptable. This year, Johnson’s committee was satisfied that a proper organization of artists existed under the Palestinian Authority, which re-entered the same movie.

Even film-industry insiders and observers known for their strong pro-Israel stands have not attacked the committee’s decision.

“In general, the academy has avoided becoming politicized in the past and I have to believe that this holds in this case too,” said producer-writer Lionel Chetwynd, a frequent spokesman for Hollywood’s political right. Producer Arthur Cohn agreed.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and himself a winner of two Oscars for documentaries, said he would be troubled if the Palestinian entry were an exception to normal rules.

“However, if this represents only a liberal interpretation of the rules, I can see no objection,” he said.

Johnson said he had received no complaints from the Academy’s sizable Jewish membership.

Israel’s entry this year is “Nina’s Tragedies,” which, by contrast to the highly politicized “Divine Intervention” and other recent Palestinian films, is a “sad comedy” that largely ignores the country’s tribulations and confrontations.

Surprisingly, the most “Jewish” films among the foreign entries is Bulgaria’s “Journey to Jerusalem,” which also is considerably more entertaining than either the Israeli or Palestinian movies.

It centers on two Jewish youngsters, a brother and sister under 10, who flee Nazi Germany in 1942 hoping to reach Palestine. When their accompanying uncle dies en route, the two kids find themselves stranded in Sofia.

Left penniless and friendless in a country whose language they cannot understand, the kids are adopted by a down-at-the-heels trio who take their hokey magic act to small towns along the Bulgarian countryside. In the end, the traveling troupe pools what little money it has to buy the youngsters passage to Palestine.

Director Ivan Nichev said that his film is based on a true story and also serves as a tribute to the people of Bulgaria, who saved 50,000 Bulgarian Jews from extermination in 1943.

Nichev’s earlier film, “After the End of the World,” centered on an Israeli professor who returns to his Bulgarian birthplace after World War II.

“Divine Intervention” is not the only Palestinian film of note in recent years. While largely unnoticed, Palestinian filmmakers lately have been turning out a respectable number of movies.

In the process, they have proven themselves more skilled propagandists than their Israeli counterparts, whose works tend to be personalized escapist fares or highly self-critical of their society.

In the Palestinian film “Rana’s Wedding,” the heroine overcomes parental opposition, red tape and Israeli roadblocks to get her man.

Among other recent Palestinian films, “Ticket to Jerusalem,” chronicles the efforts of a glum, middle-aged Arab to show films to children in the towns and refugee camps of the West Bank.

In the documentary “Paradise Lost,” director Ebtisam Mara’ana returns to the childhood village she left in 1948.

Two earlier films of the 1980s by Michel Khleifi have just been released on DVD: “Wedding in Galilee” and “Fertile Memory,” both of which look at life in Israel from a jaundiced Arab perspective.”

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