Possible Oscar at stake in Israeli film fight


LOS ANGELES (JTA) – With all the confusion, backbiting and alleged skullduggery involved in representing Israel in the Oscar race, the two films vying for the nod have created an intriguing story themselves.

At the center of the controversy are movies quite opposite in mood and tone.

“The Band’s Visit,” a bittersweet comedy directed by Eran Kolirin, is about an Egyptian police orchestra that gets stranded in a tiny development town in the Negev Desert.

“Beaufort” is a searing drama about the last Israeli unit to leave Lebanon in 2000 directed by American-born Joseph Cedar, whose “Time of Favor” and “Campfire” were two of Israel’s previous Oscar entries.

The brouhaha comes at a time when the Israeli film industry is gaining increasing international recognition and awards.

In fact, for the first time in 23 years, a film from the Jewish state seems to have a legitimate shot at being nominated for and even winning an American Academy Award.

So tension was high last month when the Israel Film Academy passed out the Ophir Awards, with the best picture winner automatically becoming the Israeli entry for Best Foreign Language Film honors at the Academy Awards.

When the votes had been counted, “The Band’s Visit” was named best film and Kolirin best director.

“The Band’s Visit” had already been picked up by prestigious Sony Pictures Classics for distribution in North America and much of the rest of the world.

Life was good. Then the plot thickened.

Although the Oscar category defined by the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is often called “Best Foreign Film,” the actual title is “Best Foreign Language Film.” The rules clearly spell out that an entry’s dialogue must be “predominantly,” or more than 50 percent, in the language of the submitting country.

Hebrew and Arabic are the official languages of Israel, but since the Israeli and Egyptian characters in “The Band’s Visit” converse in English, albeit broken, the American academy disqualified the Israeli entry and left the next move up to the Israel Film Academy.

The decision was hardly unprecedented. In the past two years, the American academy has rejected nine foreign films on the same grounds. One recent example was the Italian entry “Private,” which was ruled out because none of the characters spoke Italian. The producers claimed the film was turned down because of its pro-Palestinian slant.

How the Israel Film Academy slipped up on reading the rules is another question, which is now being debated in the Israeli press.

Recent reports had Israel appealing the disqualification decision. On Tuesday, however, the president of the Israel Film Academy, Marek Rosenbaum, told JTA by phone from Poland that “The Band’s Visit” had been withdrawn and “Beaufort” was now the official entry.

But the story doesn’t end here.

Once the qualification of “The Band’s Visit” was called into question, blogs and some print columns started reporting of a sabotage plot: The producers of “Beaufort” were accused of stealthily lobbying the American academy to disqualify “The Band’s Visit,” knowing that their film would move in as Israel’s Oscar contender.

In a phone interview Michael Barker, co-president and co-founder of the New York-based Sony Pictures Classics distributing “The Band’s Visit,” said that “from the beginning there was aggressive behavior looking to disqualify” the film.

In his 26 years in the film industry, Barker added, “I have seen sour grapes, but this goes way above normal.”

He termed the disqualification “a tragedy,” vowed to enter “The Band’s Visit” in other Oscar categories and predicted it would be a success when released in theaters in the middle of February.

Asked to specify his allegations, Barker referred all such questions to Ehud Bleiberg, head of Los Angeles-based Bleiberg Entertainment and producer of “The Band’s Visit.”

Bleiberg did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Until now, the team behind “Beaufort” has remained publicly silent on the controversy.

But at JTA’s request, producers David Zilber and David Mandil e-mailed a statement from Tel Aviv in which they categorically denied that anyone connected with “Beaufort” had ever approached the American academy regarding “The Band’s Visit.”

Zilber and Mandil wrote that “the false accusations leveled at ‘Beaufort’ by the producers and distributors of ‘The Band’s Visit’ are merely an attempt to escape liability for their own misleading of the American and Israeli academies and to find a scapegoat.”

Further, they said, “The producers of ‘The Band’s Visit’ and its distributors (Sony and others) will do well to take responsibility for their failure in this matter and cease making accusations against ‘Beaufort.’ Any such accusations will meet a suitable response and they will be obliged to take responsibility for their declarations.”

Ending on a sarcastic note, Zilber and Mandil wrote, “We applaud the producers and distributors of ‘The Band’s Visit’ on the media spin that no doubt will bring publicity viewers to their film. We are only sorry that such spin is at our expense.”

Although potential box office receipts and egos may have fueled the faceoff between the films, they also illustrate contrasting takes on how to garner the national prestige attendant to an Oscar nomination or victory.

No Israeli film has ever won an Oscar. The last to be among the five finalists was “Beyond the Walls” in 1984.

So what can be done to brighten the picture?

In many recent years, Israel academy voters have favored films highly critical of Israeli society and practically devoid of sympathetic characters. Examples are last year’s “Sweet Mud,” a downbeat picture of kibbutz life, and the previous year’s even more depressing “What a Wonderful Place,” which featured an array of Israeli pimps, lowlifes and corrupt cops.

It has been argued that Hollywood Jews, who are heavily represented on the foreign pictures selection committee, are turned off by such negative portrayals.

So the light-hearted “The Band’s Visit” might have been a welcome antidote to the previous gloomy films.

On the other hand, Israeli film critic Hannah Brown speculates that Oscar voters may more easily relate to Israelis portrayed in a military drama than the apolitical “The Band’s Visit.”

Stay tuned for the Jan. 22 Oscar nomination announcements.

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