Israelis vow Oscar victory next year


LOS ANGELES (JTA) – Disappointed but not downcast, Israeli filmmakers and their supporters vowed to come back strong next year after the country’s entry “Beaufort” lost out in the Oscar race for best foreign-language film.

“We have shown that Israel can make very good movies and we will prove it again next time,” Eli Eltonyo, one of “Beaufort’s” actors, told a cheering crowd of some 350 attending an Oscar party Sunday at the Hollywood night club Avalon.

An ebullient Yaakov Dayan, Israel’s consul general in Los Angeles, went further, shouting, “We’ll have a bigger party next year and we’ll take the Oscar, I promise you.”

“Beaufort” lost out to “The Counterfeiters,” which probes the moral dilemmas facing a special group of Jewish concentration camp inmates.

From its arrival three days before the Oscar ceremony, the “Beaufort” contingent became a celebratory rallying point for the large Israeli expatriate and general Jewish communities in Los Angeles, akin to a reception for Israeli athletes competing for Olympic gold.

At the Oscar party, hosted by the Israeli consulate, the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the StandWithUs organization, guests included Israeli pop idol Ninette Tayeb and 10 teenagers from Sderot here to participate in a benefit concert for the Negev town targeted by rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip.

“Beaufort” director Joseph Cedar, lead actor Oshri Cohen, and producers David Silber and Moshe Edry were accompanied by more than a dozen Israeli television reporters and hosts, among them Eli Yitzpan, dubbed “Israel’s David Letterman,” and anchors Aharon Barnea and Gil Tamary.

The intense coverage reflected the country’s pride that after a hiatus of 23 years, an Israeli film had made the list of five finalists among 63 foreign entries, as well as in the contents of the film itself.

“Beaufort” depicts the windup of the first Lebanon War in 2000 not in the glory of a 1967 victory, but in an indecisive and exhaustive ending – a small Israeli unit evacuates the medieval Beaufort fortress. The film’s strength lies in presenting its protagonists not as super warriors but rather as young men who acknowledge and face their fears.

The euphoria and high hopes “Beaufort” triggered were explained partially by Israel’s current mood and the apparent validation of Israel’s new standing on the international film scene.

“We Israelis are going through our regular manic-depressive cycle,” explained Ron Leshem, who wrote the book on which the film is based. “We’re hungry for good news.”

The good news Israelis were hoping for was that after six previous nominations, an Israeli film would finally take the top foreign-language prize.

A victory this time also would have put an emphatic exclamation point on what is frequently described as the “renaissance” of the Israeli movie industry.

The renaissance has been certified by a slew of awards at the most prestigious European and American film festivals, including Cannes, Berlin, Venice, Sundance and Tribeca for pictures such as “The Band’s Visit,” “Jellyfish,” “Lemon Tree,” “Walk on Water” and “Jossi & Jagger.”

In this year’s Oscar stakes, the five finalists for the foreign-language honors were the films put forward by Austria, Israel, Kazakhstan, Poland and Russia, but it seemed clear that the final choice would come down to “Beaufort” and the Austrian entry, “The Counterfeiters.”

The movie by Austrian filmmaker Stefan Ruzowitzky is based on one of the odder footnotes of World War II.

Some 100 Jews, all skilled engravers, photographers and one-time counterfeiters, were culled for “Operation Bernard” and given excellent treatment as long as they succeeded in turning out massive amounts of perfect imitation pounds and dollar bills to undermine the economies of Britain and the United States and to pay for the German war effort.

The tension in “The Counterfeiters” comes from the prisoners’ moral struggle on whether to collaborate with the Nazi scheme and gain at least temporary survival, or try to sabotage the operation at the cost of immediate death.

Even pro-Israel partisans who had seen “The Counterfeiters” acknowledged it was first class. Cedar and the producers of “Beaufort” were attending the Academy Awards at the Kodak Theatre and could not be reached for comment.

In his short acceptance speech, Ruzowitzky paid graceful tribute to the great Jewish movie directors of his country’s past.

“There have been some great Austrian filmmakers working here, thinking of Billy Wilder, Fred Zinnemann, Otto Preminger,” he said. “Most of them had to leave my country because of the Nazis, so it sort of makes sense that the first Austrian movie to win an Oscar is about the Nazis’ crimes.”

In an earlier interview with JTA, Ruzowitzky went further.

“My grandparents on both sides were Nazis, or Nazi sympathizers, so I felt a special responsibility to deal with the Holocaust era,” he said. “I felt an equal responsibility not to exercise moral judgment on the Jews who collaborated in Operation Bernard.”

There was some solace in the success of Jewish creative talent at the 80th Academy Awards. Brothers Joel and Ethan Coen – who have signed on to bring Michael Chabon’s “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” to the silver screen – were the big winners of the evening, capturing three Oscars for best picture, directing and adapted screenplay for their gritty contemporary Western, “No Country for Old Men.”

Britain’s Daniel Day-Lewis took acting honors as the greedy oil prospector in “There Will Be Blood.” Day-Lewis is the son of Jewish actress Jill Balcon and in his acceptance speech he thanked his grandfather, British film pioneer Sir Michael Balcon, as well as his wife, Rebecca, the daughter of the late playwright Arthur Miller.

Producer Eva Orner, an Australian native and Jewish day school graduate who now lives in New York, took home best-documentary honors for “Taxi to the Dark Side.” Filmed in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, the documentary investigates the death in custody of Dilawar, an Afghan taxi dricer who was found to have been abused while he was was chained to the ceiling of his U.S. cell in 2002.

“’Taxi’ is such an indictment of the U.S. Government and so critical,” Orner told the Australian Jewish News earlier this month. “People don’t protest any more, but maybe a movie can change their mind.”

On a lighter note, the host of this year’s Academy Awards ceremony, Jon Stewart, characteristically opened the event with a Jewish gag, noting that the Oscar contending film “Atonement” caught “the raw passion and sexuality of Yom Kippur.”

When the remark was greeted with applause, Stewart quipped, “Now we know where the Jews are in the audience.”

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