LOS ANGELES — Why can’t an Israeli film win an Oscar?
The perennial question, posed in various degrees of anguish, popped up again Sunday evening after “Ajami” failed to win the golden statuette after qualifying among the five finalists chosen from entries by 65 countries.
Israeli films have been among Oscar finalists nine times, starting with “Sallah Shabati” in 1965, but have never picked up the top prize.
Granted, in the early decades of the Israeli film industry, it was the rare product that could match production values, acting and directing with the more sophisticated foreign competition.
In addition, as American Jewish critics frequently pointed out, the Israeli Film Academy seemed to have a knack for submitting entries highly self-critical of Israeli society (“Sweet Mud,” “What a Wonderful Place”). In such movies, it was often difficult to identify a single sympathetic Israeli character.
The numerous Jewish judges on the U.S.-based academy selection committee may not all be ardent Zionists, but a good number were likely to be offended by such negative portrayals.
But in the last few years, the quality of the 14 or so films annually produced in Israel have taken a quantum leap upward.
The main reasons are the rise of a group of talented young filmmakers, who often cut their teeth on television shows; a parallel increase in skilled producers; and the focus on more relevant stories, according to Katriel Schory, executive director of the Israel Film Fund, a publicly funded agency that subsidizes most Israel-made films at a total rate of $5 million to $6 million per year.
One payoff has been that in each of the last three years, a critically acclaimed Israeli film has made the final five list in the foreign language film category.
In 2008 it was “Beaufort,” followed the next year by “Waltz with Bashir” — both powerful and innovative perspectives on Israel’s wars with Lebanon.
This year, although another war movie, “Lebanon,” was under serious consideration, the Israel Academy chose the offbeat “Ajami,” an insider view of Jewish-Arab and Arab-Arab tensions in the mixed quarter of the same name in Jaffa.
Despite very strong competition from many countries, foremost France and Germany, “Ajami” made the first cut to nine semifinalists, and then on to the five finalists.
To general surprise, the winner turned out to be the little-seen or publicized Argentine movie “The Secret in Their Eyes,” a thriller about an unsolved 25-year-old case involving the murder and rape of a young woman.
Critics have become used to odd choices by the foreign film selection committee, but this year’s pick seemed to repeat the previous year’s pattern too closely to be coincidental.
In both years, four of the five finalists were edgy, tough and innovative films, while the fifth tended to be softer, conventional and more in the Hollywood tradition.
Due mainly to a convoluted selection process, the judges on the selection committee tend to be older academy members with more time on their hands and more attuned to traditional movies.
Schory has no doubt that these circumstances led to the selection of the conventional Argentine film over the edgier entries, such as the highly favored “A Prophet” from France, “The White Ribbon” from Germany and “Ajami.”
“What happens is that a large portion of judges favored the one conventional film, while the rest split their votes among the more innovative films,” said Schory, who left Los Angeles immediately after the Oscar ceremonies to return to Israel.
A similar analysis was proposed last year by Kenneth Turan, the respected film critic of The Los Angeles Times, when the obscure Japanese film “Departures” beat out far more sophisticated entries from France, Germany and Israel.
However, Schory noted, Israeli filmmakers have no intention to change the styles or contents of their films to please the academy judges and boost the chances for an Oscar win.
“The 700 members of the Israel Academy pick the best film on its merits,” he said, “not what might please an overseas audience or judges.”