October 18, 2007
Possible Oscar at stake in Israeli film fight
'The Band's Visit' vs. 'Beaufort'
The story of two movies vying to represent Israel in the Oscar race is full of intrigue, confusion, backbiting and alleged skullduggery.
The films themselves are also quite interesting.
The brouhaha comes at a time when the Israeli film industry is gaining increasing international recognition and awards and for the first time in 23 years seems to have a serious shot at being nominated -- and even winning -- an American Academy Award.
So tension was high last month when the Israel Film Academy passed out the Ophir awards, Israel's equivalent of the Oscar, with the best picture winner automatically becoming Israel's entry for Best Foreign Language Film honors at the American Academy Awards.
There were two frontrunners, quite opposite in mood and tone. One was "The Band's Visit," described by the Jerusalem Post as "a charming, bittersweet comedy about an Egyptian police orchestra that gets lost and ends up spending a night at a tiny development town in the Negev." [CLICK FOR 'THE BAND's VISIT' TRAILER]
By contrast, "Beaufort" is a searing drama about the last Israeli unit to leave Lebanon in 2000. Its director is American-born Joseph Cedar, whose "Time of Favor" and "Campfire" were two of Israel's previous Oscar entries.
When the votes had been counted, "Band's Visit" won hands down for best picture and best directing honors for Eran Kolirin.
"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, and 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 "Band's Visit" converse in (broken) English, the American Academy disqualified the Israeli entry and left the next move up to its Israeli counterpart.
The decision was hardly unprecedented. In the past two years, the 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, though the producers claimed the film was turned down because of its pro-Palestinian slant.
How the Israel Academy slipped up on reading the rules is another question, which is now being debated in the Israeli press.
In recent days there were various reports that Israel would appeal the disqualification decision. However, on Tuesday, Marek Rosenbaum, president of the Israel Academy, told The Journal in a phone call from Poland that "Band's Visit" has been withdrawn and "Beaufort" was now the official entry.
But that's hardly the end of the story. Once the qualification of "Band's Visit" was called into question, blogs and some print columns started reporting that the producers of "Beaufort" had stealthily lobbied the American Academy to disqualify "Band's Visit," knowing that "Beaufort" would then become the Oscar contender.
In a phone interview, Michael Barker, co-president and co-founder of Sony Pictures Classics, said that "from the beginning there was aggressive behavior looking to disqualify 'The Band's Visit,'" which his company is distributing.
Barker added that in his 26 years in the film industry, "I have seen sour grapes, but this goes way above normal."
He termed the film's disqualification "a tragedy," vowed to enter the movie in other Oscar categories, and predicted it would be a success when released in theaters in the middle of February.
Asked to specify his charges, Barker referred all such questions to Ehud Bleiberg, head of Los Angeles-based Bleiberg Entertainment and producer of "Band's Visit."
Bleiberg did not respond to repeated requests for comments.
The "Beaufort" filmmakers have remained publicly silent on the controversy, but at The Journal's request, producers David Zilber and David Mandil e-mailed a statement from Tel Aviv.
They categorically denied that anyone connected with "Beaufort" had ever approached the American Academy regarding "Band's Visit."
Taking off the gloves, the producers 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."
Furthermore, "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 face-off between the two films, the very different moods of the two films also illustrate contrasting takes on how to garner the national prestige attendant to an Oscar nomination or win.
No Israeli film has ever won an Oscar, and 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 "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 "Band's Visit."
Stay tuned for the Jan. 22 Oscar nomination announcements.