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February 16, 2012

‘Footnote’ could make this Israel’s year to win [VIDEO]

http://www.jewishjournal.com/oscars/article/will_footnote_make_this_israels_year_to_win_20120216

Shlomo Bar Aba as Eliezer Shkolnik. Photo by Ren Mendelson, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Shlomo Bar Aba as Eliezer Shkolnik. Photo by Ren Mendelson, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

For Israelis, winning the country’s first Oscar would be akin to scoring its first Olympic gold medal, which happened at the 2004 Games in Athens.

“If ‘Footnote’ gets the Academy Award for best foreign language film, the reaction would be tremendous,” Katriel Schory said recently, on the phone from Tel Aviv. “We need any piece of good news, and it would cheer everybody up.”

Schory has been active in the Israeli movie industry for four decades and has served as executive director of the Israel Film Fund for a dozen years. His knowledge of his country’s film evolution and current status is considered to be unequaled.

“Footnote,” by director-writer Joseph Cedar, has won a place among the five Oscar finalists, in competition against entries from 63 countries. This despite a highly unorthodox cinematic theme — a rivalry between two esteemed talmudic scholars, who are also father and son.

The film’s toughest rivals are likely to be Iran’s “A Separation” and Poland’s “In Darkness.”

In the first few decades of the state’s existence, Israeli filmmakers created some very appealing movies — including the unforgettable “Sallah” in 1964 — but, in general, the pictures lacked the professional sheen and production values to compete on the international level.

This situation has changed drastically in the last dozen years, as seen in a string of awards won by Israeli movies at prestigious international film festivals. Even more impressive, in four of the last five years, the Israeli entries have made the Academy Awards’ list of five finalists, though not yet grasping the golden statuette itself.

Story continues after the jump

Interview by Tom Tugend; Edited by Jeffrey Hensiek

Schory cites three reasons for the international recognition now accorded to Israeli films.

One is the strength of the films’ stories and subject matter, which are “daring, engaging, straightforward, told with chutzpah and rooted in our very turbulent society,” Schory said.

“We live on the edge at all times, amid endless conflicts in a multicultural society,” he added. “So, unlike [in] the U.S. and U.K., very few of our films are based on book adaptations. Our filmmakers have their own powerful stories to tell.”

Second, Schory cites a new generation of directors, trained in some 14 film schools in Israel, including one in Sderot that has stayed open despite rocket barrages from the nearby Gaza Strip.

Furthermore, Israeli youth have a chance to learn and polish their creative skills early on. In some 250 high schools, students can submit their own films as part of their matriculation examinations.

After the students graduate and enter the armed forces, they can frequently further hone their craft in film crews attached to military units.

Third, Schory said, “We have developed a cadre of skilled producers who can deliver a picture on time and within budget.”

Foreign observers frequently have expressed their surprise at the sharply critical attitude of Israeli films toward their own society and government, sometimes to the point of self-laceration.

Under the rules of the Israeli Film Academy, the best picture of the year chosen by its members automatically represents the country in the Oscar competition.

Among past winners have been “Life According to Agfa” and “What a Wonderful Place,” in which it was difficult to encounter a single decent Israeli character among the array of lowlifes, pimps and manipulators.

Even the military defending the country in a just-concluded war — a sacred cow in the United States and elsewhere — comes in for some sharp criticism in recent Israeli movies.

In a seeming irony, these and all other movies made in Israel are subsidized by government funds, a common practice everywhere in the world, except the United States.

Schory insists, and interviews with numerous Israeli producers and directors confirm, that the power of the purse is never used to enforce political correctness.

“We can pay up to 70 percent of a movie’s cost, and there’s no criterion other than the quality and promise of a project,” Schory insists. As for the movies’ storylines, “We are a self-critical people; we speak our minds, that’s part of our lives.”

Schory’s Israel Film Fund, designated as a non-government organization, operates on an average annual budget of $5.2 million, mere pocket change by Hollywood standards.

Still, that’s enough to provide the basic financial nut for between 14 and 18 feature films produced in Israel each year, out of some 200 proposals received in Schory’s office.

“Occasionally, we will get a script full of completely twisted facts,” Schory said. “In that case, the selection committee and I will ask the producer to come in and answer some questions. But we give the filmmaker a lot of leeway in interpreting the material. … In the last 12 years, I’ve green-lighted 150 feature films, and the process is all out in the open.”

Despite the tremendous pressures on the state budget for security, immigration and so forth, the allocations for the film fund rarely face opposition by Knesset members or outraged citizens.

There seems to be general agreement, at home and abroad, that Israeli films play a crucial role in boosting the country’s image in the outside world.

“There are beautiful things about Israel, and there are some ugly parts, like in any other country,” Schory observed. “What our films show is that we are not just about CNN bulletins and newspaper headlines, but that we are a complex, multifaceted society. We are not a one-track country.”

Circling back to the Academy Awards, Schory noted that an Israeli Oscar might have a benefit beyond raising national morale.

“I think an Oscar can only encourage our political establishment to continue its support of our film industry,” he said.

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