January 22, 2004
Starry, Starry Political Night
Mideast politics invade foreign film nominations.
The ripple effects of Mideast politics are spreading as far as Hollywood's glamour-studded Oscar awards.
On Jan. 27 at 5:30 a.m., when the nominations for the Academy Awards are announced, moviemakers from 55 countries will listen most intently for the names of the five finalists in the category of best foreign-language film.
Competition is between countries -- this year ranging from Afghanistan to Venezuela -- with each nation allowed one film.
So there was some puzzlement when the "country" of Palestine appeared on this year's list, represented by the film, "Divine Intervention." A year ago, the same film was denied entry by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, leading to heated charges of Zionist conspiracies in the Arab media.
Producer Mark Johnson is the chairman of the Foreign Language Film Selection Committee and he presented the rationale for accepting the Palestinian entry.
"As a basic guideline, we try to be as inclusive as possible, to look for reasons to include, rather than exclude," Johnson said in an interview.
"In a perfectly ordered world, we would only accept entries from recognized countries. But in reality, we have now entries from Hong Kong, which is part of China, and from Taiwan, which is not recognized by the United Nations. In the past, we've included Puerto Rico, a U.S. commonwealth."
Johnson said he asked his executive committee of a dozen members to review the Palestinian case, and they voted unanimously to accept "Divine Intervention."
The reason the same entry was rejected last year, he said, was that entries can be submitted only by a country's duly constituted body of actors, writers and directors, similar to the academy in the United States.
Last year, "Divine Intervention" was submitted instead by its French producer, which was against the rules. This year, Johnson's committee was satisfied that a proper organization of artists existed under the Palestinian Authority, which re-entered the same movie.
Even film industry insiders and observers known for their strong pro-Israel stands have accepted the committee's decision.
"In general, the academy has avoided becoming politicized in the past, and I have to believe that this holds in this case, too," said producer-writer Lionel Chetwynd, a frequent spokesman for Hollywood's political right, and his views are echoed by Swiss producer Arthur Cohn.
Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and himself winner of two Oscars for documentaries, said he would be troubled if the Palestinian entry were an exception to normal rules.
"However, if this represents only a liberal interpretation of the rules, I can see no objection," he said.
Johnson said he had received no complaints from the academy's large Jewish membership.
Israel's entry this year is "Nina's Tragedies," which in contrast to the highly politicized "Divine Intervention" and other recent Palestinian films, is an inoffensive "sad comedy," which largely ignores the country's tribulations and confrontations.
Surprisingly, the most "Jewish" film among the foreign entries is Bulgaria's "Journey to Jerusalem," which is also considerably more entertaining than either the Israeli or Palestinian movies.
It centers on two Jewish youngsters, a brother and sister younger than 10, who flee Nazi Germany in 1942, hoping to reach Palestine. When their accompanying uncle dies en route, the two children find themselves stranded in Sofia.
Left penniless and friendless in a country whose language they cannot understand, the children are adopted by a down-at-the-heels trio, who take their hokey magic act to small towns along the Bulgarian countryside. In the end, the traveling troupe pools what little money it has to buy the youngsters passage to Palestine.
Director Ivan Nichev said that his film is based on a true story and also serves as a tribute to the people of Bulgaria, who saved their 50,000 Jewish countrymen from extermination in 1943.
Nichev's earlier film, "After the End of the World," centered on an Israeli professor who returns to his Bulgarian birthplace after World War II.