Helen Hunt in The Sessions, courtesy Fox Searchlight
Last Thursday, the Oscar nominations were announced. There were plenty of surprises, most notably the snubs of Ben Affleck and Kathryn Bigelow for Best Director. Many of the films I discussed in last week’s post, “The Role of Religion at the Golden Globes,” have also been recognized. The Rabbi’s Cat had no luck cracking the Best Animated Feature field, but there is still some Judaism to be found among the nominees. One filmmaker with Jewish roots, Benh Zeitlin, who was profiled in a piece by the Journal’s Naomi Pfefferman, found himself nominated for his first film alongside a veteran Jewish director, Steven Spielberg. Perhaps more interesting, however, is the Jewish content that populates several of the nominated films in two different categories.
The Best Documentary category is full of hard-hitting films with various focuses. How to Survive a Plague addresses AIDS, The Invisible War exposes sexual assault in the military, and Searching for Sugar Man examines the life of a famed musician. What’s considerably less expected is that the remaining two films in the category address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a major way. 5 Broken Cameras comes from Palestinian farmer Emad Burnat and filmmaker Guy Davidi, and follows a Palestinian family’s life in the West Bank. The Gatekeepers, from director Dror Moreh, presents candid interviews with six former heads of the Shin Bet, Israeli’s secret service. Both films address the difficulties of achieving piece between Israelis and Palestinians, broaching the topic from a liberal angle. Both films are sure to cause controversy, and it’s intriguing to see them nominated in the same race. 5 Broken Cameras arrives on DVD tomorrow and is currently available to watch free on Hulu. The Gatekeepers opens in LA theaters on February 1st.
The other place that Judaism shows up among this year’s nominees is in the film The Sessions. This wonderful movie tells the true story of Mark O’Brien, a writer who lives his life in an iron lung after being paralyzed by polio as a child. O’Brien, portrayed by John Hawkes, who missed out on an Oscar nomination after earning Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild mentions, consults his priest, Father Brendan, played by William H. Macy, to discuss the possibility of having sex for the first time. Father Brendan is an unusual but extremely compelling religious figure, struggling with his own concepts of sex outside marriage in this special case. Yet the film gets infinitely more interesting when Oscar nominee Helen Hunt first graces the screen, as sex therapist Cheryl Cohen-Greene. When Mark refers to her as a prostitute, she quickly differentiates what she does as something entirely unique. When she and Mark start to bond, Cheryl reveals that, as her last name might indicate, her husband is Jewish, and she is in the process of converting. One memorable scene in the film shows Cheryl at a mikvah, explaining to the religious woman there that she is not uncomfortable being naked. Cohen-Greene is in fact a real person and an author herself, and did go through the conversion process. The fact that the film shows this mikvah scene and attributes positive religious values to a character type not typically imbued with such qualities is terrific, and it’s refreshing to see such a fascinating portrait of Judaism in a film where the protagonist belongs to another religion.
It’s unlikely that, come Oscar night, Hunt will be able to defeat Anne Hathaway for the Best Supporting Actress prize, but it’s easily feasible that either of the two documentaries mentioned above could win that award. In the coming weeks, I’ll provide an in-depth look at each of them, and stay tuned for other awards-related happenings!