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Jewish/Israel-themed movies vie for Oscar

by  Tom Tugend

December 16, 2013 | 1:23 pm

An Oscar statue is seen beneath plastic sheeting during preparations for the 83rd Academy Awards in Hollywood, California February 26, 2011. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Producers and directors in 76 countries will be biting their nails when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announces the Oscar nominees for best foreign language film.

Besides providing a test of cinematic skills in countries ranging from Afghanistan to Venezuela, the entries also serve as a rough indicator of themes of interest to international filmmakers, and, presumably, to the audiences in their countries.

By that measure – and regular somber predictions by pundits notwithstanding -- films on Jewish themes, including the Holocaust and the Middle East conflict, are not passé, as shown by challenging submissions from four countries.

Both the Israeli and Palestinian entries this year reflect the intensity of their continuing conflict, but preoccupation with this theme is not a given. Israel’s previous two choices, for instance, were “Footnote,” which dealt with academic rivalries, and last year’s “Fill the Void,” about life and love among the ultra-Orthodox.

Israel’s current hopes rest with “Bethlehem,” which pits the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, against diverse Palestinian factions eager to blow up the Jewish state.

In Hollywood’s hands, such a plotline would be a no-brainer, with the guys in the white hats mopping up the floor with the bad guys.
However, as the film’s producer Talia Kleinhandler notes, “What I think is important about this story is that it never attempts to give a clear answer about right and wrong. All the characters in ‘Bethlehem’ are flawed, all are vulnerable. There is no black and white in the film, only painful shades of gray – like the reality we all live in here.”

If this assessment makes it sound like a namby-pamby movie, full of on-the-one-hand-but-on-on-the-other-hand agonizing, “Bethlehem,” named for the West Bank city where the action unfolds, is anything but.

Co-written by Yuval Adler, an Israeli Jew who served in an army intelligence unit, and Ali Waked, a Palestinian Muslim and journalist, “Bethlehem” is a nail-biting thriller with enough intrigue and bullets to keep the most demanding action fan satisfied.

The film’s time and setting is the second intifada, from roughly 2000 to 2005, and in the opening scene, Palestinian suicide bombers have struck in the heart of Jerusalem, with scores of dead and wounded.

The central protagonists are Razi, a veteran Shin Bet (or Shabak) agent, and Sanfur, a 17-year old Palestinian recruited by Razi as an informer two years earlier.

But Sanfur isn’t just any kid with a hankering for American jeans. He is the younger brother of Ibrahim, the local leader of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, whom Razi has been hunting for over a year.

Like almost everything in the movie, and in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict it depicts, the connection between the seasoned Israeli agent and the teenage Palestinian boy is complex and often contradictory, ultimately developing into a wary father-son relationship.

While the movie’s Palestinian militants hate Israel, they dislike their internal rivals with equal intensity. The secular al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, affiliated with Fatah, contemptuously refers to the fervently Islamic Hamas as the “beards,” who in turn loathe the corrupt bureaucrats of the Palestinian Authority.

Another remarkable aspect of “Bethlehem” is that almost everyone involved in making the movie is pretty much of a novice.

The strong acting lineup, foremost Shadi Mar’i as Sanfur and Tsahi Halevy as Razi, consists almost entirely of first-time actors. Furthermore, for both Adler and Waked, “Bethlehem” is their first feature film.

Adler, 44, said in an interview at a Hollywood hotel that his film debut as director and co-writer is a major hit in its home country, and won a fistful of awards, including best picture, at the Israeli equivalent of the Academy Awards.

Hany Abu-Assad, director of the Palestinian entry “Omar,” won critical praise for two previous films, “Paradise Now” and “Rana’s Wedding.” In these pictures, the protagonists did not hide their antagonism toward Israel, but still the latter were portrayed as recognizable human beings, not Nazi-like monsters.

Actually, there were times when Israelis shown in Palestinian films were often more likeable than in such self-lacerating Tel Aviv productions as “Life According to Agfa” and “What a Wonderful Country.”

Abu-Assad foregoes such balance in “Omar,” in which the title character and the beautiful Nadja pine for each other on opposite side of the Separation Wall, in Israeli terminology, or the isolation Wall in the Palestinian dictionary.

In the process of jumping the wall and participating in the shooting of an Israeli soldier, Omar (Adam Bakri) is caught by Israeli undercover agents, who first torture him and then try to turn him into a collaborator.

Distrusted by the Israelis and reviled as a traitor by his own people, Omar is driven to one last desperate act.

Argentina’s Oscar hope, “The German Doctor,” is set in the post-World War II decades, when the South American nation became a haven for Nazi war criminals, sheltered by the Argentinian military government and the long-established German colonies.

The German doctor of the title is Dr. Josef Mengele, the Auschwitz “Angel of Death,” whose cold-blooded medical experiments put him high on the Allied and Israeli list of fugitive war criminals.

Feeling safe in the southern Argentinian city of Bariloche, Mengele resumes his experiments to “improve” the species, initially on livestock. After a local family befriends him, he transfers his ministrations to spur the growth of the undersized daughter, and then resumes his earlier “research” on newborn twins.

Almost as unsettling are the open Nazi sympathies of the local German community, whose school starts classes with the lusty singing of the German national anthem, and an openly advertised fiesta annually celebrates the Fuhrer’s birthday.

When the news break that Mossad agents have captured Adolf Eichmann to bring him to trial in Jerusalem, the German underground spirits Mengele to Paraguay.

Alex Brendemuhl as the poker-faced Mengele heads a generally capable, though not particularly brilliant, cast, directed by Lucia Puenzo.

The most surprising of the cited four Oscar contenders is the Philippines’ “Transit,” which probes the precarious existence of some of the 40,000 Filipinos working in Israel, mainly as caretakers of the elderly.

Initially given relative freedom to work and raise their children in Israel, the Filipino migrants were hit hard by a 2010 residency law, triggered by the government’s determination to preserve the Jewish character and demography of Israel.

The primary target of the law was the growing number of Africans entering the country legally and illegally, but the Filipinos were the collateral victim of a measure under which non-Jewish children who had spent less than five years in Israel could be deported to their parents’ home country.

That meant that kids born in Israel, who spoke only Hebrew among themselves and felt as Israelis, suddenly faced the prospect of separation from their parents and exile to a strange land. Eventually, the Israeli Supreme Court invalidates some of the harshest aspects of the law.

“Transit,” directed and co-written by Filipina filmmaker Hannah Espia, is told from the individual perspectives of two nuclear families living together – single mother Janet and rebellious teenage daughter Yael, and the mother’s brother Moises, a caretaker and single father of four-year old Joshua.

The dilemma facing these four people, and to a greater extent some 10 million Filipinos working outside their home country, is handled with sensitivity and without Israel bashing.

Israelis, especially the elderly employers of the migrant workers, are generally shown as sympathetic to the plight of the Filipinos. Police and government officials enforcing the anti-immigrant laws do so without humiliating the migrants, but neither do they question the government orders.

In Hollywood, the annual game of predicting likely Oscar nominees and winners is now in full swing, though doing so for foreign-language movies is particularly hazardous.

In past years, the choices of the selection committee have been loudly criticized as highly erratic and labyrinthine regulations have led to the disqualification of highly regarded submissions, a fate that this year befell France’s much discussed “Blue Is the Warmest Color.”

Current prognostications favor Iran’s “The Past” by director Asghar Farhadi, wo won the Oscar two years ago with “A Separation.”

Also winning early plaudits are Denmark’s “The Hunt” and Hong Kong’s “The Grandmaster,” while there is some sentimental support for “Wadja,” the first ever Saudi Arabian submission, with the added boost that is was diected by a woman, Haifaa Al Mansour.

Israel’s “Bethlehem” is frequently listed in the second tier of contenders, and in a good position to make it into the top ranks, while the Philippines’ “Transit “has drawn favorable mentions.

By one of the quirks of the Academy calendar, a shortlist of nine foreign-language nominees will be announced this Friday (Dec. 20), and a winnowed down list of five nominees on Jan. 16. The final winners will raise their trophies on Oscar Sunday, March 2, in Hollywood.

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