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Jewish Journal

Oscars are Coen ‘Country’ but a win is still foreign for Israeli filmmakers

by Tom Tugend

February 28, 2008 | 5:00 pm

Directors Ethan Coen, left, and Joel Coen pose with their Oscars for best director and adapted screenplay.

Directors Ethan Coen, left, and Joel Coen pose with their Oscars for best director and adapted screenplay.

Disappointed but not downcast, Israeli filmmakers and their supporters vowed to come back strong next year after the country's entry, "Beaufort," lost out in Sunday's Oscar race for best foreign-language film.

"We have shown that Israel can make very good movies, and we will prove it again next time," Eli Eltonyo, a "Beaufort" actor, told a cheering crowd of some 350 attending an Oscar party at the Hollywood night club Avalon. An ebullient Yaacov Dayan, Israel's resident consul general, went further, shouting, "We'll have a bigger party next year, and we'll take the Oscar, I promise you."

There was some solace in the success of Jewish creative talent at the 80th Academy Awards. Brothers Joel and Ethan Coen were the big winners of the evening, each capturing three Oscars for their gritty contemporary Western "No Country for Old Men" -- for best picture, directing and adapted screenplay.

Britain's Daniel Day-Lewis took acting honors as the greedy oil prospector in "There Will Be Blood." Day-Lewis is the son of Jewish actress Jill Balcon, and in his acceptance speech he thanked his grandfather, British film pioneer Sir Michael Balcon, as well as his wife Rebecca, daughter of the late playwright Arthur Miller.

The evening's host, Jon Stewart, characteristically opened the ceremonies with a Jewish gag, noting that the Oscar contending movie "Atonement" caught "the raw passion and sexuality of Yom Kippur."

When the remark was greeted with applause, Stewart quipped, "Now we know where the Jews are in the audience."

From its arrival three days before the Oscar ceremony, the "Beaufort" contingent became a celebratory rallying point for the large Israeli expatriate and general Jewish communities, akin to a reception for Israeli athletes competing for Olympic gold.

At the Oscar party hosted by the Israeli consulate, Los Angeles Jewish Federation, and StandWithUs, guests included Israeli pop idol Ninette Tayeb and 10 teenagers from Sderot, here to participate in a benefit concert for the Negev town targeted by rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip.

"Beaufort" director Joseph Cedar, lead actor Oshri Cohen and producers David Silber and Moshe Edry were accompanied by more than a dozen Israeli television reporters and hosts, among them Eli Yitzpan and anchors Aharon Barnea and Gil Tamary.

The intense coverage reflected the country's pride that, after a hiatus of 23 years, an Israeli film had made the final five list among 63 foreign entries.

"Beaufort" depicts the windup of the first Lebanon War in the year 2000, not in the glory of a 1967 victory but in an indecisive and exhaustive ending. The film's strength lies in presenting its protagonists not as super warriors, but rather as young men who acknowledge and face their fears.

The euphoria and high hopes "Beaufort" triggered were explained partially by Israel's current mood and by the apparent validation of Israel's new standing on the international film scene.

"We Israelis are going through our regular manic-depressive cycle," explained Ron Leshem, who wrote the book on which the film is based. "We're hungry for good news."

The good news Israelis were hoping for was that after six previous nominations, an Israeli film would finally take the top prize.

A win this time would have also put an exclamation point to what is often described as the "renaissance" of the Israeli movie industry.

The renaissance has been certified by a slew of awards at the most prestigious European and American film festivals at Cannes, Berlin, Venice, Sundance and Tribeca for pictures such as "The Band's Visit," "Jellyfish," "Lemon Tree," "Walk on Water" and "Jossi & Jagger."

"The Israeli film industry has really matured in the last few years," Jewish Federation President John Fishel observed. "I fully expect to see an Israeli Oscar winner in the near future."

In this year's Oscar stakes, the five finalists were the films of Austria, Israel, Kazakhstan, Poland and Russia, but it seemed clear that the final choice would be between "Beaufort" and the Austrian entry "Counterfeiters."

The movie by Austrian filmmaker Stefan Ruzowitzky is based on one of the odder footnotes of World War II and probes the moral dilemmas facing a special group of Jewish concentration camp inmates.

Some 100 Jews, all skilled engravers, photographers and one-time counterfeiters, were culled for "Operation Bernard" and given excellent treatment as long as they succeeded in turning out massive amounts of perfect imitation pound and dollar bills to undermine the economies of Britain and the United States and to pay for the German war effort.

The film's tension comes from the prisoners' moral struggle on whether to collaborate with the Nazi scheme and gain at least temporary survival, or try to sabotage the operation at the cost of immediate death.

Even pro-Israel partisans who had seen "Counterfeiters" acknowledged that the Austrian entry was first-class, though Cedar and "Beaufort's" producers were attending the actual Academy Awards at the Kodak Theatre and could not be reached immediately for comment.

In his short acceptance speech, Ruzowitzky paid graceful tribute to the great Jewish movie directors of his country's past.

"There have been some great Austrian filmmakers working here, thinking of Billy Wilder, Fred Zinnemann, Otto Preminger, most of them had to leave my country because of the Nazis, so it sort of makes sense that the first Austrian movie to win an Oscar is about the Nazis' crimes."

In an earlier interview with The Journal, Ruzowitzky went further.

"My grandparents on both sides were Nazis, or Nazi sympathizers, so I felt a special responsibility to deal with the Holocaust era," he said. "I felt an equal responsibility not to exercise moral judgment on the Jews who collaborated in Operation Bernard."

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