Israel is out and Palestine is in the Oscar race, as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced on Dec. 20 its nine semi-finalists in the best foreign-language film category.
Both Israel’s entry, “Bethlehem,” and the Palestinian “Omar” reflect the intensity of the continuing conflict. Director Hany Abu-Assad of “Omar” won critical praise for two previous films, “Paradise Now” and “Rana’s Wedding,” in which the Palestinian protagonists did not hide their antagonism toward Israel but the Israeli foes were nevertheless portrayed as recognizable human beings, rather than soulless sadists.
Abu-Assad largely forgoes such balance in “Omar,” in which the title character and the beautiful Nadia pine for each other on opposite sides 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.
By contrast, in “Bethlehem,” director Yuval Adler and co-writer Palestinian journalist Ali Wakad, draws no moral judgments in the struggle between Shin Bet, the Israeli internal security agency, against Hamas and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade.
As the film’s producer, Talia Kleinhendler, put it, “There is no black and white in this film, only painful shades of gray — like the reality we all live in here.”
This year, a record 76 countries, from Afghanistan to Venezuela, entered their best films. As usual, the choice of nominees by the unpredictable selection committee stunned many professional prognosticators.
Most surprising was the omission of top favorite “The Past” by Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, who won the Academy Award two years ago with “A Separation.” Similarly slighted was the heavily promoted “Wadja,” the first-ever submission by Saudi Arabia.
Historically, Abu-Assad’s earlier movie, “Paradise Now,” ignited a fierce debate on how to label the sponsoring entity, with the Academy vacillating between Palestinian Authority, Palestinian Territories and, finally, Palestine. With tempers somewhat cooled, all sides seems to have accepted the last designation.
Israeli filmmakers have had their ups and downs over the decades, but their record of 10 nominations places Israel among the 10 most nominated countries.
“Sallah” (aka “Sallah Shabati”), Israel’s very first entry in 1964, won a surprise nomination and launched Chaim Topol’s career in the role of an elderly Sephardic immigrant from North Africa.
Since then, Israel’s record has oscillated between clumps of nominations in the early 1970s and again between 2007 and 2011, alternating with long dry spells, notably one lasting 23 years, from 1984 to 2007.
Despite fervent prayers, the Israeli film industry has yet to bring home its first Academy Award.
The shortlist of five finalists in the foreign-language and other categories will be announced on Jan. 16. The final winners will hoist their trophies on Oscar Sunday, March 2, in Hollywood.