Posted by JewishJournal
The Israeli film “Ajami” has received an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film.
At an announcement ceremony Tuesday morning, nominees for best foreign language film included Germany’s “The White Ribbon,” the likely front-runner after taking the same prize at the Golden Globes and top honors at last May’s Cannes Film Festival. Also nominated were the Cannes runner-up, “A Prophet,” and Israel’s “Ajami,” Argentina’s “The Secret in Their Eyes” and Peru’s “The Milk of Sorrow.”
Ajami interweaves the stories of Arabs and Jews in a depressed neighborhood in Jaffa, at the southern end of Tel Aviv. It was made without professional actors by first-time directors Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani. It is largely in Arabic—a first for an Israeli Academy nominee.
At a screening of the movie last month at the Creative Artists Agency, Copti, a mechanical engineer by profession, told The Jewish Journal he attended a film making workshop Shani was leading where the two began talking about a film set in Copti’s neighborhood of Ajami. The two collaborated on a year-long process that involved recruiting non-professional actors and leading them through what Shani called “psychological execises” to inhabit the characters they would play.
The results are all on screen: Ajami is gripping, fresh and raw—it works both as a slice of life drama, in the style of the 2009 Italian movie Gomorrah, and as a reflection on the greater forces—Israeli v. Palestinian, religious v. secular—that affect the characters’ lives.
By focusing on the personal, said Copti at the CAA screening, the filmmakers hoped to illuminate the universal.
Go see Ajami at the Laemmle Theaters later this month and you’ll see they succeeded.
Here is what Jordan Elgrably wrote about the movie last week on jewishjournal.com:
Lost in all the international debate on the Israeli-Palestinian question is the fact that Israel has become a complex multicultural society. No film makes that more evident than Ajami—Israel’s strong entry into this season’s Oscar race.
Shot with mostly non-professional actors by Arab and Jewish co-directors Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani, the film is a harsh reality-check on the country’s healthcare system, relations between police and the citizenry, inter-Arab gang rivalries, and the rift that separates Jews, Christians and Muslims.
The film explores five different stories in Ajami, an inner-city hood in Jaffa, which is to Tel Aviv as the Valley is to L.A. The narrative centers around a corrupt Jewish cop and several working-class Arabs, most of whom are bilingual although their cultural identity is strongly Palestinian. It is a gritty drama shot with a small budget, and the novice actors do some great—sometimes stupendous—work. The structure borrows from Memento and The Usual Suspects as it is fragmented and broken into chapters that are juxtaposed so as to play with our expectations of time.
The Arabs in the film come across as real people, even if most of them are involved in nefarious activity of one kind or another. The Jews are also real people who are not better or worse than the Arabs. There is racism in both directions, even as some characters are struggling to break free of boundaries: when for instance Hadir (Ranin Karim), a young Christian Arab woman, falls in love with Omar (Shahir Kabaha) and wants to marry him, her father considers a Muslim off-limits. Or when Binj—a Palestinian played by co-director Scandar Copti—wants to move in with his Israeli girlfriend, his friends think he’s become too comfortable with the Jews and stalk away angrily.
Ajami is not about the occupation per se, and its marketing campaign insists that it is “apolitical”; yet almost nothing about Israel and the Palestinians can ever escape the grim reality that has characterized this strained relationship since 1948.
To better understand Ajami’s reception inside Israel, it is instructive to read what Haaretz, the country’s liberal daily, had to say about Ajami after it had won attention at Cannes last year and then walked away with one of the country’s top film awards, the Ophir:
“First it should be said that the film Ajami is a masterpiece by any standard, and it rightfully garnered the Wolgin and Ophir prizes for best film. It is surprising, gut-wrenching, fascinating, shocking and brimming with humanity; written and shot wisely; directed and acted meticulously and powerfully; and accompanied by an excellent score….But another amazing achievement is not obvious: The film that will represent Israel to the world is in Arabic and was directed and written by two Israelis, an Arab and a Jew. One feels like shouting for joy.”
Yes, Ajami is almost entirely in Arabic, and this is perhaps the most surprising and ultimately rewarding pleasure of all, because in truth Israel has long thought itself a European outpost on the eastern Mediterranean seaboard. It has favored its relationships with Europe and the United States, while treating its Levantine and Middle Eastern neighbors like backwater cousins. Now it has become apparent that Israel’s Arabs (20% of the population) and Jews from Arab countries including Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia (nearly 50% of Israel’s Jewish population), are the country’s dominant cultural force. The question is, will Arabs and Arab Jews manage to coexist in such a way as to influence the formation of a neighboring Palestinian state, at long last?
Despite its grim storylines (ailing mothers who can’t afford the operations that will save their lives, Arabs killing each other for drugs or money or both, corrupt Jewish police who will stop at nothing to avenge Jewish deaths), Ajami proves satisfying because it demonstrates that Israel’s Arabs and Jews can and do work well together. It is quite powerful to see Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani together, speaking about their film, as I did during an early preview screening in January. As they walked on stage to introduce Ajami, Copti and Shani seemed almost related, like brothers or cousins. Their film reinforces the fact that there is ultimately very little that separates Arabs and Jews.
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February 2, 2010 | 10:44 am
Posted by Danielle Berrin
In a quick ten minute announcement, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences President Tom Sherak and actress Anne Hathaway announced the 2010 Oscar nominations.
Here’s a roundup of some of the nods that matter to the Jews: (Criteria for films mattering to Jews means they either were created or performed by Jewish people or had some kind of Jewish theme or content)
UP IN THE AIR: Best Picture (Daniel Dubiecki, Jason Reitman, Ivan Reitman), Directing (Jason Reitman), Adapted Screenplay (Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner), Lead Actor (George Clooney), Supporting Actress X 2 (Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick)
***Reitman’s screenwriting nod is controversial due to major dispute between Reitman and co-writer Sheldon Turner about who’d get credit. Reitman took sole credit all along until the two writers had to go to arbitration before the WGA—and Turner won. See ‘A screenwriting dispute over Reitman’s ‘Up in the Air’
INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS: Best Picture (Lawrence Bender), Original Screenplay (Quentin Tarantino), Directing (Quentin Tarantino, Supporting Actor (Christophe Waltz)
***Tarantino should get an honorary Jew menschen for his historical revision of WWII in which a bunch of strong-armed Jewish bandits take Hitler and Himmler down in a fiery blaze. See “Revenge of the Jews, Tarantino Style”
A SERIOUS MAN: Best Picture (Joel and Ethan Coen), Original Screenplay (Joel and Ethan Coen)
***Some accused the Coen bros’ most Jewish film of being soberingly stereotypical. Based on their Midwestern Jewish upbringing, the film raises timeless questions about faith and certainly didn’t portray rabbis with any kind of reverence.
AN EDUCATION: Best Picture (Finola Dwyer and Amanda Posey), Lead Actress (Carey Mulligan), Adapted Screenplay (Nick Hornby)
THE HURT LOCKER: Best Picture, Directing (Kathryn Bigelow), Original Screenplay (Mark Boal)
***Screenwriter Mark Boal is Jewish so look out for an upcoming profile in our Feb. 26 Oscar issue
AJAMI: Foreign Language Film (Israel)
Israel’s Ajami is co-written and directed by a Jew and an Arab and features dialogue mainly in Arabic. The New York Times said of the film, “In a conflict where each side lives and breathes its own victimhood, feeling the hurt of the other is a challenge. ‘Ajami’ meets it.”
ALSO NOMINATED in the Supporting Actress category is Maggie Gyllenhaal for CRAZY HEART
Stay tuned to Hollywood Jew for continuing Oscar coverage through the March 7 ceremony…
February 2, 2010 | 5:44 am
Posted by Danielle BerrinWatch the live video feed below and follow along as we tweet live during the nominations. Feb. 2 at 5:30am
February 2, 2010 | 3:38 am
Posted by Larry Mark
Last Friday, the Sundance Institute hosted the third annual “Shabbot at Sundance” party in or patrons, filmmakers, community members… and me. What started as a Friday evening dinner for 20 a few years ago has grown into a buffet, outreach, and mingling event for ten times that number.
Held high above the town, at the Park City residence of Sundance Institute patrons Nancy and Mark Gilbert – influencial early supporters of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign—a Shabbat Shirah full moon illuminated the winding, steep, and at points icy, road up to their home. Attendees included leaders and programmers of the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, members of the regional Jewish community, philanthropists, a Utah state senator, a regional mayor and deputy mayor, as well as filmmakers.
After a blessing over the wine and the large, braided challot were happily passed around, Kevin Asch, director of “Holy Rollers” (a feature film about Hasidic drug mules) was invited to say a few words, followed by Sundance Institute leaders, who discussed the history of their outreach to new filmmakers in the Middle East, Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian territories. In 2010, they revealed, the Sundance Institute will travel to Israel to lead workshops for three Israeli female filmmakers in whom they see great potential. Next to speak was Yael Herzonski, director of “A Film Unfinished,“ a Germany/Israel co-production about found film footage from the Warsaw Ghetto, which went on to receive the festival’s world cinema documentary editing prize.
“A Film Unfinished” is the story of a movie that was never completed; apparently it was intended to serve as propaganda for the Third Reich, an empire that was in love with the camera and documented its own atrocities. The Warsaw Ghetto, before its destruction in 1942, was the squalid home for half a million Jews living in three square miles, where poverty and typhus were rampant.
A decade after the end of WWII, East German archivists discovered a secret vault in the forest filled with film canisters. Among the canisters was a one-hour film titled, “Das Ghetto 1942,” a rough first draft cut of a film about the Warsaw Ghetto, without any notes or soundtrack. The filmmakers’ intentions are no longer known: Perhaps the plan was to use it to show the life of Jews and justify their liquidation?
The found footage, in four small reels, had been used by archivists and documentary filmmakers over the past several decades to show what life was like in the ghetto. The images— previously accepted as reality—have now been proven to be a cinematic deception, as the Nazis had staged nearly all the scenes.
Hersonski’s documentary shows this film in its entirety for the first time, as well as a reel of outtakes depicting staged takes from various angles, unintentionally capturing glimpses of SS cameramen behind the scenes.
In another scene, three rabbis arrive at the office of Adam Czerniakov, the head of the Ghetto’s appointed Judenrat council, to petition him on an issue. A peculiar, lit menorah sits on his desk, as if Jews use menorahs for reading lights. But it was a staged scene; an actor played Czerniakov. How did Hersonski know it was a fabrication? Because Czerniakov’s diaries, which were found after the war, detail how SS filmmakers took over his offices and his apartment, and filmed throughout the ghetto in May 1942. As the Nazis began the ghetto’s final liquidation three months later, Czerniakov committed suicide after hiding his diaries.
After Hersonski’s grandmother, a survivor of the Warsaw ghetto, died four years ago, the filmmaker searched for materials that could tell her more about her grandmother’s story. There was not much material, not even at Yad Vashem. But Hersonski had heard of the archived footage and, upon viewing it, was stunned by the images. Thus began her project to illuminate the fraudulent footage. “The images speak their own testimony,” Hersonski said at the Shabbat dinner. “We learn about the victims mainly through the images taken by the perpetrators. This was not an easy journey to make this film and to watch these images every day for a year,” she added. “I wanted to present it as a powerful documentation. Even though it is staged, the gaze and eyes of the people being filmed express the truth that cannot be denied by the cinematic manipulation.”
February 1, 2010 | 8:13 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
An announcement is expected later this week that Steven Spielberg’s next directorial project will be about world famous Jewish composer George Gershwin.
Potentially starring as Gershwin will be Zachary Quinto, who last played the young Spock in J.J. Abrams’ megahit “Star Trek.” Though Quinto is not Jewish, he does count himself as a distinctive ethnic breed: half Irish and half Italian. Which means maybe he could pull it off—he broods, has dark hair and inherited the “Star Trek” role originally played by Jewish Leonard Nimoy.
There are always six degrees of everything in Jewish Hollywood - maybe less.
From Nikki Finke:
Quinto will play the famed composer and pianist, who with brother Ira was responsible for more than a dozen Broadway shows before dying at 38. DreamWorks is even supplying accent and dialogue coaches for Quinto, and shooting could begin as soon as April. Doug Wright wrote the script, and Marc Platt and singer/pianist Michael Feinstein are producing. A DreamWorks insider says this is one of 3 projects Spielberg is looking at for his next piccause he’s anxious to get back to work. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s an announcement later this week.
February 1, 2010 | 6:35 pm
Posted by Larry Mark
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is best known from his years as a teen actor on TV’s “3rd Rock from the Sun,” as well as the romantic comedy “(500) Days of Summer” (now generating Oscar buzz), but he has been acting in films and commercials since growing up Jewish in Sherman Oaks, the son of a former news director of Pacific station KPFK-FM, and attending the music magnet at Hamilton High.
Now he is the titular character in Spencer Susser’s “Hesher,” a tale of loss inspired by Susser’s own childhood experiences of emotional upheaval upon the death of his mother.
In the film, TJ (Devin Brochu), is a 13- year- old boy in San Fernando, CA who has lost his own mother in a car accident. He and his widowed father (Rainn Wilson) are moving through life in a state of numbness and mourning. TJ‘s father is comfortable in his drug-induced paralysis, which medicates his grief.
Enter “Hesher” (the word is slang for “heavy metal enthusiast”), a long-haired dude who is a canvas for multiple tattoos, loves to smoke pot, and who is more comfortable in his underwear than fully dressed. He insinuates himself into TJ’s life, and before the family knows it, he has moved in and doesn’t seem to be moving out. Living in close quarters, TJ is left in the middle between an emotionally vacant father and a “Hesher” who acts without prior thoughts or cares. Natalie Portman plays a shy grocery store clerk who also becomes involved with the family.
Hesher, the character, has no back story. Like the Yiddish proverb, “Death does not knock at the door,” he just shows up like a sudden death, causes tumult with his loud, irritating ways—much like bad heavy metal music—and never seems to leave.
While many viewers may find Hesher to be menacing and threatening, Gordon-Levitt sees him as a “sweetheart.” “Sure, he blow things up, but I do not think it it out of anger. He is just being happy,” the actor said. “A lot of stuff that stresses us out, he just could not care less about. He just doesn’t care what you think.”