While Israeli film critic Hannah Brown doesn’t foresee an Academy Award in Israel’s near future, she’s convinced that Ajami’s nomination is prize enough.
Given that Israel’s film Ajami is facing competition from much more well-established film industries in France, Spain and China, even just receiving a nomination for an Academy Award feels like a win, says Israeli-American film critic Hannah Brown, who pens a weekly column at The Jerusalem Post.
Since the film’s release in the fall, journalists and critics have been lining up for the chance of a word with Ajami’s co-directors – Israeli Christian Arab Scandar Copti and his Israeli Jewish partner Yaron Shani. Practically impossible to reach since achieving the celebrity status that comes with being nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film, theirs is the third Israeli entry in as many years to be been nominated for an Oscar.
Last year the Israeli animated feature Waltz With Bashir, about the first Israel-Lebanon war, was nominated in the same category but didn’t win. The previous year the film Beaufort, about an Israel Defense Forces unit stationed at the Beaufort outpost in south Lebanon, was also nominated and didn’t win.
“I don’t think in terms of movies deserving an award, especially with the Oscars, because it’s accepted that often the best movies don’t win,” Brown tells ISRAEL21c. “Ajami did deserve to get nominated and it wasn’t a surprise to me, but nothing is ever a sure thing about that category.
“It’s a difficult category because they’ll be competing against the established industries and it may be the most competitive category… I do think that Ajami is a very good film and it’s very ambitious and that’s important,” she says.
Israel’s film industry comes of age
Screened at film festivals across America, “Ajami is trying to tell a huge story about all these different groups who are forced together in this one neighborhood in Jaffa: There are Jews and Arabs, Christians and Muslims, West Bank Palestinians and Bedouins. It’s an intricate story and they worked on the script for years. You can see it wasn’t just put together,’ says Brown who sees Israeli film coming of age in recent years, mainly due to an expanding TV industry, and a government-funded initiative that supports the local film industry.
While the themes of the last three films are centered in war, conflict and the complex political reality in which Israel exists, Brown doesn’t believe that this is a case of Israeli directors simply providing American audiences with the image of Israel that they have come to expect, as a result of growing up with CNN news reports about Israel and violent action films.
The Israeli film industry is young, she says, and most of its young directors have made only one feature film, or at the most, two. In the case of Waltz With Bashir, for example, its director Ari Folman experienced the Lebanon War. And like his contemporaries in literature or art, Folman was processing an experience that may have had the most profound impact on his life up to that time.
“A lot of the Israeli film directors are young and most have done military service. It’s been a dramatic experience in their lives and it’s on their minds. Now in their 20s and 40s they are realizing this impact on film and in drama,” says Brown, noting that in recent years Israeli scriptwriting has improved: “The characters are compelling and the films are well made.”
While some suggest that the American nominations of Israeli films are a gesture of goodwill to a strategic ally, Brown thinks there is real merit there for the choosing and that Ajami is worthy of its status as one of the five nominees for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.
The nomination will give them “everything they need”
The makers of Ajami didn’t set out to win prizes, but to depict the multiple challenges faced by minorities within and on the fringes of Israeli society, especially in the generally poorly understood Arab community.
The scene was set for Ajami when the co-directors met seven years ago at an international student film festival in Tel Aviv. From the time of that meeting the two worked hard to scrape together the funds to create their first feature film set in the Ajami neighborhood of Jaffa, a mixed Jewish-Arab city adjacent to Tel Aviv. They chose to work with non-actors, in the style of Italian neo-realism, “and they hit the mark,” says Brown. “It’s a fascinating film.”
This is the ninth time in the history of the awards that Israel has received a nomination, but the country has never had a win. No matter, says Brown, adding that especially after prominent figures attempted to boycott Israeli films at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, she views the Oscar nomination itself and not the possibility of the win, as the victory.
Does she think that Ajami deserves to win? “Getting the nomination is winning. These directors will get to go to Hollywood, to meet with Hollywood agents and will get everything they need out of being nominated. It would be nice if it would be the first Israeli film to win an Oscar. But I don’t think it will be,” she replies.
Whether you’re rooting for Israel or your favorite Hollywood film, for some of the best drama and suspense in the movie industry tune in to the awards in Los Angeles on March 7. That’s when the Academy Award hopefuls will don suit and gown and dream of taking home the coveted prize.