For Ron Leshem, co-author of the film Beaufort, which has just been nominated for an Oscar for best Foreign Language Film by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles, the prospective award comes as something as a shock.
“Every time I hear about non-Israelis seeing the film or reading the book I find it surprising because I always see it as such a local piece, an internal debate,” Leshem tells ISRAEL21c.
“But people tell me it’s a story about human beings, about being 18, about kids in a very emotional situation, and as such really does have universal themes.”
For an American audience, confronted daily with images of war in Iraq, there’s a great deal to connect to in a story about young soldiers cut off from their society and caught up in the claustrophobic and isolating experience of a protracted conflict in a foreign land.
It took Leshem several years to write If Heaven Exists, the bestselling novel on which Beaufort is based. The moving and passionate film, directed and co-written by Joseph Cedar, tells the story of a unit of Israeli soldiers holed up in an ancient mountaintop fortress during the last days of the first Israel-Lebanon war in 2000.
The film, which received the Silver Bear Award at the prestigious Berlin Film Festival, joins films from Russia, Kazakhstan, Poland and Austria in vying for this most coveted of cinematic prizes, which is to be announced on February 27.
It has been more than 20 years since an Israeli film was short-listed for the Oscars. The last Israeli movie to be selected was 1984’s Beyond the Walls. This was preceeded by five others: Sallah Shabati (1965), The Policeman (1971), I Love You Rosa (1972), The House on Chelouche Street (1973) and Operation Thunderbolt (1977).
Currently on limited release in the US, Beaufort is certain to get an expanded distribution following the nomination. An English version of the novel, with the same name, has also just been published.
According to Leshem, the Oscar nomination is representative of the new opportunities the whole local industry is now experiencing abroad. “We sell formats, scripts, drama series. It’s kind of a new era, part of a new trend, something bigger,” he says. The same sentiment was echoed by the film’s lead Oshri Cohen, who told reporters: “Now everybody knows we are part of this thing called world cinema. Now it’s official.”
Oscar win or no win, it is hard to imagine the gloss of the nomination wearing off here: this diminutive but dynamic industry has reminded the world that it knows how to pack a cinematic punch.