Cannes Best Actress winner Hana Laslo, right, and Natalie Portman in a scene from Amos Gitai’s Free ZoneThe spotlight was on Israel at the 58th Cannes Film Festival over the weekend, as a result of the popularity of the film Free Zone, directed by Amos Gitai.

Israeli actress Hanna Laslo took the Best Actress award for the film in which she co-starred with of one of the world’s most popular young actresses of the moment – Natalie Portman.

This was only the second time an Israeli has won best actor or actress at Cannes – the previous time was in 1967. Hanna Brown, film critic for The Jerusalem Post said the prize is indicative of Israeli cinema’s acceptance in the world community.

“Israel’s been very prominent on the international festival circuit for quite a few years. In fact last year’s Camera d’Or award to Karen Yedaya for her first feature film, Or, was even more prestigious – no Israeli movie had ever won before,” she told ISRAEL21c.

At the glittering ceremony, Laslo dedicated the prize to her mother, an Auschwitz survivor Auschwitz, to all Holocaust survivors still living today, and to the victims of the Middle East conflict, both Israeli and Palestinian.

“This is a film with a lot of hope,” Laslo told the audience when she was given the award, “a journey of three women in the Middle East, in which I represent the Israeli side. Hanna Ben Moshe, the character I portray, is also the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, and at one point in the film she says, ‘All of us want to survive.’ That is the message of the film. It’s high time we come together and try to work out solutions to this problem.”

The rave reviews for her performance and her award represented a triumph for Laslo, who has long been one of Israel’s outstanding comediennes, but who was considered strictly a creature of popular culture, not high art.

The Israeli press and public reacted to the award with tremendous surprise, pleasure, and pride in the popular actress.

She rose to popularity in the 1970s, and appeared in some of Israel’s classic comedic films, but was beloved for the original characters she created and performed in her one-woman live shows. Her film and television career had been on the wane until the past two years, she has starred in a popular telenovella Our Song and hosted the Israeli version of the popular British television game show, The Weakest Link.

Brown said that Laslo’s victory was an upset, to say the least.

“Nobody predicted that she’d win, nobody even considered her a candidate. There was a very strong field this year with actresses like Jessica Lange and Juliette Binoche. So, it isn’t that she won because there wasn’t anybody else good around.”

In her acceptance speech at Cannes, Laslo thanked Gitai for giving her the chance to prove herself as a dramatic actress and shared her award with him.

Free Zone starts with the meeting of two women: Rebecca, an American, played by Portman who has been living in Jerusalem for a few months, has just broken off her engagement and flees her luxury hotel. She gets into a cab driven by Hanna, an Israeli. But Hanna is on her way to the ‘free zone’ east of the Jordan, an area where customs and tax regulations are waived, to pick up a large sum of money that ‘the American’, her husband’s partner, owes them.

Rebecca persuades Hanna to take her along. When they reach the free zone a Palestinian woman who joins them explains that the American isn’t there and that the money has vanished. Free Zone highlights the unlikely relationship between completely different women thrown together by circumstance.

Gitai said he made this feature because he was interested in “these pockets of freedom in the Middle East where people of different origins can mingle and find things they can do in common.

“I’m interested in observing how people of the region are connecting to other people through everyday activities. It’s necessary to start with the little details and maybe through these details we can transform our situation. Buying a car, fixing it, crossing the borders, sharing a story, a meal together…”

Within the free zone, he observes, “people are opening their borders to cooperate and have common projects with economic value.”

The movie was the first Israeli film to be shot in Jordan in cooperation with the Jordanian Royal Film Commission.

According to Gitai, despite the fact that there are no cinema treaties between the two countries, the Jordanians were supportive of his effort and “they were really cooperative and open… initially there was a kind of resistance between the Israeli and Jordanian crews but this melted down after only a few hours and relations became very warm. I think that the shouting of the film is a good example of how political borders can be crossed. It was really a great experience.”

Until Laslo received her award, most of the attention on the film had been focused on Portman, who drew attention upon her arrival at Cannes last week for her new hairdo and for her appearance in the final Star Wars film, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.

Portman shot Free Zone during the semester she spent last year studying at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem following her graduation from Harvard.

Portman, who was raised in New York, is the daughter of Israeli parents, has visited the country throughout her life and speaks fluent Hebrew.

She wrote to Gitai expressing her admiration for her films and expressing her interest in working with him. He penned the Free Zone screenplay, designing the character of Rebecca with Portman in mind.

Gitai has a long resume of both documentary and feature films, and is both one of Israel’s most controversial filmmakers and its most internationally successful.

His participation in the Cannes competition was Gitai’s fourth visit to the festival, his preceding selections were Kadosh (1999), Kippur (2000), and Kedma (2002).

“Gitai’s movies always get more respect abroad than in Israel,” commented Brown, who added that Free Zone has yet been screened in Israel.

“Gitai is particularly popular with the French,” said Time Out Tel Aviv film critic Yael Shuv. “His style is mostly appreciated in France, where they love his intellectual outlook and his foreign appeal. His cinema is very much French cinema but with Israeli topics. He is so popular that by this point, his films are almost automatically accepted into festivals there.”

Like Portman, the character of Rebecca in Free Zone has an Israeli father and an American mother.

Portman told the press in Cannes that “over the course of shooting the film, I researched and explored the infinite variety that exists in the place that I come from. And I really got to know Arab Israelis in-depth.”

She added that during her time in Israel “I was happy to find that Israel has, in recent years, become a good and optimistic place to be.”

Her current hairstyle – a shaved head – is a striking change from her usual long brown locks. she had her hair cut for a new film she is shooting in Berlin in which she plays a political prisoner.

She told the Hebrew newspaper Yediot Aharonot that when she was doing her research on the experiences of people who had spent time in prison for political acts, “among other memoirs, I read the book by the late Prime Minister Menachem Begin in which he told of his time in prison.”

(David Brinn contributed to this report)