For the third year running, an Israeli film is a nominee for the foreign film Oscar. I offer some thoughts on the difference between current and classic Israeli films in the current issue of The Forward:
When I was an adolescent growing up in America in the early 1970s, I knew of only two Israeli films. There was the soldier movie — that was Yosef Milo’s “He Walked Through the Fields.” And there was the one about Jaffa’s underclass — that was Menachem Golan’s “Kazablan.”
Four decades later, for three years in a row, Israeli films have been Oscar nominees for the best foreign-language film. Of the three, two are soldier films — Joseph Cedar’s Beaufort and Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir. The third is this year’s nominee, Ajami, Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani’s saga of the Jaffa underclass.
So what’s new?
The easy answer is that the two older films are inspiring and uplifting, while the three new ones are depressing and angst-ridden . . .
As Gershom wrote here some months ago, Ajami is evidence of the maturity of Israeli culture, not its decline. In my Forward piece I try to get away from some of the conventional wisdom by pointing out how the three Oscar nominees are also artistically, narratively, and contextually different from the Israeli films that attracted attention outside the country in earlier decades.
But one notable common element of both the older and newer films I didn’t have space to discuss in the Forward is that they are all guy movies. Among the five of them, there’s not a female character who is much more than a mother or girlfriend.
It’s not that Israel hasn’t produced films centered on women—Ayetlet Menahemi’s Noodle and Nir Bergman’s Broken Wings are both excellent examples—but foreign audiences still seem to associate “Israeli” with either wars and the Arab-Israeli divide, categories all three Oscar nominees fall into. Directors who want to address other topics—and believe me, there’s lots more going on in this country—face an uphill battle.
Looks like it might be a while before an Israeli film about a three-dimensional female character gets an Oscar nod. Maybe by then it will find itself competing with a dark, critical, self-reflective Palestinian film about the al-Aqsa Intifada.