Hollywood-Israel link flourishing

A group of hotshot Hollywood television executives sit around a table sipping Evian water, working their cellphones and bemoaning the lack of fresh ideas for a series to pull their network out of the cellar.

Suddenly, one participant dispels the gloom by saying, “I’ve got the solution. My cousin in Tel Aviv is sending me a batch of DVDs of the latest Israeli hit shows, and we’ll just adapt them.”

This fantasy scenario was offered by reporter David Brinn in the Jerusalem Post last week, and the weird part is that the idea is not all that far out.

The Israeli TV smash, “B’tipul,” about a middle-age psychiatrist, who counsels five different patients in regular weekly rotation, has been Americanized by HBO into the successful “In Treatment.”

Four more Israel-originated projects are now in various stages of development, which can mean anything from “almost in production” to “don’t call us,” Brinn wrote.

CBS is considering “The Ex List,” a drama about a 30-plus single woman who goes to a psychic who tells her that she’s already met her beshert (soulmate). In each episode, she tracks down an ex-boyfriend to find out whether he was the right one.

At USA-Fox, it’s “Loaded,” based on the Israeli show “Mesudim,” in which four high-tech buddies sell their startup company to an American conglomerate for a fortune and live it up with their sudden wealth.

“Touch Away,” based on Israel’s “Merhak Negi’a,” is about a Russian immigrant family living next to an ultra-Orthodox family, and the romance that develops between the children.

TNT is into “The Ten Commandments,” a 10-part docudrama, in which the tablets of the law are applied to contemporary situations. For example, “honor your father and mother” focuses on a soldier who murdered his father for beating his mother. In “Thou Shall Not Kill,” a terminally ill patient asks to be removed from life support.

Not to discriminate, Israel is also lending a hand to the American movie industry, with past and future features.

“Bonjour Monsieur Shlomi,” a 2003 Israeli comedy about a seemingly nebbishy 16-year-old boy who becomes the caretaker for his eccentric family, is being transformed into “Diego Ascending” by actress Salma Hayek’s production company.

“Wristcutters” was adapted in 2006 from Etgar Keret’s short story, “Kneller’s Happy Campers.”

A Hollywood production company intends to remake the Israeli comedy, “Colombian Love,” with an American setting.

“A Tale of Love and Darkness,” an adaptation of Amos Oz’s memoir, will be directed this year by actress Natalie Portman.

The welcome mat laid out for Israeli filmmakers is a fairly recent phenomenon.

“Five years ago, I’d send out 20 faxes and maybe get two meetings” at European film festivals,” producer Eitan Even said. “Last year in Berlin, I had 40 meetings. Now I call, and people return my calls.”

Israel is not the only country benefiting from Hollywood’s new openness to foreign productions and concepts (see television’s “The Office” and “Ugly Betty”), but three main developments have boosted Israel’s prestige on the international film scene.

In the early 1990s, the introduction of commercial TV and cable channels to compete with the government’s monopoly provided a hands-on training ground in Israel for a new generation of producers, directors and actors. The new talent is reflected in a noticeable upgrading of production values in recent Israeli films.

Israeli filmmakers, who used to shoot mainly in Tel Aviv, are broadening their themes by focusing increasingly on their country’s multicultural society.

Television producers have another advantage.

“We are serving the most impatient and tensest audience in the world, and we do it on a low budget,” Brinn quoted programming executive Eva Madjiboj.

In other words, if you can hold Israeli audiences, you can hold audiences anywhere.

In the past, even the occasional outstanding Israeli film rarely got public screenings in the United States — except at Jewish film festivals — because no American distributor would touch them.

However, the picture has changed in the last 12 months, with Israeli films not only garnering a basketful of international awards but also commercial exposure. Among them are “The Band’s Visit,” “Jellyfish,” “My Father, My Lord,” “Sweet Mud,” “Noodles” and the Oscar-nominated “Beaufort.”

The success of these and other productions has Hollywood talent manager Joan Hyler speaking of an Israeli “new wave,” similar to the Italian new wave after World War II, the French in the 1950s and the British in the 1960s.

Israeli expatriates have been successful in transferring their production skills to Hollywood, from the pioneering Menachem Golan and Yoram Globus to the current Arnon Milchan, Avi Lerner, Danny Dimbort and Ehud Bleiberg.

It has been much more difficult for transplanted Israeli thespians, mainly due to their accents. Mili Avital managed to make the leap earlier, and currently Ayelet Zurer (“Munich,” “Vantage Point” and the upcoming “Adam Resurrected”) seems on track to make it in Hollywood.

Most Hollywood-Israel contacts are on individual person-to-person or e-mail-to-e-mail, basis, but a more organized approach is the successful Master Class, the flagship program of the Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership supported by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

The decade-old Master Class brings together Israeli filmmakers with established Hollywood counterparts for an intense two-week course on the nuts and bolts of their craft.

For example, Hyler, who heads the project with talent manager Danny Sussman, said that two of the favorite topics were: “How do you get anyone in Hollywood to return your calls?” and “How do you deal with rejection?”

Writer David Sacks instructs, “Never say outright that you don’t like someone else’s idea,” which proved to be a nearly incomprehensible concept to blunt-speaking Israelis.

The next Master Class will be June 3-17 in Tel Aviv.

Of a more political nature, an ongoing quest by the Israeli consulate in Los Angeles is to bring Hollywood celebrities to Israel, especially during difficult times.

In 2002, for instance, during the height of the intifada, the consulate tried hard to get some of the top Hollywood names to come to Israel as morale boosters and for favorable publicity for the homeland, largely without success. The Israeli representatives here were too diplomatic to voice their frustrations publicly, but an editorial in the Jerusalem Post at the time vented some of the country’s feelings.

Israel at the Oscars, Rove at AJU, Matisyahu at Jewlicious 4.0

Matisyahu Keeps Us Guessing

If Matisyahu once seemed spiritually self-contained, embodying a rigid religious observance, he is quickly shedding that image. This past weekend at Jewlicious 4.0 Matisyahu announced the need to “return to myself a little bit,” according to a report from JTA.

What exactly does that mean? Simply that the 28 year-old reggae star is embracing his rebellious side. A string of incidents suggest the enigmatic musician plans to keep everyone guessing: from abandoning JDub Records for the bigwigs (and big money) at Sony, to severing ties with Chasidism, to keeping Jewlicious organizers on edge as to whether he would show up for his scheduled appearance. His wife, Tahlia, was debuting her new documentary “Can’t Touch This” and the couple were scheduled to lead a spirituality session. But the daring musician could not resist an adoring audience.

During an impromptu performance at a small cafe, Matisyahu did a short set and waxed poetic on his evolving spirituality. He also discussed his disillusionment with the Chabad-Lubavitch movement (namely his disbelief that Menachem Schneerson is the messiah) and casually referenced his pot-smoking days, at age 14, when he discovered his passion for reggae. When a fan asked him how it felt to make a living singing Jewish music, he said, “It’s f—ing awesome.”

In the past, his neatly cultivated role as a devout reggae-star was edgy because it evinced a contrast — the marriage of religious discipline and artistic freedom gained him international renown. But after eight years of being frum, Matisyahu is shaking it up — unafraid of breaking the mold — especially with a minyan that says the Shema “as if there’s a firing squad in the room, and they’re saying it with their last breath. That’s the way I like to kick off my morning.”

Israel at the Oscars

Not all the glamour and excitement of Oscar night was at Hollywood and Highland’s Kodak Theatre. A few blocks away at Sunset and Vine, the Israeli consulate, Jewish Federation and StandWithUs rolled out the blue-and-white carpet at the Avalon for some 350 guests to cheer on the Israeli film, “Beaufort,” in its foreign-language Academy Award bid.

The Israeli-style buffet and open bar made for a convivial atmosphere, and we ran into a few old friends and made some new acquaintances. Israel’s Consul General Yaakov Dayan brought along his wife, Galit, who holds a doctorate in Egyptology from Hebrew University, as well as two of their three youngsters, Daphne and Tal. Consulate spokesman Gilad Millo also mixed business and pleasure by appearing with his wife.

Among those present from the entertainment industry were Dan Katzir, director of “Yiddish Theater: A Love Story,” and Broadway actor Mike Burstyn with his wife, Cyona. Burstyn recalled his part in the first Israeli film to garner an Oscar nod, the aliyah comedy “Sallah Shabbati.”

Among the stars of the evening were 10 teenagers from Sderot, here to tell the story of their rocket-bombarded town. Two of the youngsters, Osher Hen, 16, and Sagi Amar, 15, described Los Angeles as “an amazing place” and voted Venice Beach as the favorite sightseeing spot on their tour.

Sharing the table with us were Israeli television interviewers, a crew from the entertainment channel E! and some American colleagues, including Ori Ziv, Natalie Rotman, Abigail Schwartz and her husband, film composer Aaron Symonds.

Jewish Federation President John Fishel chatted about the growing strength of the Israeli film industry, and we exchanged pleasantries with Yoram Gutman, in charge of the upcoming Israel Independence Day festivities in the park; Noam Niv of Woodland Hills, who reminisced about his own infantry service in Lebanon; and Clay Epstein, vice president of the Little Film Company.

— Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Crazy About Karl Rove

Only the Israeli consulate and LAX have tighter security than American Jewish University’s Public Lecture Series, which featured the provocative and polarizing Karl Rove on Feb. 25.

Two consecutive metal detectors greeted guests on their way in to hear a political strategist who has been compared to the devil more times than he’s been called a patriot.

It’s hard to out-charm Gady Levy, whose cute accent and facetious humor bring levity to otherwise charged intellectual environments, but a coolheaded Karl Rove may have done just that when he wooed an initially ambivalent audience.

During his opening remarks, Levy asked any Democrats in the house to clap their hands, then he asked attendant Republicans to do the same. “It sounds like 50/50, or what Karl Rove would call a mandate,” Levy joked. “And that ladies and gentlemen, concludes tonight’s audience participation.”

The audibly bipartisan crowd of 4,000 people laughed as Rove, the architect behind George W. Bush’s two successful campaigns for president and his former deputy chief of staff, charmed the L.A. audience with cracks about Ann Coulter, Hillary Clinton and the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.

In an hour and a half, Rove zipped through a 41 line-item instructive on “how to run for president,” gushed over the wonders of his iPhone and responded to well-researched questions posed by moderator and AJU President Rabbi Robert Wexler during a Q-and-A session.

The audience didn’t seem to care that Rove referred to the reputed torture chamber of Guantanamo as blithely as he might talk about Disneyland and demonstrated the same nonchalant ease when Wexler insinuated his alleged misdeeds in national politics, which he breezily dismissed.

During the VIP reception afterwards, California produce overflowed on white tablecloths and glass flutes effervesced … with apple cider? After so much talk about the Bush presidency, we needed champagne.

While the notorious strategist surprises because he’s actually likable, a woman on her way out was heard to say, “He’s absolutely brilliant, but I hope he’ll do good works, because he’s done a lot of bad works.”

Films: It would never happen in Hollywood

The Israeli film, “Beaufort,” has earned international recognition for its unvarnished portrayal of men at war and for its acting, directing and cinematography.

But the movie is even more remarkable for what it tells us about the inner strength of the embattled country in confronting the vulnerabilities of its most revered institutions, even while the wounds of the first and second Lebanon wars are still fresh.

To appreciate this special kind of moral courage, can anyone in the most powerful nation on earth imagine a Hollywood mainstream movie about the Iraq War in which the political and military leadership wastes soldiers’ lives in senseless campaigns, in which an officer freezes in fear and in which the president lies about the casualties suffered in a needless action?

If any Hollywood producer were to attempt such a picture now, not in 20 years, can one imagine receiving government funds to help finance the movie? Or a director who went to jail rather than perform military reserve duty?

Could the novel on which this subversive movie is based win the country’s top literary and military history awards?

Finally, would the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences then submit such a movie as the sole representative of the United States to the most famous international film competition?

The whole scenario may be too bizarre to contemplate in America, but if, for the sake of fantasy, Hollywood made such a film, just think of the subsequent congressional investigations, the outraged protests by veterans’ organizations and the patriotic outcry from sea to shining sea.

But in fractious Israel, surrounded by real enemies and with its full share of political and religious demagogues, “Beaufort,” which plays out in the final days of the first Lebanon War, not in the glory of a 1967 victory but at the struggle’s indecisive, exhausted end, has not only been well received but elicited a kind of national euphoria when it was named among the five finalists in this year’s Oscar race for best foreign-language film.

When Israel advanced into Lebanon in 1982 in response to persistent cross-border attacks, the first victory was the capture of the massive Beaufort fortress, just north of the Israeli border and originally built by the Crusaders in the 12th century.

Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Defense Minister Ariel Sharon visited the captured fortress and triumphantly declared that it had been taken without the loss of a single soldier. Regrettably, it turned out that six soldiers of the Sayeret Golani unit, including its commanding officer, had died in the battle.

After 18 years of indecisive fighting, Israel withdrew from Lebanon. In the waning weeks of the conflict, a dozen men and their young officer remained in Beaufort, under constant rocket attack, before finally blowing up the massive complex and returning across the border to Israel.

There is no way to convey the feeling of ground combat vicariously, but “Beaufort” comes close in showing the alternating monotony and flashes of adrenalin-pumping action, the elation and the fear that can freeze the best soldier into immobility, the desperate longing for a clean change of uniform, the camaraderie and numbness to loss, the confusion, miscommunication and mistakes of generals.

Much of the picture’s virtual reality is owed to director Joseph Cedar, a native New Yorker who served as a paratrooper and medic during the war in Lebanon and had hoped to become a career officer.

A few years later, when he was recalled to active duty as a reservist, Cedar refused and served time in a military jail.

That’s not the first or last time Cedar has played against expectations. A strictly observant Jew, he bitterly disappointed his friends of the national religious right in his first two films, which laid bare the fanaticism and prejudices of his more extreme erstwhile comrades.

Movies can be accurate indicators of a nation’s taboos. In the late 1940s, I saw a wonderfully satirical and now completely forgotten film, titled, I believe, “The Scandals of Clochmere.”

It included three scenes offensive to censors on two continents. In one, a husky bartender picked up two obstreperous French soldiers and threw them out into the street. Another showed some people in a church trashing a statue of Jesus. And a third showed a woman nude from the waist up.

I saw the movie first in Paris and later in Los Angeles, but in slightly different versions. The American Puritans had deleted the church and the nude scenes as sacrilegious and indecent for U.S. viewers.

The French censor couldn’t care less about such transgressions, but cut out the bar scene, ruling that it impugned the honor of the French army by having a civilian manhandling French soldiers.

“Beaufort” also ran into trouble at home, but not, as it might elsewhere, for depicting the waste of life in a badly conceived and executed war.

What raised Israeli hackles, especially among families who had lost sons in Lebanon, was that nearly half of the actors in the film had not fulfilled their mandatory service in the Israeli army, for reasons of health or conscience.

During a symposium with other Oscar-nominated foreign directors, Cedar asked whether the people of any other country would object to actors, who hadn’t actually worn the uniform, portraying soldiers. The answer was no, and indeed by such criterion, Hollywood could never make any war movie at all.

In America, some Jewish voices have raised concerns that an Israeli film showing the real faces and fears of the country’s soldiers would diminish respect for the Jewish state.

On the contrary, “Beaufort” has set a standard for honesty and self-examination that much mightier nations have yet to emulate in real time, not a generation after the conflict.

“Beaufort” opens March 14 at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills and Town Center in Encino. For more information visit www.laemmle.com

At peace with conflict

One of the bonuses of living in exile is that you can see Israeli society more clearly, one lunch, party, speech or cappuccino at a time. When I’m in the Holy Land, I lose myself in a noisy, beautiful, hectic, joyful and soulful blur.

It’s as if I’m inside a boat in a stormy sea. Here in the Diaspora, Israel comes at you in neat little waves. Over the past month, I’ve had encounters with four passionate Israelis, and each, in their own way, has helped me make sense of the craziness of what it is to live the Zionist dream.

My first encounter was at Beth Jacob Congregation, where on a recent Shabbat morning I went to hear right-wing Jerusalem Post columnist Caroline Glick, who has developed a cult-like following among fellow right-wingers.

Here is this petite, gentle-looking brunette who doesn’t look a day older than 30, but listen to her speak and you’ll see they don’t come any tougher. During three long sessions that continued through late Saturday night, Glick showed a mastery of the geopolitical dynamics that challenge Israel on a daily basis.

Glick doesn’t apologize for her contention that military victory against an uncompromising enemy is the smartest policy. Because she brings so much knowledge to the table, she comes across not as an extremist, but as a reasonable and logical thinker.

Of the many words she spoke, one phrase stood out: “It’s not about us.” Israel can dismantle settlements and make concessions and have peace meetings until hell freezes over, but that won’t change a thing, not least the nature of our enemy. This is an inconvenient truth, but as Glick passionately expressed it, it is a truth we must deal with if we are to survive.

My second encounter was with two wounded heroes of the Lebanon war, whose first names were Haran and Idan, and who were in town to help an organization called Friends of Israel Disabled Veterans.

Over egg rolls and sushi at Shanghai Gardens on Pico Boulevard, they bantered, laughed and playfully needled each other, before Idan began telling me his story. He was at the head of a platoon that had just finished an eight-hour operation to take over an enemy hill. At around 4 a.m., he noticed that two Israeli tanks were stuck in the valley below — what they call in military lingo the “dead zone,” because you’re a sitting duck to enemy fire — and he immediately commandeered towing and armored vehicles to rescue his comrades.

They got hit with a “bad-ass missile,” as he called it, and a firefight ensued. Israeli tanks came to rescue the rescuers, and in the chaotic seven kilometer trek back to the safety of the Israeli border, Idan, who was nearly unconscious from the barrage of shrapnel that had pierced his body, could only remember hearing these words: “Yaffe, stay with us!”

Yaffe was his nickname, and his comrades were pleading with him to stay alive.

I asked Idan what went through his mind as he was fighting for his life, and he recalled the promise he had made to his girlfriend, Yael, that he would never leave her. When he saw that I was a little shaken by his story, he lightened things up a bit by telling me that Yael had recently broken up with him, and that he was now dating someone else.

I had no luck getting Idan to say anything negative about the Israeli army, or even all those corrupt Israeli politicians we so often complain about here. He and Haran looked like party animals who would rather spend their nights in a Tel Aviv disco than in a combat zone, but as they both said to me: “When our country calls, we go.”

My third encounter was with a talent agent who represents two of the lead actors in the Israeli movie “Beaufort,” which was nominated for an Academy Award. At a raucous reception in a private home in Beverly Hills, with Israeli television cameras and reporters covering the scene, the agent talked to me at length about how Israeli artists struggle to get their work produced, distributed and recognized internationally. Before we parted, she said in a wistful tone: “If Israel put the same amount of money into the arts that they put into weapons, we would be the most creative country in the world.”

Finally, I met with political analyst and author Yossi Klein Halevi. In a little French cafe nestled in Topanga Canyon, my friend Halevi said that most Israelis were willing to pay a heavy price for real peace, but that there was a general consensus among the people today that since a real peace is not in the cards, they should “tough it out” until the circumstances become more favorable.

Halevi held the same passion to defend his country as Glick; the same love of life as the wounded warriors; and the same love of art and culture as the actors’ agent. He seemed to carry within him the views and struggles of all Israelis.

Maybe that is to be expected from a spiritual seeker who struggles to make sense of the bigger picture. As we entered my car to drive through the canyon, he couldn’t wait to play me this new CD of beautiful Yom Kippur melodies, as if to say: “This kind of beauty helps us all see the bigger picture.”

As I reflected on my four encounters, it struck me that maybe the Jewish destiny is not to obsess over peace and to end conflict, but instead, to be at peace with conflict. We will never be a Buddhist-like nation that wallows in peace and serenity in a quiet mountain enclave. That’s not our calling.

Our calling is the struggle. Whether we are struggling with war, peace, art, ideas or God, living with conflict is our story, our collective journey.

The Israelis who met me here in exile seemed to be at peace with that.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

Oscars are Coen ‘Country’ but a win is still foreign for Israeli filmmakers

Disappointed but not downcast, Israeli filmmakers and their supporters vowed to come back strong next year after the country’s entry, “Beaufort,” lost out in Sunday’s Oscar race for best foreign-language film.

“We have shown that Israel can make very good movies, and we will prove it again next time,” Eli Eltonyo, a “Beaufort” actor, told a cheering crowd of some 350 attending an Oscar party at the Hollywood night club Avalon. An ebullient Yaacov Dayan, Israel’s resident consul general, went further, shouting, “We’ll have a bigger party next year, and we’ll take the Oscar, I promise you.”

There was some solace in the success of Jewish creative talent at the 80th Academy Awards. Brothers Joel and Ethan Coen were the big winners of the evening, each capturing three Oscars for their gritty contemporary Western “No Country for Old Men” — for best picture, directing and adapted screenplay.

Britain’s Daniel Day-Lewis took acting honors as the greedy oil prospector in “There Will Be Blood.” Day-Lewis is the son of Jewish actress Jill Balcon, and in his acceptance speech he thanked his grandfather, British film pioneer Sir Michael Balcon, as well as his wife Rebecca, daughter of the late playwright Arthur Miller.

The evening’s host, Jon Stewart, characteristically opened the ceremonies with a Jewish gag, noting that the Oscar contending movie “Atonement” caught “the raw passion and sexuality of Yom Kippur.”

When the remark was greeted with applause, Stewart quipped, “Now we know where the Jews are in the audience.”

From its arrival three days before the Oscar ceremony, the “Beaufort” contingent became a celebratory rallying point for the large Israeli expatriate and general Jewish communities, akin to a reception for Israeli athletes competing for Olympic gold.

At the Oscar party hosted by the Israeli consulate, Los Angeles Jewish Federation, and StandWithUs, guests included Israeli pop idol Ninette Tayeb and 10 teenagers from Sderot, here to participate in a benefit concert for the Negev town targeted by rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip.

“Beaufort” director Joseph Cedar, lead actor Oshri Cohen and producers David Silber and Moshe Edry were accompanied by more than a dozen Israeli television reporters and hosts, among them Eli Yitzpan and anchors Aharon Barnea and Gil Tamary.

The intense coverage reflected the country’s pride that, after a hiatus of 23 years, an Israeli film had made the final five list among 63 foreign entries.

“Beaufort” depicts the windup of the first Lebanon War in the year 2000, not in the glory of a 1967 victory but in an indecisive and exhaustive ending. The film’s strength lies in presenting its protagonists not as super warriors, but rather as young men who acknowledge and face their fears.

The euphoria and high hopes “Beaufort” triggered were explained partially by Israel’s current mood and by the apparent validation of Israel’s new standing on the international film scene.

“We Israelis are going through our regular manic-depressive cycle,” explained Ron Leshem, who wrote the book on which the film is based. “We’re hungry for good news.”

The good news Israelis were hoping for was that after six previous nominations, an Israeli film would finally take the top prize.

A win this time would have also put an exclamation point to what is often described as the “renaissance” of the Israeli movie industry.

The renaissance has been certified by a slew of awards at the most prestigious European and American film festivals at Cannes, Berlin, Venice, Sundance and Tribeca for pictures such as “The Band’s Visit,” “Jellyfish,” “Lemon Tree,” “Walk on Water” and “Jossi & Jagger.”

“The Israeli film industry has really matured in the last few years,” Jewish Federation President John Fishel observed. “I fully expect to see an Israeli Oscar winner in the near future.”

In this year’s Oscar stakes, the five finalists were the films of Austria, Israel, Kazakhstan, Poland and Russia, but it seemed clear that the final choice would be between “Beaufort” and the Austrian entry “Counterfeiters.”

The movie by Austrian filmmaker Stefan Ruzowitzky is based on one of the odder footnotes of World War II and probes the moral dilemmas facing a special group of Jewish concentration camp inmates.

Some 100 Jews, all skilled engravers, photographers and one-time counterfeiters, were culled for “Operation Bernard” and given excellent treatment as long as they succeeded in turning out massive amounts of perfect imitation pound and dollar bills to undermine the economies of Britain and the United States and to pay for the German war effort.

The film’s tension comes from the prisoners’ moral struggle on whether to collaborate with the Nazi scheme and gain at least temporary survival, or try to sabotage the operation at the cost of immediate death.

Even pro-Israel partisans who had seen “Counterfeiters” acknowledged that the Austrian entry was first-class, though Cedar and “Beaufort’s” producers were attending the actual Academy Awards at the Kodak Theatre and could not be reached immediately for comment.

In his short acceptance speech, Ruzowitzky paid graceful tribute to the great Jewish movie directors of his country’s past.

“There have been some great Austrian filmmakers working here, thinking of Billy Wilder, Fred Zinnemann, Otto Preminger, most of them had to leave my country because of the Nazis, so it sort of makes sense that the first Austrian movie to win an Oscar is about the Nazis’ crimes.”

In an earlier interview with The Journal, Ruzowitzky went further.

“My grandparents on both sides were Nazis, or Nazi sympathizers, so I felt a special responsibility to deal with the Holocaust era,” he said. “I felt an equal responsibility not to exercise moral judgment on the Jews who collaborated in Operation Bernard.”

Beaufort cast fly from Israel to L.A. for Oscars

Oshri Cohen, the star of Beaufort, is caught off guard by me, Orit, the relentless paparazza, as he leaves for LA to attend the Oscars


There will be Jews at Oscar’s 80th

After some relatively lean years, Hollywood’s Jewish talent — as well as Israel’s — made a solid showing as nominations for the 80th Academy Awards were announced at 5:30 a.m. Tuesday.

The biggest winners were brothers Ethan and Joel Coen, whose thriller “No Country for Old Men” earned seven nominations, while Daniel Day-Lewis, son of British Jewish actress Jill Balcon, qualified in the best actor category.

Israel’s “Beaufort,” by Joseph Cedar, a gritty movie about the end of the first Lebanon War, was one of five international finalists as best foreign language film.

It is the first time since 1984 that an Israeli picture (“Beyond the Walls”) has made the final cut in the category, though the Oscar itself has eluded the country’s film industry so far.

Day-Lewis earned his nomination for his role as a tough oil prospector in “There Will Be Blood.” The picture itself topped the field with eight nominations.

The Coen brothers won four personal nominations for best film, director, adapted screenplay and editing (the last under the odd pseudonym Roderick Jaynes), out of a total of seven noms for “No Country for Old Men.” Scott Rudin shared in the producing credit.

Jewish creativity was especially noticeable in “Achievement in Directing.” Besides the two Coens, nominations went to the multitalented Julian Schnabel for “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” and to Jason Reitman for “Juno.”

Competing with “Beaufort” for the Oscar is Austria’s “The Counterfeiters,” about a group of Jews culled from concentration camps by the Nazis during World War II to swamp the British and American economies with counterfeit currency.

Also in contention are Poland’s “Katyn,” which dramatizes the massacre of some 20,000 Polish officers and intellectuals by the Soviets in 1940, as well as Kazakhstan’s “Mongol” and Russia’s “12.”

The songwriting team of Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz earned three out of the available five slots for their songs “So Close,” “That’s How You Know” and “Happy Working Song” for the Walt Disney film “Enchanted.”

British Jewish writer Ronald Harwood was nominated for his adapted screenplay for “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.”

Jewish names also popped up in a number of lesser categories.

Another Israeli film, “The Band’s Visit,” had been originally picked by the Israel Film Academy to represent the country for Oscar honors, but was disqualified by the American Academy because too much of the dialogue was in English.

The picture was subsequently entered by Sony Pictures, the distributor, in the general categories of best picture, director, screenplay, actor and actress, but predictably struck out.

The Academy Awards will be held Feb. 24, with producer Gil Cates and host Jon Stewart, both Jewish, at the helm.

However, due to the prolonged strike by the film and television writers, which Hollywood’s top actors are supporting, it is anybody’s guess whether the show will come off with the traditional glamour and razzle-dazzle.

Israeli/Jewish-themed films 3 for 3 in Oscar foreign language semi-finals

Three of the 63 foreign language films in this year’s Oscar race are on Jewish/Israeli themes, and all three have made the cut to qualify among the nine semi-finalists.

The three are Israel’s entry “Beaufort,” Austria’s “The Counterfeiters” and Brazil’s “The Year My Parents Went on Vacation.”

Next Tuesday (Jan. 22), the shortlist will be winnowed down to five finalists and the winner will be announced at the Academy Awards on Feb. 24.”Beaufort,” directed by Joseph Cedar, is a wrenching war movie depicting the final action of the first Lebanon War, when a small Israeli unit evacuated the medieval Beaufort fortress.

In “the Counterfeiters” by Stefan Ruzowitzky, the Nazis round up a hundred skilled Jewish craftsmen from concentration camps to create perfect counterfeits of British and U.S. currency, in a last-ditch ploy to wreck the economies of the two allies.

The Brazilian entry is the story of a half-Jewish boy suddenly thrown into an Orthodox environment when his parents flee the 1970 military dictatorship. The director, Cao Hamburger, is the grandson of Jewish refugees from Hitler’s Germany.

Also shortlisted are films from Canada, Italy, Kazakhstan, Poland, Russia and Serbia.

Poland’s entry is “Katyn” by Andrzej Wajda, which dramatizes the massacre of some 20,000 Polish officers and intellectuals by the Soviets in 1940.To the surprise of most film critics, the Romanian entry, “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” didn’t make the cut. The film on the tribulations of getting an abortion in Communist Romania had won the Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and top honors at the European Film Awards.

From ‘Bucket List’ to ‘Beaufort’

Quick Trip From Everest to Lebanon

In less than 48 hours, I visited Mount Everest, on the border between Nepal and Tibet, and Beaufort Castle in southern Lebanon. The unlikely juxtaposition was the result of attending screenings of quite different films: the flashy Hollywood premiere of “The Bucket List,” followed by an understated private screening of indie Israeli film, “Beaufort.”

Indeed, the two films span the full spectrum of cinematic possibility — one being a big-budget, formulaic Hollywood star-vehicle lavished with an opulent premiere party, and the other a provocative meditation on war and Israel Defense Forces soldierhood, which played to a sparse crowd in ICM’s lush screening room at the MGM Tower.

I won’t deny the excitement curling my toes as I walked into the Arclight’s Cinerama Dome on Dec. 16 for the premiere of “The Bucket List,” a film about two aging men, played by Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, who are dying of cancer and decide that in their final year of life, they are going to do everything they never did — i.e., have a few thrills, which for them meant: flying in private jets, visiting the Taj Mahal, scouting Egyptian pyramids and climbing Mount Everest. Thrill for me: unlimited free popcorn.

Whispers, handshakes and hugs trumped using the BlackBerry — because you know, everyone is here and apparently, the important people like to sit in the back. Screenwriter Justin Zackham had manager David Faigenblum to thank for believing in his script, which eventually attracted the likes of Nicholson and Freeman, sitting just a few rows apart for the duration of the dismal comedy.

Director Rob Reiner introduced the film, cracked about the challenge of selling a $45 million movie about “two old guys dying of cancer” and delivered a long list of thanks to the film’s contributors, including producers Craig Zadan, Neil Meron and Alan Greisman.

The evening also doubled as a benefit for the Cedars-Sinai Board of Governors Center for Cancer Research, and guests moved on to Boulevard 3 on the Sunset Strip, which was framed by stretch limos with black-suited men guarding the gate. Trim trees sparkling with pink lights lined the entryway to the chichi soiree, where ladies greeted guests at the door, wine trays in hand (in Hollywood no one has to move more than a few inches before pressing a glass between their fingers).

Inside a concrete warehouse, multiple buffet stations encircled an open atrium, where industry people crushed together. John Mayer huddled in a booth with the ever-bespectacled Jack, and that moment was the first and last glimpse most of us got of the stars at the party.

By contrast, a slim crowd of invitation-only guests slumped into couch-like leather seats for a screening of “Beaufort,” the Israeli film contentiously vying with “The Band’s Visit” for a foreign-language film Oscar nomination. (See Tom Tugend’s story at www.jewishjournal.com). L.A. Times film critic Kenneth Turan sat in for the lengthy but loaded film, whose ominous sonic score foisted a foreboding mood upon the crowd.

Fraught with tension, violence and fear, the film challenges the bureaucracy of Israel’s politicians and its army. Director Joseph Cedar’s penetrating portrayal of Israeli soldiers camped at an outpost in Lebanon was poignant but painful — not the kind of material that makes you itch for an afterparty, but certainly the kind that leaves you with an afterthought.

Chanukah Bash Heats Up Winter

Chanukah lights seemed to dispel the sudden chill of winter for The Federation’s Young Leadership Division (YLD) holiday party at X Bar Dec. 1, where 430 people milled about the swank Hyatt Regency Century Plaza’s venue, tucked into booths, lined up at the bar or crushed together on the dance floor, swinging to the hip-hop music of the DJ. Outside, a fire pit and tall heaters warmed the air, as the party got more and more crowded.

“With the attendees leaving the event not just thrilled about attending a very cool event, but proud to be a part of the young Jewish community … the event facilitated bringing the young professional, young Jewish community together,” YLD incoming chair Eric Erenstoft said.

The party collected 100 new unwrapped toys to be donated to children at Aviva Family & Children’s Services and for Jewish Family Service’s Adopt-a-Family Program and Chai Lifeline.

— Amy Klein, Religion Editor

Possible Oscar at stake in Israeli film fight

Beaufort trailer
The story of two movies vying to represent Israel in the Oscar race is full of intrigue, confusion, backbiting and alleged skullduggery.

The films themselves are also quite interesting.

The brouhaha comes at a time when the Israeli film industry is gaining increasing international recognition and awards and for the first time in 23 years seems to have a serious shot at being nominated — and even winning — an American Academy Award.

So tension was high last month when the Israel Film Academy passed out the Ophir awards, Israel’s equivalent of the Oscar, with the best picture winner automatically becoming Israel’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film honors at the American Academy Awards.

There were two frontrunners, quite opposite in mood and tone. One was “The Band’s Visit,” described by the Jerusalem Post as “a charming, bittersweet comedy about an Egyptian police orchestra that gets lost and ends up spending a night at a tiny development town in the Negev.” [CLICK FOR ‘THE BAND’s VISIT’ TRAILER]

By contrast, “Beaufort” is a searing drama about the last Israeli unit to leave Lebanon in 2000. Its director is American-born Joseph Cedar, whose “Time of Favor” and “Campfire” were two of Israel’s previous Oscar entries.

When the votes had been counted, “Band’s Visit” won hands down for best picture and best directing honors for Eran Kolirin.

“Band’s Visit” had already been picked up by prestigious Sony Pictures Classics for distribution in North America and much of the rest of the world. Life was good, and then the plot thickened.

Although the Oscar category defined by the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is often called “Best Foreign Film,” the actual title is “Best Foreign Language Film.”

The rules clearly spell out that an entry’s dialogue must be “predominantly,” or more than 50 percent, in the language of the submitting country.

Hebrew and Arabic are the official languages of Israel, but since the Israeli and Egyptian characters in “Band’s Visit” converse in (broken) English, the American Academy disqualified the Israeli entry and left the next move up to its Israeli counterpart.

The decision was hardly unprecedented. In the past two years, the Academy has rejected nine foreign films on the same grounds. One recent example was the Italian entry, “Private,” which was ruled out because none of the characters spoke Italian, though the producers claimed the film was turned down because of its pro-Palestinian slant.

How the Israel Academy slipped up on reading the rules is another question, which is now being debated in the Israeli press.

In recent days there were various reports that Israel would appeal the disqualification decision. However, on Tuesday, Marek Rosenbaum, president of the Israel Academy, told The Journal in a phone call from Poland that “Band’s Visit” has been withdrawn and “Beaufort” was now the official entry.

But that’s hardly the end of the story. Once the qualification of “Band’s Visit” was called into question, blogs and some print columns started reporting that the producers of “Beaufort” had stealthily lobbied the American Academy to disqualify “Band’s Visit,” knowing that “Beaufort” would then become the Oscar contender.

In a phone interview, Michael Barker, co-president and co-founder of Sony Pictures Classics, said that “from the beginning there was aggressive behavior looking to disqualify ‘The Band’s Visit,'” which his company is distributing.

Barker added that in his 26 years in the film industry, “I have seen sour grapes, but this goes way above normal.”

He termed the film’s disqualification “a tragedy,” vowed to enter the movie in other Oscar categories, and predicted it would be a success when released in theaters in the middle of February.

Asked to specify his charges, Barker referred all such questions to Ehud Bleiberg, head of Los Angeles-based Bleiberg Entertainment and producer of “Band’s Visit.”

Bleiberg did not respond to repeated requests for comments.

The “Beaufort” filmmakers have remained publicly silent on the controversy, but at The Journal’s request, producers David Zilber and David Mandil e-mailed a statement from Tel Aviv.

They categorically denied that anyone connected with “Beaufort” had ever approached the American Academy regarding “Band’s Visit.”

Taking off the gloves, the producers wrote that “the false accusations leveled at ‘Beaufort’ by the producers and distributors of ‘The Band’s Visit’ are merely an attempt to escape liability for their own misleading of the American and Israeli academies and to find a scapegoat.”

Furthermore, “The producers of ‘The Band’s Visit’ and its distributors [Sony and others] will do well to take responsibility for their failure in this matter and cease making accusations against ‘Beaufort.’ Any such accusations will meet a suitable response and they will be obliged to take responsibility for their declarations.”

Ending on a sarcastic note, Zilber and Mandil wrote, “We applaud the producers and distributors of ‘The Band’s Visit’ on the media spin that no doubt will bring publicity viewers to their film. We are only sorry that such spin is at our expense.”

Although potential box office receipts and egos may have fueled the face-off between the two films, the very different moods of the two films also illustrate contrasting takes on how to garner the national prestige attendant to an Oscar nomination or win.

No Israeli film has ever won an Oscar, and the last to be among the five finalists was “Beyond the Walls” in 1984.

So what can be done to brighten the picture?

In many recent years, Israel Academy voters have favored films highly critical of Israeli society and practically devoid of sympathetic characters. Examples are last year’s “Sweet Mud,” a downbeat picture of kibbutz life, and the previous year’s even more depressing “What a Wonderful Place,” which featured an array of Israeli pimps, lowlifes and corrupt cops.

It has been argued that Hollywood Jews, who are heavily represented on the foreign pictures selection committee, are turned off by such negative portrayals.

So the light-hearted “Band’s Visit” might have been a welcome antidote to the previous gloomy films.

On the other hand, Israeli film critic Hannah Brown speculates that Oscar voters may more easily relate to Israelis portrayed in a military drama than the apolitical “Band’s Visit.”

Stay tuned for the Jan. 22 Oscar nomination announcements.