Family-focused stories at forefront of Israel Film Fest


It’s springtime in Los Angeles, which means raising the curtain on the 26th Israel Film Festival, this year displaying a colorful palette of more than 30 feature movies, documentaries, TV shows and student shorts.

The March 15 opening-night venue is the main theater on the Paramount studios lot, where celebrities, honorees and film buffs will view the award-winning feature “Restoration.”
Subsequent films will be shown through March 29 at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills and Fallbrook 7 in the San Fernando Valley.

“Restoration” is a tightly focused film, both in its examination of family relationships and its setting in a rapidly disappearing south Tel Aviv of old-time craftsmen in shabby shops.

Yaakov Fidelman (Sasson Gabay), his face permanently etched by a deep frown and three-day beard stubble, has been restoring antique furniture in his little store for decades, while his partner, Max, runs the business end of the operation.

When Max dies suddenly, apparently from over-exertion with a neighborhood prostitute, Fidelman discovers that the shop is in deep debt.

He starts waging a desperate and futile fight to obtain a bank loan, and then against his lawyer son Noah (Nevo Kimchi), who wants to tear down the shop and erect an apartment building on the property.

At this point, a mysterious young man, Anton (Henry David), shows up and is hired as a helper by Fidelman.

From left: Lior Ashkenazi as Uriel Shkolnik and Shlomo Bar-Aba as Eliezer Shkolnik in “Footnote.” Photo by Ren Mendelson, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Things look up when Anton discovers in the cluttered shop an 1884 Steinway grand piano, worth a fortune if it can be restored properly.

On the other hand, the scene darkens as Anton falls in love with Noah’s pregnant wife, Hava (Sarah Adler), and she with him.

The film owes its emotional veracity mainly to veteran actor Gabay’s affecting portrayal of Fidelman, and to the unhurried, well-paced direction of Yossi Madmoni, a versatile director, writer, actor, producer and editor, who has worked mainly in the TV medium.
There are some interesting similarities between Madmoni and his “Restoration” and Joseph Cedar, director of “Footnote,” Israel’s 2011 Oscar entry.

Both men are in their early 40s, grew up in deeply religious homes, and in their respective films this year have forgone broad themes of war, ethnic divisions and deep social divisions to focus instead on intimate family confrontations.

Speaking from his home in Tel Aviv, Madmoni was asked about a possible shift by Israeli filmmakers toward smaller, personalized movies, perhaps reflecting a growing preoccupation by Israelis with personal, rather than national, problems.

“It’s too early to define a trend,” he replied. “Even our war and social films tend to be personalized … and I do see a widening gap between the Israeli public and its leaders.”
In Hebrew, the film’s title is “Boker Tov, Adon Fidelman” (Good Morning, Mr. Fidelman), but that sounded too much like a comedy, Madmoni was told by the Sundance Film Festival, which conferred its screenwriting award on Erez Kaf-El for “Restoration.”

“Dolphin Boy.”

Earlier, the film was nominated for 11 Ophir awards, Israel’s equivalent of the Oscars.
Also on the festival’s screening schedule are “My Lovely Sister,” a triple love story within a poor Moroccan-Jewish family; “My Australia,” a look at the struggles of a Jewish family in Poland during the 1960s; “Man Without a Cell Phone,” starring an Israeli-Arab slacker; and “2 Night,” about a guy and a girl “looking for the impossible” — a parking space in Tel Aviv.

Documentary titles include the well-received “Dolphin Boy” and “When Israel Went Out,” chronicling the arduous journey of Ethiopian Jews to Israel. Additional presentations are “Viva España,” on the life of Israeli singer Hannah Aharoni, and “Schund,” a mock documentary on the Yiddish theater.

Honorees at the March 15 opening night will include actor Jonah Hill (“Moneyball”), David Nevins, President of Entertainment, Showtime Networks Inc and producers Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa for the Showtime television drama “Homeland,” based on an Israeli hit show.

“Footnote” will open at Laemmle theaters in West Los Angeles, Pasadena, Encino and West Hills between March 16-30, leading Meir Fenigstein, founder and executive director of Israfest Foundation Inc. and the Israel Film Festival, to observe that “outside of Israel itself, never before have there been so many Israeli films playing at one time in so many theaters.”


Tickets can be purchased online at www.IsraelFilmFestival.com or at Laemmle theater box offices. For information, call (877) 966-5566.

‘Footnote’ falls, continuing Israel’s Oscar drought


“Footnote” failed to win Israel’s first Academy Award, coming up short in the best foreign-language film category.

The film, directed and written by Joseph Cedar, was beaten out by the Iranian entry, “A Separation” by Asghar Farhadi, at the annual Oscars ceremony on Sunday night at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood.

“Footnote,” the story of the rivalry between two Talmudic scholars who are also father and son, was the second Academy Awards entry for Cedar, 43, a New York native who now lives in Tel Aviv. “Beaufort,” his film about the first Lebanon War, lost its bid in 2007.

Others vying in the best foreign-language film category included “In Darkness,” by Poland’s Agnieszka Holland, which follows the fate of a dozen Jewish men, women and children who hid for 14 months in the underground sewers of Lvov during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Also, “Bullhead” by Belgium’s Michael Roskam, and “Monsieur Lazhar” by Canada’s Philippe Falardeau.

At the Cannes Film Festival, “Footnote” was awarded the top prize for best screenplay, and in the United States the National Board of Reviews of Motion Pictures placed the film among the five top foreign-language features.

Cedar’s first two films, “Time of Favor” and “Campfire,” also were chosen as Israel’s entries to the Academy Awards but did not make the finals. They explored the gulf between observant and secular Israelis.

A sneak peek at ‘Footnote,’ Israel’s Oscar nominee


In his latest film, Israeli writer-director Joseph Cedar has created a drama of personal controversy. He explores spirit, resilience and responsibility. “Footnote” tells the story of a father, embittered by his life and angered by the success of his son. That son, though publicly applauded, is in turn challenged by the not-fully-formed third generation—his son.

The story of “Footnote” is universal, told here within the confines of a single family. Eliezer and Uriel Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar Aba and Lior Ashkenazi), father and son, are both professors in the Talmudic studies department at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, a place Cedar says is replete with “mythological rivalries between scholars, stubbornness on an epic scale, (and) eccentric professors who live with an academic mission that is bigger than life itself.”

After 20 years of application and repeated rejection, Eliezer Shkolnik is notified of his nomination for the prestigious Israel Prize. Until this moment, his academic narrative had been defined by a footnote. The notification, incorrectly made, sets forward a series of emotionally charged events, sacrifice, and temptation.

In a room too small for their chairs to fit around a table, a group of aging men and women come together to change the life of one who would be their peer. A mistake made has changed a life, effectively rebirthing a soul near death. Can they who have “given life” simply recall it? What is the value of absolute truth weighed against humanity? Should one who can change life with the stroke of a pen actually do so?

Can the son praise the father, and create the illusion he has chosen? Life, Uriel realizes, is a series of parries—some carried out in costume, some hidden behind the mask’s wire mesh. In agreeing to compromise with the devil of deceit—and academic vanity—it is the son who creates his father. Obligated to compose the committee’s statement, he writes the lines and the meaning between them, the truth made clear enough for a learned reader to understand.

Even as the son gives his future to save his past, he faces a father so deeply angry he would destroys the very son who would not destroy him. Further, the possibility of such destruction is generational: “What does it mean,” asks Uriel of his own son, “when a father gives up on his son?” Is this father willing to destroy his next generation?

A poster for “Footnote.” Photo from PD.

Seeking his father, Uriel follows staircase after staircase, each descending, until his reaches his father. In the depths, surrounded by his colleagues, the old scholar celebrates. His son who stood for his father, rather than for the convenience of correctness, who in finality will bear the weight of this decision, is uninvited. As he searched for his father in the bowels of the library, descending level by level, Uriel is accompanied by his thoughts and by music. Throughout the film, the music is an almost independent narrator, albeit one of private conversation rarely shared, yet telling and directive.

Interviewed prior to the awards ceremony, Eliezer panics and (literally) runs from the studio. Still in the camera-friendly red shirt, he returns to his texts. Bit by bit, linguistic clue by linguistic clue, the realization of what his son had done is clarified. He understands.

The old scholar lies silently, alone in the dark. In pain, Uriel had revealed the secret to his mother. In the dark, alone in her bed, she wakes. Carrying the burden of knowledge, she comes to her husband after what can be assumed to be a long time apart. The simplicity of his action, as he places a pillow for her head, speaks volumes. The woman—his wife, his life mate, the mother of his son—understands. They both do. Their recognition remains silent.

Silhouetted against golden Jerusalem, the couple ascends. To reach the prize ceremony, they descend through a strangely lit tunnel surrounded by the sounds of a beating heart. Eliezer knows the truth is known to the two closest to him, and now, to himself as well. There is no longer joy or celebration in receiving the prize. That has been removed—from who gave, and who received.

Footnote is Cedar’s fourth feature, following “Beaufort” (2007), “Campfire” (2004), and “Time of Favor” (2001). It premiered at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival on May 14, winning the Best Screenplay Award. It was released in Israel on June 2 and will be distributed in North America by Sony Pictures Classics.

Shlomo Bar Aba, returning to film after a twenty year hiatus, is Eliezer Shkolnik; Lior Ashkenazi, encompasses the role of Uriel Shkolnik, his son. Both prepared extensively, integrating themselves into the University community, studying Talmud; one even grew a beard.

For Mideast foes’ Oscar films, family trumps flag


As their nations warn of war, the Israeli and Iranian directors facing off at next week’s Academy Awards share a reluctance to see politics read into their movies, both of which are portraits of troubled families.

Joseph Cedar, director of Israel’s “Footnote,” and Asghar Farhadi, maker of Iran’s “A Separation,” stress that their works are about human issues and not conflicted governments that seem to be slipping into ever deeper diplomatic isolation.

Yet, even as the filmmakers put art before politics in competing for the Oscar in the foreign language film category, neither man can escape the fact he hails from a country that is vigilant about its portrayal at home and abroad.

Farhadi created his delicate, Golden Globe-winning divorce drama “A Separation” under Iranian censors who impose strictures in the name of Islamic morality and national morale.

“Footnote”, a comedy of errors about a father and son who are Talmud scholars locked in acid rivalry, has been remarked upon in, and welcomed in, Israel for what it lacks—any mention of the military or of regional enemies.

Cedar’s last movie, “Beaufort”, also was nominated for the foreign language film Oscar, but its depiction of Israeli troops under fire in Lebanon and the director’s anti-war rhetoric were denounced by some countrymen as defeatist.

“I learned not to interpret my own films,” Cedar said.

But, in an interview with Reuters, he described “Footnote” as an examination of a debate central to Jewish scholarship.

“The son is all about interpretation and commentary. The father is all about fact and verifiable empiric data. And sometimes I feel like the father, sometimes I feel like the son,” Cedar said.

He shied from offering a metaphor to the Jewish state itself, where pragmatism and ideology often clash and whose secular founding principles have been challenged by increasingly assertive religious minorities.

“There is something about this film that has allowed lots of audiences to see something different,” Cedar said.

LET AUDIENCES DECIDE

Farhadi has been similarly reluctant to entertain theories that his film is a parable for the struggle between Iran’s young dissidents and its paternalistic mullahs, and he told Reuters it is up to audiences to take from the movie what they will.

“I think in every story there are many hidden themes and it depends on which ones you choose to highlight. I included themes that mattered to me … and it depends on the viewer which of the themes emerge more strongly for them.”

“A Separation,” has earned critical acclaim around the world at film festivals and other events with its tale of an Iranian couple on the verge of divorce whose problems grow ever more complicated when other people become involved in their lives.

When asked recently by the Washington Post whether one bedridden old man weighing in on the couple’s issues represents the state, Farhadi chided the reporter, “if you have a political discourse about him, you are belittling this character.”

While Iran is notorious for its film censors – award-winning director Jafar Panahi was sentenced to jail in 2010 and banned from making films – it has remained cautious in its remarks about “A Separation.”

“Sometimes we see those who run these festivals grant precious awards to films whose main theme is centered on the poverty and hardships of a country’s people,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast told Reuters after “A Separation” won its Golden Globe Award in January.

“This should not lead our artists to ignore the glaring positive points and features of our nation, and instead illustrate the kind of things welcomed by such festivals’ organizers,” he said.

Farhadi has acknowledged adopting a non-partisan tone to get the film made in Iran but not because of problems with censors.

“No, I wasn’t confronted with any censorship,” he told Reuters. “Some countries did ask me, in order to show the film, that I should change the film’s title from what it is right now and I didn’t agree.”

Cedar said he had briefly met Farhadi and looked forward to seeing him again in the “cultural arena” of Hollywood’s Oscars.

“Putting aside all of these geopolitical sides, it (“A Separation”) is a film that really raises the level of the whole competition,” he said.

Reporting by Dan Williams; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte

How Tel Aviv became big business in Hollywood


In December 2009, Avi Nir, the chief executive of one of Israel’s largest broadcasting and production companies, invited the Hollywood agent Rick Rosen to spend a day at Keshet’s Tel Aviv office. Nir, who has a reputation among his Hollywood counterparts for being an aggressive visionary, sensed an epic change afoot in the Israeli entertainment industry. Soon, it would be producing more content than the country could commercially support. So Nir turned his hungry eyes toward the American marketplace. Hollywood, he figured, could offer opportunities. Not only as an entrée into a lush foreign market, but also as a model for how to export entertainment around the world. And Rosen, he thought, could teach the Israelis a few tricks. With the right sell, Rosen, a partner at the renowned William Morris Endeavor agency, could even become an advocate.

After a handful of morning meetings, Nir took Rosen to lunch at an Italian restaurant, where he described a new Israeli series titled “Hatufim,” or “Prisoners of War.”

“Do you know who Gilad Shalit is?” Rosen recalled Nir asking, in a recent interview. “Well, imagine if there are three Gilad Shalits, and two come back as heroes, and then you find out that maybe things aren’t exactly as they appear to be, maybe one of them was working for the Mossad. Do you think that could work in the States?”

Rosen thought for a second. “Absolutely,” he said. “If the returning soldiers are Americans from Iraq or Afghanistan.” Before 9/11, Americans may not have had an appetite — or an understanding — of living in a nation perpetually at war, but suddenly, Israel and the United States had something psychically important in common. “I know the perfect person to do this,” Rosen told Nir. “Howard Gordon.”

Rosen remembers Nir’s excitement at the prospect of Gordon, the award-winning producer of “24,” working on an Israeli show. A few days later, when Rosen touched down in Los Angeles, he called Gordon from the airport. “I have your next show,” he said. And thus, “Homeland” was born.

“Homeland” is now the eminent example of how an Israeli idea can transform into an American sensation. The Showtime series, which completed its first season in December, is a psychological thriller about a mentally unhinged CIA agent, Carrie Mathison, played by Claire Danes, who suspects returning Iraq veteran Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) of having been “turned” by terrorists. Inspired by the Israeli version “Hatufim,” about three soldiers returning from 17 years of captivity in Lebanon, “Homeland” just won the Golden Globe award for best dramatic television series and has been responsible for a surge in the pay-cable channel’s subscribers, helping edge it closer to its rival, HBO. “Homeland’s” critical acclaim has been equally prodigious: The New York Times’ Alessandra Stanley devoted an entire column to last season’s series finale, calling it “a clever, maddening and irresistible invitation to keep watching” — just the type of criticism every show craves. Mark Kaner, president of 20th Century Fox Television Distribution, said “Homeland” has been sold into 31 major territories around the world, and he expects the show to produce profits comparable to Gordon’s previous hit, “24,” which Kaner described as an “enormous” financial success.

“It’s sort of embarrassing at this point,” Gordon said of the effusive praise. “I only look at it as having further to fall.”

But here in Hollywood, and 9,000 miles away in Israel, everyone else is looking at “Homeland” as a paragon. As the Israeli entertainment industry becomes a font of innovation and creativity, Hollywood is serving as both mentor and marketplace, helping the tiny Middle Eastern country turn local ingenuity into an international commodity.

Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison in the Golden Globe-winning Showtime series, based on Israel’s “Hatufim.” Photo by Ronen Akerman/Showtime

Indeed, Israel’s popularity as a content creator has prompted a feeding frenzy in Hollywood; at least six Israeli formats (Hollywood jargon for story lines, on which adaptations are based) are currently in various stages of development, including the police procedural “The Naked Truth” at HBO, the time-travel musical “Danny Hollywood” at the CW, the divorce sitcom “Life Isn’t Everything” at CBS and the small-town murder mystery drama “Pillars of Smoke” (aka “Midnight Sun”) at NBC. Considering how hard it is to get any show on the air, some American writers have joked that they’d have better luck getting Hollywood’s attention if they hit in Israel first. Director Jon Turteltaub, for example, recently announced that he is attached to direct the remake of the popular Israeli film “A Matter of Size,” a smash on the festival circuit, which Paramount Pictures will produce. The activity back and forth has become so substantial of late that many of Israel’s writers, producers and even the major networks are now being represented by U.S. talent agencies. As content increases, so does competition.

“Every Israeli who ever put pen to paper — talented or not — now thinks they’re going to become millionaires in the United States, and it’s getting a little bit ridiculous,” Rosen said.

Inclined to play the part of the superior parent, Hollywood has responded to this escalating business relationship by downplaying it. At a recent event at UCLA sponsored by the Younes & Soraya Nazarian Center for Israel Studies at which Gordon appeared as keynote speaker, he cautioned against unwarranted excitement. “Is there a story?” he asked. “Is there a pipeline between Israeli content creators and American producers? Because, sometimes stories tend to inflate themselves and become bigger than they are.”

What’s clear is this: Many in Hollywood believe it is too early to tell whether the current frenzy will last. Some say they have already begun to see the effects of commercialization on Israeli content. And so far, only two shows — “In Treatment” and “Homeland” — have succeeded in crossing over to an American audience. Others were utter failures: CBS’ “The Ex List,” which premiered in October 2008, lasted less than a month, with only half the produced episodes airing, and Fox’s “Traffic Light,” which premiered in February 2011, lasted only through May.

But anyone who knows Israelis knows that they are indefatigable. And they’re not likely to surrender to a little bad luck as long as the Hollywood connection presents a dual opportunity to triumph on the world stage. At the very least, these opportunities could inject serious cash into Israel’s economy, but the more monumental prospect lies in the ability of entertainment imagery to influence public discourse and opinion.

For people who have either a fixed or unformed image of Israel, the way Israeli life and Israeli values are transmitted through film and television could expand their impressions of the Jewish state. Because as any lover of film or literature knows, the pleasures of culture can be so powerful as to make a consumer feel connected to its creator. So imagine what it would mean for a viewer in Spain or France or China to discover that his favorite show originates in Israel, and to feel connected to the humanity of the stories Israel tells about itself. It could, as many dearly hope, illuminate Israel in a completely new way.

“God knows how many people have heard about ‘In Treatment’ and ‘Homeland’ being Israeli shows and are kind of thinking to themselves, ‘Maybe they’re not savages,’ ” the Israeli actress and “In Treatment” producer Noa Tishby said. “Maybe it’s not Afghanistan over there.”

Will this finally be the year for an Israeli Oscar?


Joseph Cedar’s “Footnote,” Israel’s entry in the Oscar sweepstakes for best foreign-language film, has jumped the first major hurdle by making the shortlist of nine semi-finalists.

“Footnote” is Cedar’s fourth feature film in an 11-year career, and each one has been selected by the Israeli film industry to represent the country at the Academy Awards.

In 2007, his war picture “Beaufort” was one of the five Oscar finalists, but neither this nor any other Israeli entry has ever walked off with the golden statuette. Cedar and his countrymen fervently hope that the fourth time will be the charm. More about this film later.

This year 63 countries, from Albania to Vietnam, vied in the foreign-language film competition, considered one of the most unpredictable of the Oscar categories.

Last year was the first in memory that no domestic or foreign film dealing with the Holocaust or the Nazi era was entered in any Academy Award category. On that basis, this reporter predicted that the “Schindler’s List” and “Inglourious Basterds” era had passed and that from now on this historical genre would deal with more recent conflicts and genocides.

It took only one year to prove the prophecy wrong with Poland’s entry “In Darkness,” which has also qualified for the shortlist. The movie’s settings and emotions are as lightless as the underground sewers of Lvov, where a dozen Jewish men, women and children actually hid for 14 months during the German occupation of Poland.

Their unlikely protector was a rough-hewn Polish sewage worker and part-time thief, who knew all the hiding places in the underground system because that’s where he worked and stashed his loot.

At the helm of “In Darkness” is the superb Polish director Agnieszka Holland (“Europa, Europa”), whose forte is to delineate the shades of the human character. In this as in her other works, victims, heroes, villains and bystanders each have their strengths and weaknesses, varying with time and circumstance.

“I have always been intrigued by the contradictions and extremes in human nature,” she said in a phone interview. “I wonder at how fragile and how strong we are, how evil and irrational under some conditions, and how brave and compassionate at other times.”

The Netherlands’ entry, “Sonny Boy,” which did not make the cut, tells the actual story of two unlikely rescuers, a middle-aged Dutch housewife, who runs off with and marries a black Surinamese student more than 20 years her junior.

Under the German occupation, they hide several Jews in their home. Similar to Anne Frank’s fate, the couple was betrayed, arrested, and died in captivity.

One trend among foreign film producers, first noted last year, is the growing emphasis on such themes as internal conflicts, problems of immigrants, and life under the former Soviet occupation of East European countries.

Examples are films from Bosnia and Ireland (ethnic cleansing), Colombia (guerrillas vs. military), Czech Republic (expulsion of ethnic Germans after World War II), Estonia (Soviet army deserter returns), Kazakhstan (Soviets invade Afghanistan), Italy and Romania (illegal immigrants) and Lebanon (Christian-Muslim conflict).

New York-born Joseph Cedar, 43, is that rarity among Tel Aviv filmmakers, an Orthodox Jew, and he explored the gulf between observant and secular Israelis in his first two films, “In Time of Favor” and “Campfire.”

His next picture was “Beaufort,” a war, or better said, anti-war, film. In sharp contrast, his current movie, “Footnote,” centers on the rivalry between two Talmudic scholars, who are also father and son.

“OMG, what could be more boring,” I can hear the second and third generations of my family moan, but in Cedar’s hands the movie has more tension per frame than a gun-toting action picture or apocalyptic sci-fi epic.

Eliezer and Uriel Shkolnik, father and son, are both shining lights in the Department of Talmudic Studies of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where rivalries are fierce.

As former Harvard professor Henry Kissinger allegedly observed, academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so low.

Maybe so, but to the two Shkolnik philologists, the stakes in their lifelong studies of the authenticity and meaning of each word in different Talmudic versions and editions are far higher than the struggles of warring countries or the rise and fall of national economies.

The director, himself the son of renowned Hebrew University biochemist Howard Cedar, firmly rejects the assumption that the protagonists in the film resemble in any way the persons or relationships in his own family.

“The film’s Talmudists in no way represent my father and myself,” the younger Cedar said. “Actually, their relationship is my nightmare, not my reality.”

Yet “Footnote” explores the balance between uncompromising honesty and family relationships. Says Cedar, “what if my son becomes a more successful director than I am, but makes movies that I hate? Will I tell him how I really feel or preserve family harmony?”

On a national scale, the insistence on one’s absolute truth contributes to civic violence in Israel, Cedar believes. “We now have a generation that considers ‘compromise’ a bad word and social harmony has been taken hostage by people who claim to know the absolute truth.”

Although “Footnote” will not be released in American theaters until March, it has received favorable reviews. At the Cannes Film Festival, Cedar was awarded the top prize for best screenplay, and in the United States, the National Board of Reviews of Motion Pictures placed the film among the five top foreign-language features.

But the competition for the ultimate winner will be rough. In both the United States and Europe, the critical favorite at this point is the Iranian entry “A Separation,” which has won a string of awards at international film festivals.

The film by Asghar Farhadi masterfully combines an easily recognizable situation – an impending divorce in an upper middle class family – with the strange atmosphere, pieties and judicial proceedings of an unfamiliar society.

Nominations for the 84th Academy Awards will be announced Jan. 24 and the Oscars presented on Feb. 26.

Israel’s entry to Oscars does not plan to become a ‘Footnote’


Joseph Cedar has made four movies during his 11-year career, and the first three have represented Israel in the Oscar races for Best Foreign-Language film.

One made the five finalists cut, but none has been awarded the golden statuette, nor has any other Israeli film. Cedar and his countrymen fervently hope that this year, his fourth entry, “Footnote,” will prove the charm. More about this film later.

This year 63 countries, from Albania to Vietnam, are vying in the foreign-language film category, and the only certainty is that there will be some surprises.

Last year was the first in memory that no domestic or foreign film dealing with the Holocaust or the Nazi era was entered in any Academy Award category. On that basis, this reporter predicted that the “Schindler’s List” and “Inglourious Basterds” era had passed and that from now on this historical genre would deal with more recent conflicts and genocides.

It took only one year to prove that prophecy wrong with the Polish film “In Darkness.” The movie’s settings and emotions are as lightless as the underground sewers of Lvov, where a dozen Jewish men, women and children actually hid for 14 months during the German occupation of Poland.

Their unlikely protector was a rough-hewn Polish sewage worker and part-time thief, who knew all the hiding places in the underground system, because that’s where he worked and stashed his loot.

At the helm of “In Darkness” is the superb Polish director Agnieszka Holland (“Europa, Europa”), whose forte is to delineate the shades of the human character. In this, as in her other works, victims, heroes, villains and bystanders each have their strengths and weaknesses, varying with time and circumstance.

“I have always been intrigued by the contradictions and extremes in human nature,” she said in a phone interview. “I wonder at how fragile and how strong we are, how evil and irrational under some conditions, and how brave and compassionate at other times.”

The Netherlands’ entry, “Sonny Boy,” tells the actual story of two unlikely rescuers, a middle-aged Dutch housewife, and the black Surinamese student more than 20 years her junior she runs off and marries.

Under the German occupation, they hide several Jews in their home. Similar to Anne Frank’s fate, the couple was betrayed, arrested, and died in captivity.

One trend among foreign film producers, first noted last year, is the growing emphasis on such themes as internal conflicts, problems of immigrants, and life under the former Soviet occupation of East European countries.

Examples are films from Bosnia and Ireland (ethnic cleansing), Colombia (guerrillas vs. military), Czech Republic (expulsion of ethnic Germans after World War II), Estonia (Soviet army deserter returns), Kazakhstan (Soviets invade Afghanistan), Italy and Romania (illegal immigrants) and Lebanon (Christian-Muslim conflict).

Although many colonials on this side of the Atlantic consider the King’s English as a foreign language, this year the United Kingdom has actually submitted a film in the foreign-language category, titled “Patagonia.” It is set in a Welsh settlement in southern Argentina and the characters speak Welsh or Spanish.

New York-born Cedar, 43, is a rarity among Tel Aviv filmmakers, an Orthodox Jew, and he explored the gulf between observant and secular Israelis in his first two films, “In Time of Favor” and “Campfire.”

His next picture was “Beaufort,” a war, or better said, anti-war, film. In sharp contrast, his current movie, “Footnote,” centers on the rivalry between two Talmudic scholars who are also father and son.

“OMG, what could be more boring,” I can hear the second and third generations of my family moan, but in Cedar’s hands the movie has more tension per frame than a gun-toting action picture or apocalyptic sci-fi epic.

Eliezer and Uriel Shkolnik, father and son, are both shining lights in the department of Talmudic studies of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where rivalries are fierce.

As former Harvard professor Henry Kissinger allegedly observed, academic politics are so vicious, because the stakes are so low.

Maybe so, but to the two Shkolnik philologists, the stakes in their lifelong studies of the authenticity and meaning of each word in different Talmudic versions and editions are far higher than the struggles of warring nations or the rise and fall of national economies.

The director, himself the son of renowned Hebrew University biochemist Howard Cedar, firmly rejects the assumption that the protagonists in the film resemble in any way the persons or relationships in his own family.

“The film’s Talmudists in no way represent my father and myself,” the younger Cedar said. “Actually, their relationship is my nightmare, not my reality.”

Yet “Footnote” explores the balance between uncompromising honesty and family relationships. Says Cedar, “what if my son becomes a more successful director than I am, but makes movies that I hate? Will I tell him how I really feel or preserve family harmony?”

On a national scale, the insistence on one’s absolute truth contributes to civic violence in Israel, Cedar believes. “We now have a generation that considers ‘compromise’ a bad word and social harmony has been taken hostage by people who claim to know the absolute truth.”

Although “Footnote” has not yet been released in American theaters, it has received favorable reviews. At the Cannes Film Festival, Cedar was awarded the top prize for best screenplay, and in the United States, the National Board of Reviews of Motion Pictures placed the film among the five top foreign-language features.

On the down side, the Oscar competition in this category is rough and the Academy selection committee is widely considered unpredictable, if not erratic.

In both the United States and Europe, the critical favorite at this point is the Iranian entry “A Separation,” which has won a string of awards at international film festivals.

The film by Asghar Farhadi masterfully combines an easily recognizable situation – an impending divorce in an upper middle class family – with the strange atmosphere, pieties and judicial proceedings of an unfamiliar society.

Nominations for the 84th Academy Awards will be announced Jan. 24 and the Oscars presented on Feb. 26.

Israeli director Cedars awarded at Cannes


Israeli director Joseph Cedars won the best screenplay award at the Cannes film festival for his movie “Footnote.”

The director, whose film “Beaufort” was nominated for an Oscar in 2007, had already left Cannes on Sunday and was called back to receive his prize. He did not return in time to personally accept the award.

“Footnote” centers on a father and son who are rival Talmudic scholars. It will open throughout Israel on June 2 and will be distributed in the United States by Sony.

Cannes faced controversy after Danish director Lars von Trier was expelled from the festival following statements expressing sympathy for Hitler and Nazis. His film, “Melancholia,” had been favored to win the Palme d’Or prize for best picture. Kirsten Dunst won the Best Actress Award for her part in the film; it did not win any other prizes.

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