Jewish, Israeli-themed films vie for foreign-language Oscar

Producers and directors in 76 countries will be biting their nails when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announces the Oscar nominees for best foreign-language film this week.

Along with providing a view of cinematic skills in countries from Afghanistan to Venezuela, the entries also serve as a rough indicator of themes of interest to international filmmakers and, presumably, to the audiences in their countries.

By that measure, despite regular predictions to the contrary, films on Jewish themes, including the Holocaust and the Middle East conflict, are not passé, as shown by challenging submissions from four countries.

Both the Israeli and the Palestinian entries this year reflect the intensity of their continuing conflict, although preoccupation with this theme is not a given. Israel’s previous two choices, for instance, were “Footnote,” about academic rivalries, and last year’s “Fill the Void,” about life and love among the ultra-Orthodox.

Israel’s current hopes rest with “Bethlehem,” which pits the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, against diverse Palestinian factions eager to blow up the Jewish state.

In Hollywood’s hands, such a plotline would be a no-brainer, with the guys in the white hats mopping up the floor with the bad guys.

However, as the film’s producer Talia Kleinhendler notes, “What I think is important about this story is that it never attempts to give a clear answer about right and wrong. All the characters in ‘Bethlehem’ are flawed, all are vulnerable. There is no black-and-white in the film, only painful shades of gray — like the reality we all live in here.”

If this assessment makes the film sound namby-pamby, full of on-the-one-hand, but-on-the-other-hand agonizing, “Bethlehem,” named for the West Bank city where the action unfolds, is anything but.

Co-written by Yuval Adler, an Israeli Jew who served in an army intelligence unit, and Ali Wakad, a Palestinian Muslim and journalist, “Bethlehem” is a nail-biting thriller with enough intrigue and bullets to keep the most demanding action fan satisfied.

The film’s setting is the Second Intifada, from roughly 2000 to 2005, and in the opening scene, Palestinian suicide bombers have struck in the heart of Jerusalem, with scores of dead and wounded.

The central protagonists are Razi, a veteran Shin Bet (or Shabak) agent, and Sanfur, a 17-year-old Palestinian recruited by Razi as an informer two years earlier.

But Sanfur isn’t just any kid with a hankering for American jeans. He is the younger brother of Ibrahim, the local leader of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, whom Razi has been hunting for more than a year.

Like almost everything in the movie, and in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict it depicts, the connection between the seasoned Israeli agent and the teenage Palestinian boy is complex and often contradictory, ultimately developing into a wary father-son relationship.

While the movie’s Palestinian militants hate Israel, they dislike their internal rivals with equal intensity. The secular Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, affiliated with Fatah, contemptuously refers to the fervently Islamic Hamas as the “beards,” who in turn loathe the corrupt bureaucrats of the Palestinian Authority.

Another remarkable aspect of “Bethlehem” is that almost everyone involved in making the movie is pretty much a novice.

The strong acting lineup, foremost Shadi Mar’i as Sanfur and Tsahi Halevi as Razi, consists almost entirely of first-time actors. Furthermore, for both Adler and Wakad, “Bethlehem” is their first feature film.

Adler, 44, acknowledged in an interview at a Hollywood hotel that his film debut as director and co-writer is a major hit in its home country, and it won a fistful of awards, including best picture, at the Israeli equivalent of the Academy Awards.

Adam Bakri in “Omar.”

Hany Abu-Assad, director of the Palestinian entry “Omar,” won critical praise for two previous films, “Paradise Now” and “Rana’s Wedding.” In those, the protagonists did not hide their antagonism toward Israelis, but still, the latter were portrayed as recognizable human beings, not Nazi-like monsters.

Actually, there have been instances when Israelis in Palestinian films were often more likeable than in such self-lacerating Tel Aviv productions as “Life According to Agfa” and “What a Wonderful Country.”

Abu-Assad forgoes such balance in “Omar,” in which the title character and the beautiful Nadia pine for one another on opposite sides of the Separation Wall, in Israeli terminology, or the Isolation Wall in the Palestinian dictionary.

In the process of jumping the wall and participating in the shooting of an Israeli soldier, Omar (Adam Bakri) is caught by Israeli undercover agents, who first torture him and then try to turn him into a collaborator. Distrusted by the Israelis and reviled as a traitor by his own people, Omar is driven to one last desperate act.

“The German Doctor”

Argentina’s Oscar hope, “The German Doctor,” is set in the post-World War II decades, when the South American nation became a haven for Nazi war criminals, sheltered by the Argentinian military government and the long-established German colonies.

The German doctor of the title is Dr. Josef Mengele, the Auschwitz “Angel of Death,” whose cold-blooded medical experiments put him high on the Allied and Israeli list of fugitive war criminals.

Feeling safe in the southern Argentinian city of Bariloche, Mengele resumes his experiments to “improve” the species, initially on livestock. After a local family befriends him, he transfers his ministrations to spur the growth of their undersized daughter, and then resumes his earlier “research” on newborn twins.

Almost as unsettling are the open Nazi sympathies of the local German community, whose school starts the day’s classes with the lusty singing of the German national anthem, as well as an openly advertised annual fiesta celebrating the Fuhrer’s birthday.

When the news breaks that Mossad agents have captured Adolf Eichmann to bring him to trial in Jerusalem, the German underground spirits Mengele to Paraguay.

Alex Brendemühl as the poker-faced Mengele heads a generally capable, though not particularly brilliant cast, directed by Lucia Puenzo.

The most surprising of the cited four Oscar contenders is the Philippines’ “Transit,” which probes the precarious existence of some of the 40,000 Filipinos working in Israel, mainly as caretakers of the elderly.

Initially given relative freedom to work and raise their children in Israel, the Filipino migrants were hit hard by a 2010 residency law, triggered by the government’s determination to preserve the Jewish character and demography of Israel.

The primary target of the law was the growing number of Africans entering the country legally and illegally, but the Filipinos were the collateral victim of a measure under which non-Jewish children who had spent less than five years in Israel could be deported to their parents’ home country.

That meant that kids born in Israel, who spoke only Hebrew among themselves and felt themselves Israelis, suddenly faced the prospect of separation from their parents and exile to a strange land. Eventually, the Israeli Supreme Court invalidated some of the harshest aspects of the law.

“Transit,” directed and co-written by Filipina filmmaker Hannah Espia, is told from the individual perspectives of two families living together — single mother Janet and rebellious teenage daughter Yael, and the mother’s brother Moises, a caretaker and single father of 4-year-old Joshua.

The dilemma facing these four people, and to a greater extent some 10 million Filipinos working outside their home country, is handled with sensitivity and without Israel bashing.

Israelis, especially the elderly employers of the migrant workers, are generally shown as sympathetic to the plight of the Filipinos. Police and government officials enforcing the anti-immigrant laws do so without humiliating the migrants, but neither do they question the government orders.

Hollywood’s annual game of predicting likely Oscar nominees and winners is now in full swing, though doing so for foreign-language movies is particularly hazardous.

In past years, the selection committee’s choices have been loudly criticized as highly erratic, and labyrinthine regulations have led to the disqualification of highly regarded submissions, a fate that this year befell France’s much-discussed “Blue Is the Warmest Color.”

Current prognostications favor Iran’s “The Past,” by director Asghar Farhadi, who won the Oscar two years ago with “A Separation.”

Also winning early plaudits are Denmark’s “The Hunt” and Hong Kong’s “The Grandmaster,” while there is some sentimental support for “Wadja,” the first-ever Saudi Arabian submission, with the added boost that it was directed by a woman, Haifaa al-Mansour.

Israel’s “Bethlehem” is frequently listed in the second tier of contenders and in a good position to make it into the top ranks, while the Philippines’ “Transit” has drawn favorable mentions.

By one of the quirks of the Academy calendar, a shortlist of nine foreign-language nominees will be announced on Dec. 20, after press time for this edition, and a winnowed-down list of five nominees on Jan. 16, 2014. The final winners will raise their trophies on Oscar Sunday, March 2, in Hollywood. 

The 2013 (Jewish) Emmy nominees

The 2013 Emmy nominations are in!  We won’t bore you with the whole long list, but we will share this compact yet impressive group of Jewish nominees. Here goes.


Mandy Patinkin, “Homeland”


Lena Dunham, “Girls”

Julia Louis-Dreyfus, “Veep”


Mayim Bialik, “The Big Bang Theory”


Michael Douglas, “Behind The Candelabra”

Tune into CBS on September 22 at 8 p.m. to see who goes home with a shiny statue. (And to see who’s wearing what, of course.)

10 big Jewish ideas in final round

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles this week announced the 10 finalists for the Next Big Jewish Idea contest, which offers a $100,000 prize to the winner. The finalists include a Jewish superheroes game, Jewish care packages for those in the military, social service resources and a plan to make day school free.

Nearly 112,000 votes were cast for more than 300 submissions during the first round of voting, Jan. 11 to March 31. The finalists include the top five vote-getters along with the five chosen by a panel of judges. The final round of voting opened on May 2 and will end on June 3. 

In June, the judges will reconvene, armed with new information from the finalists along with the public’s votes for the finalists and all online comments for each idea. The winner will receive up to $100,000 in funding and services as well as access to Federation’s expertise and wide-reaching community connections. 

Although the judges will choose the winner, Scott Minkow, Federation’s vice president of partnerships and innovation, said the community is “encouraged to make their voice heard” by voting online. Minkow hopes the public dialogue might help the non-winning ideas bring in other means of funding and support. 

Some of the ideas that didn’t make the final cut nevertheless showed a flair for the creative. “Spiritual fitness” called for a Jewish gym with treadmills posting psalms on their screens for every mile walked. “Life Advice From Old People” is a blog sharing stories and videos of any elderly person that the author has come across. “Dance Wherever You Are” would implement a national celebration on Rosh Hashanah using art exhibitions, music and dance. “Love Thy Neighbor” proposed a program of adopting one non-Jewish urban family per synagogue to build interfaith community connections. 

The 10 finalists:

Art Space Match would use bartering to connect Jewish artists with institutions such as synagogues, Jewish day schools, JCCs or Jewish retreat centers. In exchange for an organization’s donating space, the artists would offer workshops, create new projects and host open studios for the community. 

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83rd Academy Awards Nominations Announced

Actor in a Leading Role

  * Javier Bardem in “Biutiful”
  * Jeff Bridges in “True Grit”
  * Jesse Eisenberg in “The Social Network”
  * Colin Firth in “The King’s Speech”
  * James Franco in “127 Hours”

Actor in a Supporting Role

  * Christian Bale in “The Fighter”
  * John Hawkes in “Winter’s Bone”
  * Jeremy Renner in “The Town”
  * Mark Ruffalo in “The Kids Are All Right”
  * Geoffrey Rush in “The King’s Speech”

Actress in a Leading Role

  * Annette Bening in “The Kids Are All Right”
  * Nicole Kidman in “Rabbit Hole”
  * Jennifer Lawrence in “Winter’s Bone”
  * Natalie Portman in “Black Swan”
  * Michelle Williams in “Blue Valentine”

Actress in a Supporting Role

  * Amy Adams in “The Fighter”
  * Helena Bonham Carter in “The King’s Speech”
  * Melissa Leo in “The Fighter”
  * Hailee Steinfeld in “True Grit”
  * Jacki Weaver in “Animal Kingdom”

Animated Feature Film

  * “How to Train Your Dragon” Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois
  * “The Illusionist” Sylvain Chomet
  * “Toy Story 3” Lee Unkrich

Art Direction

  * “Alice in Wonderland”
    Production Design: Robert Stromberg; Set Decoration: Karen O’Hara
  * “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1”
    Production Design: Stuart Craig; Set Decoration: Stephenie McMillan
  * “Inception”
    Production Design: Guy Hendrix Dyas; Set Decoration: Larry Dias and Doug Mowat
  * “The King’s Speech”
    Production Design: Eve Stewart; Set Decoration: Judy Farr
  * “True Grit”
    Production Design: Jess Gonchor; Set Decoration: Nancy Haigh


  * “Black Swan” Matthew Libatique
  * “Inception” Wally Pfister
  * “The King’s Speech” Danny Cohen
  * “The Social Network” Jeff Cronenweth
  * “True Grit” Roger Deakins

Costume Design

  * “Alice in Wonderland” Colleen Atwood
  * “I Am Love” Antonella Cannarozzi
  * “The King’s Speech” Jenny Beavan
  * “The Tempest” Sandy Powell
  * “True Grit” Mary Zophres


  * “Black Swan” Darren Aronofsky
  * “The Fighter” David O. Russell
  * “The King’s Speech” Tom Hooper
  * “The Social Network” David Fincher
  * “True Grit” Joel Coen and Ethan Coen

Documentary (Feature)

  * “Exit through the Gift Shop” Banksy and Jaimie D’Cruz
  * “Gasland” Josh Fox and Trish Adlesic
  * “Inside Job” Charles Ferguson and Audrey Marrs
  * “Restrepo” Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger
  * “Waste Land” Lucy Walker and Angus Aynsley

Documentary (Short Subject)

  * “Killing in the Name” Nominees to be determined
  * “Poster Girl” Nominees to be determined
  * “Strangers No More” Karen Goodman and Kirk Simon
  * “Sun Come Up” Jennifer Redfearn and Tim Metzger
  * “The Warriors of Qiugang” Ruby Yang and Thomas Lennon

Film Editing

  * “Black Swan” Andrew Weisblum
  * “The Fighter” Pamela Martin
  * “The King’s Speech” Tariq Anwar
  * “127 Hours” Jon Harris
  * “The Social Network” Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter

Foreign Language Film

  * “Biutiful” Mexico
  * “Dogtooth” Greece
  * “In a Better World” Denmark
  * “Incendies” Canada
  * “Outside the Law (Hors-la-loi)” Algeria


  * “Barney’s Version” Adrien Morot
  * “The Way Back” Edouard F. Henriques, Gregory Funk and Yolanda Toussieng
  * “The Wolfman” Rick Baker and Dave Elsey

Music (Original Score)

  * “How to Train Your Dragon” John Powell
  * “Inception” Hans Zimmer
  * “The King’s Speech” Alexandre Desplat
  * “127 Hours” A.R. Rahman
  * “The Social Network” Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross

Music (Original Song)

  * “Coming Home” from “Country Strong” Music and Lyric by Tom Douglas, Troy Verges and Hillary Lindsey
  * “I See the Light” from “Tangled” Music by Alan Menken Lyric by Glenn Slater
  * “If I Rise” from “127 Hours” Music by A.R. Rahman Lyric by Dido and Rollo Armstrong
  * “We Belong Together” from “Toy Story 3” Music and Lyric by Randy Newman

Best Picture

  * “Black Swan” Mike Medavoy, Brian Oliver and Scott Franklin, Producers
  * “The Fighter” David Hoberman, Todd Lieberman and Mark Wahlberg, Producers
  * “Inception” Emma Thomas and Christopher Nolan, Producers
  * “The Kids Are All Right” Gary Gilbert, Jeffrey Levy-Hinte and Celine Rattray, Producers
  * “The King’s Speech” Iain Canning, Emile Sherman and Gareth Unwin, Producers
  * “127 Hours” Christian Colson, Danny Boyle and John Smithson, Producers
  * “The Social Network” Scott Rudin, Dana Brunetti, Michael De Luca and Ceán Chaffin, Producers
  * “Toy Story 3” Darla K. Anderson, Producer
  * “True Grit” Scott Rudin, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, Producers
  * “Winter’s Bone” Anne Rosellini and Alix Madigan-Yorkin, Producers

Short Film (Animated)

  * “Day & Night” Teddy Newton
  * “The Gruffalo” Jakob Schuh and Max Lang
  * “Let’s Pollute” Geefwee Boedoe
  * “The Lost Thing” Shaun Tan and Andrew Ruhemann
  * “Madagascar, carnet de voyage (Madagascar, a Journey Diary)” Bastien Dubois

Short Film (Live Action)

  * “The Confession” Tanel Toom
  * “The Crush” Michael Creagh
  * “God of Love” Luke Matheny
  * “Na Wewe” Ivan Goldschmidt
  * “Wish 143” Ian Barnes and Samantha Waite

Sound Editing

  * “Inception” Richard King
  * “Toy Story 3” Tom Myers and Michael Silvers
  * “Tron: Legacy” Gwendolyn Yates Whittle and Addison Teague
  * “True Grit” Skip Lievsay and Craig Berkey
  * “Unstoppable” Mark P. Stoeckinger

Sound Mixing

  * “Inception” Lora Hirschberg, Gary A. Rizzo and Ed Novick
  * “The King’s Speech” Paul Hamblin, Martin Jensen and John Midgley
  * “Salt” Jeffrey J. Haboush, Greg P. Russell, Scott Millan and William Sarokin
  * “The Social Network” Ren Klyce, David Parker, Michael Semanick and Mark Weingarten
  * “True Grit” Skip Lievsay, Craig Berkey, Greg Orloff and Peter F. Kurland

Visual Effects

  * “Alice in Wonderland” Ken Ralston, David Schaub, Carey Villegas and Sean Phillips
  * “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1” Tim Burke, John Richardson, Christian Manz and Nicolas Aithadi
  * “Hereafter” Michael Owens, Bryan Grill, Stephan Trojanski and Joe Farrell
  * “Inception” Paul Franklin, Chris Corbould, Andrew Lockley and Peter Bebb
  * “Iron Man 2” Janek Sirrs, Ben Snow, Ged Wright and Daniel Sudick

Writing (Adapted Screenplay)

  * “127 Hours” Screenplay by Danny Boyle & Simon Beaufoy
  * “The Social Network” Screenplay by Aaron Sorkin
  * “Toy Story 3” Screenplay by Michael Arndt; Story by John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich
  * “True Grit” Written for the screen by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
  * “Winter’s Bone” Adapted for the screen by Debra Granik & Anne Rosellini

Writing (Original Screenplay)

  * “Another Year” Written by Mike Leigh
  * “The Fighter” Screenplay by Scott Silver and Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson;
    Story by Keith Dorrington & Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson
  * “Inception” Written by Christopher Nolan
  * “The Kids Are All Right” Written by Lisa Cholodenko & Stuart Blumberg
  * “The King’s Speech” Screenplay by David Seidler

Coens’ ‘Grit’ at top of Oscar list, with a king and a social networker

[UPDATE 1/27/11 – 1:20pm] Not accustomed to getting up at an early hour to report on the Jewish Oscar nominees, this reporter omitted a number of deserving filmmakers and actors in the original story. Following is the (hopefully) complete list:

With “The King’s Speech” garnering 12 nods, royalty led the Oscar nomination parade, but Jewish contenders were well represented among the nobility.

Three of the best picture nominations were produced by Jewish honchos, “The Social Network” by Scott Rudin, “True Grit” by Ethan and Joel Coen with Rudin, and “The Black Swan” by Mike Medavoy.

Jesse Eisenberg got a best actor nomination, portraying Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in “Social Network,” which received eight nods. James Franco, whose mother is Jewish, made the cut for his starring role in “127 Hours.”

Golden Globe winner Natalie Portman, born in Israel, was a best actress pick for he role as a tortured ballerina in “Black Swan.”

With a bit of a stretch, we can include among best supporting actresses Hailee Steinfeld (Jewish father) as the 14-year old heroine of “True Grit” (which received 10 noms) and Helena Bonham Carter (Jewish grandmother and half-Jewish grandfather on the maternal side) as George VI’s strong-willed wife in “King’s Speech.”

The best director category included the Coen brothers for “True Grit,” Darren Aronofsky for “Black Swan” and David O. Russell (Jewish father) for “The Fighter.”

Among foreign-language films, Israel’s entry,  “The Human Resources Manager,” was eliminated early on, but Susanne Bier, the outspokenly Jewish director, won a nod for Denmark’s “In a Better World.”

Israel’s pride received some balm with the nomination of the short documentary “Strangers No More,” which is set in Tel Aviv’s Bialik-Rogozin School, and was made by American filmmakers Kirk Simon and Karen Goodman.

As usual, Jewish writers took center stage.

Aaron Sorkin for “Social Network,”  the Coen brothers for “True Grit” and Debra Granik for “Winter’s Bone” were named for their adapted screenplays.

For original screenplays, nods went to David Seidler for “King’s Speech,”  Lisa Cholodenko with Stuart Blumberg for “The Kids Are Alright,”  Scott Silver for “Fighter” and Britain’s Mike Leigh for “Another Year.”

Oscar winners will be crowned Feb. 27 at Hollywood’s Kodak Theatre.