"Sand Storm," Israel's submission to the Oscars, is about a Bedouin community.

Middle Eastern filmmakers don’t filter through lens of Arab-Israel conflict this year


To headline readers and TV news watchers, the Middle East is a region constantly roiled by conflicts, with nonstop fighting between nations and among their militant factions.

But if the movies, particularly those submitted by 85 countries for Oscar recognition, are an indication of popular tastes and concerns, then the Israel-Arab standoff and other hot and cold wars are all but ignored by the region’s filmmakers.

Checking out this year’s Academy Award entries from Israel, Lebanon, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, all but one forgo nationalistic bravado or hostile propaganda in favor of themes familiar to most Hollywood fans.

Israeli filmmakers have rarely struck any military poses in the past but have frequently come up with highly critical portraits of their own society. By contrast, this year’s entry “Sand Storm,” is a sympathetic and sharply observed picture of a Bedouin community in the Negev in the midst of generational changes. All the picture’s dialogue is in in Arabic.

Lebanon’s entry, “Very Big Shot,” takes a satirical look at the country’s politics and endless infighting. The comedy is about a small-time Beirut drug dealer who tries to pull off one big coup by posing as an important film producer.

The Palestinian entry, “The Idol,” is a variant on the venerable Hollywood storyline of “A Star Is Born,” but with a local twist. Director Hany Abu-Assad based the picture on the true story of Mohammed Assaf, raised in Gaza, who fulfills his burning ambition to travel to Cairo and compete in the top-rated TV show “Arab Idol.” He wins, becomes a singing sensation and a symbol of hope for his fellow Palestinians.

Abu-Assad’s earlier movie, “Paradise Now,” triggered a heated debate in 2005 about whether the originating entity should be listed as Palestinian Authority, Palestinian Territories or Palestine. Since then, all sides seem to have tired of the controversy and “The Idol” is credited simply to “Palestine.”

One rarely thinks of Saudi Arabia in terms of romantic comedy, but “Barakah Meets Barakah” sets a precedent. In a kingdom where unchaperoned contact between the genders is prohibited, the attempt by a young civil servant to meet up with a girl takes on a Chaplinesque flavor. However, as in the case of Israel’s “Sand Storm,” on a deeper level, the Saudi picture explores the clash between traditional values and the modern world.

The grimmest entry is Egypt’s “Clash,” centering on the 2013 Cairo riots, triggered by confrontations between the military government and followers of the Muslim Brotherhood. The action is seen mainly from the perspective of various Cairo residents, crammed inside a police paddy wagon.

Among all of Israel’s neighbors, only Jordan’s “3000 Nights” has a pronounced anti-Israel slant in the story of an arrested Palestinian woman having her baby in an Israeli prison.

One caveat in viewing these movies is that an American outsider might overlook some of the clues to more fervent nationalistic emotions boiling beneath the innocent-sounding themes. This holds particularly true for “The Idol” and director Abu-Assad, who earned Oscar nominations with two of his previous films, “Paradise Now” and “Omar,” both focusing directly on Israeli-Palestinian confrontations.

In a phone interview, Abu-Assad observed, “To the Palestinians, particularly those living in Gaza, the victory of one of their own in the ‘Arab Idol’ show became a symbol of hope and pride.

“For 60 to 70 years, their lives have been characterized by defeats. Suddenly they had a voice to sing and speak for them.”

The directors and casts of these six films from the Middle East have at least one emotion in common: their disappointment in being eliminated from the Oscar race by the selection committee.

The ultimate winners will be crowned at the Feb. 26 ceremony at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood.

 

From left: Joel Basman as Helmut Morbach and Louis Hofmann as Sebastian Schumann Photo by Henrik Petit in "Land of Mine." Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Denmark’s ‘Land of Mine’ is a tale of retribution, national hatred


In any standard World War II movie, it is safe to assume that the Germans will be the beastly villains who vent their sadistic fury on the hapless — or heroic — citizens of Nazi-occupied countries.

And if a poll on the nicest nation in Europe were taken at the end of World War II, it is likely that Denmark would rank at the top and Germany at or near the bottom.

“Land of Mine,” Denmark’s nominee in the Oscar race for foreign-language film, shatters the mold.

During the nearly five years after Hitler’s invasion of Denmark, German sappers seeded the Scandinavian country’s west coast with some 2 million land mines in anticipation of an eventual Allied invasion, which never happened.

With the Nazis defeated in 1945, the reconstituted Danish army decided to clear the beaches, forcing German prisoners of war to do the dangerous job. The POWs comprised a wide range of ages, but in the film, it falls to a group of 14 teenagers to do the job. The young soldiers, between 15 and 18, were drafted in Hitler’s last, desperate stand of the war.

Their overseer is Danish Sgt. Carl Rasmussen (Roland Moller), who sees his assignment as a chance to get even with the detested Germans for their wartime rule, which was relatively mild until 1943, when the Danes rescued some 7,200 of the country’s 8,000 Jews by ferrying them to neutral Sweden and safety.

Rasmussen locks up his charges at night, lets them go hungry for days at a time, and cares not a whit that the untrained German youngsters are regularly blown up while trying to defuse the mines, buried only a few inches deep. (The film’s Danish title translates as “Under the Sand,” which gets lost in the English title’s rather heavy-handed play on words.)

In one nail-biting scene, the young POWs are made to walk, arms linked, across a still mine-infested beach.

When the sergeant’s attitude toward his charges gradually softens — he even steals some bread from the commissary for them — he is upbraided by his commanding officer.

Martin Zandvliet, the highly regarded Danish director and screenwriter, acknowledges that he received some hate mail after the film was released in his country. However, at 46, he and most of his fellow citizens were born well after the war and can view it at some emotional distance.

During a phone interview, Zandvliet described two aspects of his film as drawing some general observations on human nature and in re-examining the attitudes of his countrymen during the Nazi occupation.

One facet of the film is the enduring nature of national hatred, even in a country like Denmark, which “pictures itself as a happy country,” he said. How do we deal with such hatred, pervasive throughout the world, he asked, how do we find a way to talk to one another?

Zandvliet shows no reluctance in questioning some of the laudatory beliefs about his country’s role during World War II.

In almost any recollection of the Holocaust, one of the few bright spots is the rescue of 7,200 of Denmark’s Jews, who escaped the Nazi clutches when they were ferried out of the country by Danish underground fighters and fishermen. The director lauds the risks taken by many Danes in this clandestine operation, but notes that quite a few Jews had to hand over considerable amounts of money for their rescues.

Overall, he observed, the Danes, as fellow “Aryans,” were treated better by the Nazis than the people of any other occupied country. But on the whole, Zandvliet said, his countrymen didn’t really “turn against the Germans until they started losing the war.”

To illustrate the endurance of national hatreds, Zandvliet looked further back into history. The Danes, he said, had never forgiven the Germans for the outcome of an 1864 war, when the Prussians incorporated some Danish territory as the spoils of victory.

One other conclusion from his film, he observed, is that “when adults go to war, it’s often the kids who pay the price. … Of course, you can’t compare this to the 6 million who perished in the Holocaust,” but in the case of the young German soldiers depicted in the film, “we have to remember that they were only 9 to 11 years old when World War II started.”

In general, “Land of Mine” has been well received in Denmark, despite the few hate mails, Zandvliet said, adding, “On the whole, Danes seemed to understand what I was trying to say.”

 

“Land of Mine” opens Feb. 10 at the Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles and Feb. 17 at Playhouse 7 in Pasadena and Town Center 5 in Encino.

Natalie Portman. Photo by Reuters/Alessandro Bianchi

Oscars salute a city of stars — and many are Jewish


Oscar belted out “City of Stars” on Jan. 24, with a special nod to Jewish talent, as the 89th Academy Award nominations were announced at 5:30 a.m. local time.

The uplifting musical “La La Land” danced off with 14 nominations, including one for best picture — tying the records of “All About Eve” and “Titanic,” thanks mainly to two former Harvard roommates, Justin Hurwitz and Damien Chazelle, both 32.

Hurwitz (see profile on Page 63) received nods for musical score and original song (with Benj Pasek’s lilting lyrics) for both “City of Stars” and “Audition (The Fools Who Dream).” Chazelle was nominated in the director and screenplay categories.

Chazelle told the Jewish Journal last year that his parents, although Catholic, were dissatisfied with their son’s education at a church Sunday school so they enrolled him in the Hebrew school of a liberal synagogue.

Over the next four years, Chazelle recalled, “I had that period of my life where I was very, very into Hebrew and the Old Testament, and then I went with my class to Israel when we were in the sixth grade. I don’t think they even knew I wasn’t Jewish; I was, like, ‘passing.’ ”

Two noted thespians were nominated in the lead actress race: Jerusalem native Natalie Portman for her role as former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy in “Jackie,” and veteran French star Isabelle Huppert in the French film “Elle.”

Huppert, who plays a successful businesswoman who plots an elaborate revenge on the home intruder who raped her, is the daughter of a Jewish father and a Catholic mother. Her parents were married while France was under Nazi occupation, with her father hiding his Jewish roots.

In the lead actor category, a nod went to American-British actor Andrew Garfield, whose paternal grandparents were Jews who emigrated from Eastern Europe to London. He stars in “Hacksaw Ridge,” the story of the only conscientious objector ever awarded the Medal of Honor.

The movie also earned a nomination for director Mel Gibson, still living down his anti-Semitic outbursts of the past. However, actor and director got along well, with Garfield declaring in a TV interview, “I am proud to be Jewish.”

Also in the running for outstanding achievement in direction is Kenneth Lonergan for the critically acclaimed “Manchester by the Sea.” Lonergan’s mother and stepfather are Jewish.

“Joe’s Violin,” a film by Kahane Cooperman and Raphaela Neihausen, made the cut in the short documentary category. It explores the friendship between a 91-year-old Holocaust survivor and a 12-year-old Bronx schoolgirl and how the power of music can brighten the darkest of times.

The winners will be crowned Feb. 26 at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood. The ceremony will be broadcast to 225 countries and territories worldwide.

Will Oscar finally embrace Israel?


Some 85 countries — from Albania to Yemen — have entered a movie selection in pursuit of an Oscar for best foreign-language film. Over the score of years that this annual column has been printed, two questions by concerned Jewish readers persist:

Will Israel, which has placed 10 times among the five finalists but has never won, finally take home the golden statuette as the global champion?

And will the constantly predicted “Holocaust fatigue” spell an end to films about the Nazi era, 71 years after the end of the slaughter?

The selection process for best international picture is notoriously erratic, but, with fingers crossed, Israel’s entry “Sand Storm” seems to have a real fighting chance to end the country’s 52-year Academy Award drought.

As the first feature film from Israeli director-writer Elite Zexer, “Sand Storm,” entirely in Arabic, should appeal to the selection jury as a probing but sympathetic portrayal of a Bedouin family and community in the Negev, clashing between traditional ways and youthful rebellion. The movie, which Zexer developed over a 10-year period, has won a basketful of awards at international film festivals, and an Oscar would, of course, be the ultimate icing on the cake.

Entries from six other countries indicate that the Nazi era, the Holocaust and World War II have lost none of their fascination for filmmakers.

Austria’s “Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe” traces the life of the world-famous Jewish novelist (“The Royal Game”), who left Vienna and went into exile in 1934. Though feted abroad, he could not overcome the intellectual and spiritual separation from a war-ravaged Europe and, together with his wife, committed suicide in 1942 in Brazil.

At the center of the Russian entry “Paradise” is a Russian noblewoman, working as a fashion editor in Paris, who is thrown into a concentration camp for sheltering two Jewish children.

Denmark’s “Land of Mine” is surely one of the oddest World War II movies, in which the viewer’s sympathy is with a group of teenage German soldiers. At war’s end, they are forced to dig out and dismantle thousands of land mines buried by the Wehrmacht, which anticipated an Allied invasion on the beaches of Denmark’s western coast. The bad guys, surprisingly, are a sadistic Danish sergeant and his officer, who persist in their mission even as more and more of their young captives are blown up by the exploding land mines.

Norway presents a more traditional view of resistance to Nazi occupation in “The King’s Choice.” In April 1940, Nazi forces invaded Norway by sea and demanded that King Haakon VII capitulate. The monarch refused and, in exile, orchestrated his countrymen’s resistance to the German occupation.

“The Liberation of Skopje,” entered by Macedonia, recaptures the struggle for the nation’s capital against the German occupiers. The World War II drama is seen through the eyes of 8-year-old Zoran, who watches heartbroken when his best friend, a Jewish girl, is crammed into a box car heading for a death camp.

Harking back to the run-up to World War II, “Lost in Munich” is an absurdist Czech comedy, anchored in the 1938 Munich agreement, in which Britain and France pressured Czechoslovakia into giving up most of its strategic borderland to Hitler.

Should any of the cited six movies connected to the World War II era get the Oscar nod, it would follow in the footsteps of last year’s recipient, Hungary’s “Son of Saul,” set entirely among Jewish prisoners in a death camp. The preceding year, the winner was Poland’s “Ida,” the story of an aspiring nun about to take her vows, who discovers that her parents were Jews murdered in the Holocaust.

Switching time and location, Israel’s neighbors in the Middle East may not look kindly on the Jewish state, but their Oscar entries are focused elsewhere. Instead, they deal mainly with their internal disputes or find relief in such conventional movie themes as breaking into showbiz or young romance.

Jordan’s “3000 Nights” has the strongest anti-Israel slant in the depiction of a Palestinian woman having a baby in an Israeli prison.

However, the grimmest entry is Egypt’s “Clash,” centering on the 2013 Cairo riots, triggered by confrontations between the military government and the Muslim Brotherhood. The action takes place entirely inside a paddy wagon in which police have crammed a hapless cross section of the population.

The Palestinian entry, “The Idol,” eschews politics in favor of the true story of Mohammed Assaf, raised in Gaza, who fulfills his burning ambition to travel to Egypt to compete on the TV show “Arab Idol.” He wins and becomes a singing sensation and a symbol of hope for his fellow Palestinians.

One rarely thinks of Saudi Arabia in terms of romantic comedy, but “Barakah Meets Barakah” breaks the mold. In a country where unchaperoned contact between genders is prohibited, the attempts of a young civil servant to meet up with a girl takes on a Chaplinesque flavor. However, as in the case of Israel’s “Sand Storm,” on a deeper level, the Saudi picture explores the clash between traditional values and the modern world.

The Oscar ceremony will be broadcast Feb. 26. 

Natalie Portman calls her babies ‘good luck charms’ as Oscar speculation swirls


Actress Natalie Portman said her babies are “good luck charms,” when asked about early Oscar speculation for her latest movie.

“I think they’re good luck charms in life,” Portman, 35, told Entertainment Tonight in an interview aired Sunday, “They’re the best things. The best main miracles.”

The Israeli-born actress, pregnant with her second child, is promoting the upcoming biopic, Jackie, in which she portrays former First Lady Jackie Kennedy. The film is scheduled to open on December 2.

She was pregnant with her first child, Aleph, now 5, when she won her first Oscar for Best Actress in 2011.

“I don’t necessarily connect it [to winning an Oscar],” she said. “But it is certainly a joy.”

Portman is slated to play Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the first Jewish female U.S. Supreme Court justice, in another future film.

‘Son of Saul’ wins Oscar for Foreign Language Film


Jewish talent received a fair share of recognition and the Holocaust-themed “Son of Saul” beat entries from 80 countries to win the Oscar for best foreign-language film, but overall the Sunday evening Academy Awards show in Hollywood skipped the light touch and Jewish jokes in favor of some deep soul-searching.

Triggered by a shutout of non-white (and generally non-Anglo-Saxon) nominees in the prestigious acting categories and spurred by a high-profile Diversity Campaign, there was a heavy, and justifiable, emphasis on the lack of black performers and other artists for the second year in a row.

In addition, Oscar winning films ranged across such themes as the Catholic Church’s cover-up of pedophile priests, and “honor” killings of women in Pakistan. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden spoke out against sexual abuse on college campuses and best actor winner Leonardo DiCaprio pitched for climate change awareness.

“Son of Saul,” entered by Hungary and centering on a member of the Sonderkommando at Auschwitz-Birkenau, forced to lead fellow Jews into the gas chambers and cremate their remains, was the favorite to top the field, and did not disappoint

Sharing in the film’ success were director Laszlo Nemes, actor Geza Rohrig, Hungary’s film fund which underwrote most of the $1.6 million budget, and the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, which contributed $50,000.

In his acceptance speech, Nemes observed that “even in the darkest hour of mankind, there might be a voice within us that allows us to remain human.”

Gabor Sipor, the film’s producer, contrasted Hungary’s underwriting of the film to such “less anti-Semitic” countries as Germany, France and Israel, which had turned down requests for support.

Emerging as the winner among 124 contenders for best documentary feature was “Amy,” a British film on singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse, described by her brother as “a little Jewish kid from North London with a big talent.” Her meteoric career and tortured life were cut short at 27 through drug abuse and alcohol poisoning.

In addition, while accepting his adapted screenplay Oscar for “The Big Short,” the film's co-author, Charles Randolph, gave a shout-out to his wife, Israeli actress Mili Avital, by telling her “ani ohev otach” (“I love you” in Hebrew).

Other Jewish Oscar winners in major categories included:

Michael Sugar as co-producer of “Spotlight,” the best picture winner. In his remarks, he observed “This film gives a voice to survivors and this Oscar amplifies the voice which we hope will become a choir that will resonate all the way to the Vatican. Pope Francis, it’s time to protect the children and restore the faith.”

Best original screenplay: Josh Singer (with Tom McCarthy), also for “Spotlight.”

Best cinematographer: Emmanuel Lubezki for “The Revenant.” This was the third year in a row that the Mexican citizen won the prize. American-Israeli Arnon Milchan was the film’s co-producer.

Veteran Academy Award observers noted the absence of the old-time Jewish jokes, as when emcee Bob Hope, who never received an acting award, lamented that in his house the Oscar award ceremony was known as “Passover.”

It was left to brash comedienne Sarah Silverman, one of the award presenters, to uphold the tradition by squeezing into her few sentences a reference to “meshuggah” and a supposed preference by the fictional James Bond for “Jewish women with big boobs.”

The country BDS doesn’t want Oscar winners to see


Last week, two groups affiliated with the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) Movement took out a full-page ad in the L.A. Times excoriating the Israeli Government for offering an all-expenses-paid trip to the Holy Land for Oscar nominees. Leveling the false, but oft-repeated charge that Israel is an apartheid state, they called on the nominees to turn down the opportunity to visit.

Many countries run public relations campaigns in the U.S. to burnish their national brands and promote tourism. Only Israel – the one democracy and America’s strongest ally in the region – is systematically singled out and criticized for it. 

While turning a blind eye to the horrific human right’s records of virtually every other country in our region – from Iran’s jailing of journalists and murder of political dissidents, to the Syrian regime’s slaughter of its own people, to Yemen’s brutal repression of religious minorities – the BDS Movement looks for any opportunity to go after Israel. 

This Movement’s goal is clear and simple: to demonize, delegitimize, and ultimately, destroy the world’s only Jewish state through economic warfare and vile lies – the same tactics long employed by anti-Semites to attack the Jewish people. Instead of pursuing peace and justice as BDS activists claim, these groups sow the seeds for hate and conflict, publicly rejecting a two-state solution and calling for Israel to be removed from the map. 

The ad raises the question: why exactly is the BDS Movement so desperate to keep people from seeing Israel with their own eyes? 

Perhaps it is because the boycotts and slander of BDS cannot hide a simple truth, which is that the freest Arab population in the Middle East lives in Israel. Far from an apartheid state, Israel is the only country in the region with an independent judiciary, a thriving and open civil society, and guaranteed political and legal rights for all of its citizens. 

Indeed, if Oscar nominees take us up on the offer to come to Israel, they will meet Arab-Israelis who serve at the highest levels of government, from the Prime Minister’s Cabinet to the Parliament to the Supreme Court, along with Arab-Israeli leaders in science, medicine, business, and the arts. In a survey by the Statnet research institute, 77% of Arab Israelis said that they would prefer to live under Israeli sovereignty rather than Palestinian rule. 

Israel is not perfect. Like minorities in many countries, the Arab-Israeli community faces challenges– and one of our government’s main priorities is to close the social, economic, and educational gaps that now exist between the general population and communities like Arab-Israelis and ultra-Orthodox Jews. 

We are making progress on this front. The presence of Arab students in Israel universities has risen more than 50% over the past decade and it continues to increase, particularly among women. Arab-Israelis are 20 percent of Israel’s population, but now account for 22 percent of the student body at the Technion – Israel’s leading institution of science and technology. Just last month, the Israeli Government announced a plan to allocate an additional $3.8 billion to improve housing, social welfare, infrastructure, transportation and education for Arab-Israeli communities. 

The situation for Arabs in Israel marks a stark contrast to life in Gaza – an area that Israel withdrew from completely in 2005 – where the Hamas terrorist organization continues to rule, brutally oppressing the population, particularly women, political dissidents, and members of the LGBT community. In the West Bank, Palestinians live with the tragic consequences of their failed and corrupt leadership, which has rejected far-reaching U.S. and Israeli peace offers that included a Palestinian state in 97 percent of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. Today Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas refuses to sit at the negotiating table with Israel to pursue a two-state solution. 

The true path to peace lies in building bridges, not promoting boycotts. The real advocates for justice will look for opportunities to create dialogue between the two parties, instead of simply demonizing one of them. 

The good news is that aside from the very small group of radicals behind the BDS Movement, millions across America and around the world are building stronger relationships than ever with Israel, which has become a center of innovation and a magnet for solutions in so many spheres, from high-tech to water to medicine. 

As we have since our founding, Israel will continue striving to advance our core values of democracy and human rights, improve life for all our citizens, and extend our hand in the hopes of building a brighter future of prosperity and peace with our neighbors. 

David Siegel is the Consul General of Israel to the Southwest.

Ad accusing Israel of apartheid published in Los Angeles Times


A full-page ad that calls on Oscar nominees to refuse a free Israel trip worth $55,000 offered in their Academy Award swag bags was published in the Los Angeles Times.

The ad, which says “Don’t endorse Israeli apartheid,” appeared Wednesday in the newspaper’s Calendars section days after the entertainment magazine Variety refused to publish the ad, sponsored by Jewish Voice for Peace, or JVP, a group that supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel.

Co-sponsored by the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, the ad has a top line reading “Free Trip to Israel at the Expense of Palestinians.”

The Israeli government is sponsoring the all-expenses paid, 10-day luxury travel pack with first-class air travel to Tel Aviv. The trip is included in swag bags for Oscar host Chris Rock and all nominees in the best actor/actress, best supporting actor/actress and director categories.

Variety initially accepted payment for the group’s ad, but then said it could not publish the ad since “it would need to have a softer tone.” JVP said in a statement it had asked for suggestions of “specific edits,” but was told “The topic is too sensitive at this time and we will not be in a position to add it to next week’s edition.”

“We’re glad the LA Times is running our ad,” Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of JVP, said in a statement issued Wednesday. “Censorship has no place in a serious publication, whether in ads or editorial content.”

Full-page ad in L.A. Times calls Israel apartheid state; Variety previously rejected it


On Wednesday morning, Feb. 24, The Los Angeles Times published a full-page ad sponsored by Jewish Voice for Peace and the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation calling Israel an apartheid state and saying it distracts the public from human rights abuses; the same ad had been rejected by Variety.

The ad appears on page 8 of the Calendar section and implores Oscar nominees to “#SKIPTHETRIP,” referring to a luxury trip to Israel offered in a gift bag of various items from Explore Israel (a tourist agency) and the Israeli Ministry of Tourism. The gift is being offered to 25 Oscar nominees in the acting and directing categories, plus Chris Rock, host of Sunday night’s Academy Awards presentation. According to The Daily Beast, the total value of the gifts in the bags is about $200,000, including the free 10-day VIP trip to Israel, which is believed to be worth about $55,000. The gift bag also offers one year’s worth of unlimited Audi car rentals from Silvercar, a 15-day walking tour of Japan, a lifetime supply of skin creams from Lizora, and a number of other luxury items. Distinctive Assets, an L.A.-based marketing firm, organized the gift bags.

[RELATED: Disputed territories – undisputed double standard]

The Times’ ad describes the free trip to Israel as “at the expense of Palestinians,” and calls on the celebrities receiving the gifts to not “endorse Israeli apartheid.”

“This year’s top Oscar nominees are getting a $55,000 trip to Israel, sponsored by the Israeli government,” the ad reads. “This is part of a larger ‘Brand Israel’ strategy to use celebrities to distract from almost 50 years of illegal occupation of Palestinian land and human rights abuses including separate laws for Palestinians.” 

Oscar nominees who have said they would not “visit Israel professionally,” according to Jewish Voice for Peace, include Best Supporting Actor nominee Mark Rylance (“Bridge of Spies”) and Asif Kapadia, whose documentary, “Amy,” is nominated for Best Documentary (Feature). Kapadia is not among those being offered the gift.

Both Jewish Voice for Peace and the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation are left-wing groups that support the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which claims Israel is an “apartheid state” and aims to weaken Israel and isolate its economy from the rest of the world.

On Monday, Jewish Voice for Peace sent out a press release stating that the entertainment news magazine Variety had refused to publish the ad after initially accepting it. The release said that Variety’s Director of Strategic Partnerships told Jewish Voice for Peace that the ad’s “topic is too sensitive at this time” and that publisher Michelle Sobrino-Stearns had rejected it. Variety did not respond to requests for comment from The Jewish Journal.

Ari Wohlfeiler, Jewish Voice for Peace’s deputy director, said in an email that the price of running the ad was the standard rate for any ad in that section of the L.A. Times – about $10,000. Asked whether an image in the ad of what appears to be a trip voucher to Israel was an image of the actual voucher from the Oscar gift bag, Wohlfeiler said, “As far as we know.”

Wohlfeiler said that when Variety rejected the ad, it did not offer suggestions for edits that might make it acceptable. The L.A. Times also had some editorial requirements, he said, but was willing to run the ad once they were met. “They required we put a bar at the top explaining overly that this was an ad paid for by JVP and the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, and asked that we remove a link to a webpage describing Variety’s refusal to print the ad,” Wohlfeiler said.

Hillary Manning, a spokeswoman for the L.A. Times, said the newspaper doesn’t discuss any specific ad buys, but that it “accepts advocacy and opinion-based advertising in its pages” and that this ad “was reviewed to ensure that it meets our standards and guidelines.”

Haim Saban, a film and television producer who's also a major supporter of Israel, connected the ad to the BDS movement, saying it follows a pattern of hate toward the Jewish state: “The BDS has made it clear that their purpose is to delegitimize Israel using whatever tactic they can. In this case, using the Oscars for a hate-filled message.”

Saban suggested that anyone viewing the ad “should regard it for what it is – an organization trying to spread anti-Semitism.”

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, condemned the L.A. Times for running the ad, but added he’s not surprised, noting that in 2006 the newspaper had published an op-ed by Khaled Mashal titled, “We shall never recognize…a Zionist state on our soil.” Mashal heads the political wing of Hamas, an internationally recognized terrorist group whose stated aim is the destruction of Israel.

“For a leading newspaper that has already provided op-ed space to a senior person of Hamas, whose charter is to destroy the Jewish state, what’s the big deal about accepting an ad that’s a lie?” Cooper asked, rhetorically.

Cooper said groups like Jewish Voice for Peace and U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation want to stop celebrities from visiting Israel because “Israel sells itself” to tourists.

“It’s an open society with plenty of warts and plenty of problems, but it doesn't take a genius to figure out pretty quickly that to call it an apartheid state is a lie,” Cooper said. “For the L.A. Times, after other publications in this town rejected it, for the L.A. Times to allow unencumbered Israel apartheid on a full-page ad is a massive victory for people who oppose peace.”

On Feb. 26, JVP, the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, Artists for Palestine UK and the Palestinian Performing Arts Network sent satirical invitations to representatives for the same 25 nominees “to visit Palestine and experience life through the eyes of Palestinians living under apartheid and military occupation,” according to a press release. Guests would receive an “occupied territories swagbag,” including “settler-inflicted beatings” and an “uprooted olive tree.”

In response to the ad in the L.A. Times, Creative Community for Peace, a Los Angeles-based entertainment industry organization dedicated to countering cultural boycotts of Israel, created the hashtag, #TAKETHETRIP, and the organization posted an altered version of the Times ad on its Facebook page that reads, “This Free Trip to Israel Can Advance Peace with the Palestinians.”

“We were aware JVP attempted to put an ad in Variety. We were aware of that and we’re following it closely,” Jill Hoyt, director at Creative Community for Peace, said in a phone interview. “I can’t say I knew they were planning an ad in the Los Angeles Times today, but once we saw it, we felt the need to respond as we did on social media, and obviously to share with you and other people we think it’s not helpful toward achieving peace and … to get to some kind of resolution.”

Actor Josh Malina, an active supporter of Israel, said it's important to call out hate speech, but to do it wisely: “The anti-Israel forces are certainly strong and vocal, and when they cross the line into hate speech and anti-Semitism, as they often do, they should be called on it,” Malina wrote in an email. “That said, I would urge people who consider themselves pro-Israel to consider that this doesn’t preclude them from being pro-Palestinian as well. We rail against BDS groups because they judge Israel with a striking double-standard, refusing to recognize and reckon with Palestinian violence and terrorism. Let us on the pro-Israel 'side' avoid making the same mistake. Palestinians are fellow human beings. As with all other countries, there are legitimate criticisms to be made of Israeli actions, and these should be part of the discussion. Ultimately, anyone who suggests that the Israeli-Palestinian situation is something other than a conflict between two parties, is guilty of misrepresenting the truth, and is not helping to create an environment where positive progress might be made.”

The gift bags have caused concern on other fronts, as well. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), which oversees the Oscars and does not give out bags, filed a civil suit on Feb. 16 against Distinctive Assets, the marketer behind the gifts, accusing the company of trademark infringement, false advertising and trademark dilution, according to a complaint available on the United States District Court website.

The BDS movement applauded AMPAS’ decision to sue Distinctive Assets, even though the suit has nothing to do with Israel.

“The Academy’s decision to sue Distinctive Assets was based purely on its need to protect its intellectual property and clarify that it is not affiliated in any way with Distinctive Assets or its gift bags,” an AMPAS spokesperson said. “Politics played no role in the decision, and neither the destination of any of the trips involved in Distinctive Assets' gift packages, nor who was paying for them, was relevant to the Academy choosing to file suit.”

***

UPDATE (Monday, Feb. 29, 10:30am): This story was updated to reflect a satirical invitation sent by pro-BDS groups on Feb. 26.

Jewish Journal senior writer Danielle Berrin and Naomi Pfefferman, the Journal's arts & entertainment editor, contributed to this report.

Writers shrug off bad rap over ‘Straight Outta Compton’


In the fall of 2013, as production was gearing up for the Universal Studios biopic about the 1980s rap group N.W.A, the producers needed a screenwriter to help pare down an existing script. The work also needed to be done quickly for the film, “Straight Outta Compton,” to get the tax credit to actually be filmed in Compton and the Los Angeles area, instead of in New Orleans.

The producers included N.W.A members Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, and they turned to an as-yet-unproduced screenwriter, Jonathan Herman, who was both hungry to take on the project and could write fast. 

“I think this was a situation where it helped that I was Jewish,” said Herman, who grew up in Connecticut. “I heard from the studio that they had asked a lot of other people before me who couldn’t deliver the script in a month. I don’t celebrate Christmas, so I was able to work straight through Christmas and New Year and really put my nose to the grindstone.”

Herman’s version built on years of work already put in by Andrea Berloff, the film’s other credited screenwriter, who had been with the project since 2009 when it was first developed by New Line Cinema. In preparation for her first draft, Berloff had spent more than 10 months interviewing rap star Ice Cube, Eazy-E’s widow, Tomica Woods-Wright, and as many people associated with N.W.A and Death Row Records as possible. As the project moved from studio to studio, Berloff’s script eventually ended up at Universal, which brought it to Herman. 

Herman and Berloff never worked together on the “Compton” script in the conventional sense, but the finished product has proven to be a fruitful collaboration. Released last August, “Straight Outta Compton” has earned extensive critical praise and taken in more than $200 million at the box office. The screenplay also earned the film its sole Oscar nomination, in the best original screenplay category. 

Both writers are aware of the irony. Given that the 2016 Oscar season has seen the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences receive considerable backlash for a lack of diversity, particularly in the acting categories, many have questioned how a critical favorite like “Straight Outta Compton” could be shut out … except for its white screenwriters? 

Herman and Berloff have heard the mutterings about race, both when they first signed on and all through the awards season publicity mill.

“We’re glad that we can represent the movie and be having these conversations and answer these questions, because the movie was snubbed, and a lot of people can’t,” Herman said. “I happen to disagree that this is all the fault of the academy. It’s more of a studio casting problem, since the academy doesn’t make the movies. I don’t think either of us is going to accept any kind of blame. We actually are examples of storytellers who are telling diverse stories. We aren’t the problem.”

Berloff encountered blogosphere backlash when news first circulated that a white woman had been hired to tell the story of celebrated black male rap artists. She notes that, in addition to being qualified, she is also something of a rarity, as only 11 percent of the films produced in 2015 were written by women.  

“By and large, studios don’t make films with a female voice. They do not make female-centered movies,” said Berloff, whose past credits include the 2010 Oliver Stone-directed film “World Trade Center.” “So I’m not sure what movie everybody would be comfortable with me writing.”

“Compton” is set in the mid-1980s and charts the friendship and musical rise of Compton natives Ice Cube (played by O’Shea Jackson Jr.), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) and Eric “Eazy-E” Wright (Jason Mitchell), as well as the formation — and eventual breakup — of the rap group N.W.A. The film depicts a rift between the three friends, which was spurred, in some measure, by the influence of former N.W.A manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti). When Ice Cube leaves the group, he calls out Heller in the song “Vaseline”: “It’s a case of divide and conquer / Cuz you let a Jew break up my crew … ” 

An enraged Heller calls the Anti-Defamation League, and Cube is eventually interviewed and taken to task by a reporter for his music’s anti-Semitic views. 

From left: Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff

In the film, Cube replies that his gripe is specifically with Heller, not with the Jews. Berloff and Herman, both of whom were raised in observant Jewish households, said they discussed the subject of attitudes toward Jews with the filmmakers and ultimately were pleased with the film’s treatment of the subject.

“We talked about it quite a bit, and I would not have been comfortable had we not addressed it in the movie. I felt like it had to be in there,” said Berloff, whose grandmother was a Hebrew school teacher. “Cube said the first time someone called him anti-Semitic, he had no idea what that even meant.” 

“We apply our own anti-Semitism filter when we hear something like that. These are guys who have been prejudiced against their whole life because of the color of their skin,” Herman added. “It seemed like the Jews they knew were living a pretty good life compared to them.”  

Through the years they spent on “Compton,” both writers said they developed relationships with the subjects of their film. Ice Cube had heavy input both into the hiring of the writers and the content of the script.

Berloff said she developed a level of trust with Ice Cube over the months she spent doing her research. Herman said that, to this day, he’s not sure he reached it. 

“I got pretty close, but I don’t think I ever felt that they were completely in my corner,” Herman said. “Look, I get it. For very obvious reasons, who am I to be telling their story?”

Because of the color of his skin?

“Yeah. White, gay, Jewish, [I’m] different in every possible way,” Herman said. “But that’s fine. I think maybe that level of tension helped create some real magic that maybe wouldn’t have happened if they had had writers who came from a place just like them.”

Israel trips add hasbara to Oscar swag bags


Israel is in the headlines again, but this time for glitz and glamour rather than politics.

For the first time, the Jewish state is offering free 10-day VIP trips to Israel as one of the gifts in the Oscar “swag bags” given to all Academy Award nominees in the acting and directing categories (as well as to this year’s host, Chris Rock). The trip is one of many luxury items offered to the nominees, at an estimated total value of more than $200,000. Critics are crying foul at the indulgence afforded these already-wealthy, albeit high-profile, recipients.

[Academy sues over $200,000 so-called Oscar gift bags]

“I would say they need to take a marketing course,” Dina Rezvanipour, CEO of 3D PR Marketing, said of the critics. Rezvanipour conceived of the Oscar tradition — now in its 14th year — after Bette Midler once jokingly complained about leaving awards shows empty-handed. Rezvanipour decided to include the Israel tour as a way to bring attention to her client, exploreisrael.com, a New York-based online tourism company. Upon hearing the idea, Israel’s Ministry of Tourism quickly jumped on board to make it a joint venture. Each trip is for the nominee and a guest, and Israel will shell out about $18,000 per couple for first-class flights, stays at five-star hotels and meals at Israel’s best restaurants — a package worth about $55,000.

“There is no better brand ambassador than a celebrity, and the potential benefits to the brands are immense if a celebrity wears their product or visits their hotel,” Rezvanipour said by email. “This isn’t about ‘need.’ Jennifer Lawrence doesn’t need $20 million per film. But that’s what her brand is worth to moviemakers. Similarly, these Oscar nominees certainly don’t need anything for free, but it is fun for them to be introduced to new products since they can’t shop at Sephora like a normal person.”

Celebrity visits to Israel are always a slap in the face to Israel haters and activists in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, who bring out the picket signs, literally and metaphorically, whenever Israel makes its way down the red carpet. Those protestors have had some success in pressuring some artists to back down on performing in Israel, including with Lauryn Hill, Elvis Costello and Santana, but they failed with Lady Gaga, Justin Timberlake and Alicia Keys, all of whom have played concerts in Tel Aviv’s Yarkon Park.

For Israel’s Ministry of Tourism, the motivation is to boost commercial tourism. The Oscar nominees will be able to tailor their trips to suit their personal interests.

“With millions of fans and followers in social media, these [guests] become goodwill ambassadors for Israel, sharing their excitement as they journey through Israel, as well as before and after the trip,” a spokesperson for the Israel Ministry of Tourism said in an interview. “These initiatives, which generate extensive international publicity, are designed to help boost tourism by exposing Israel’s tourism product through the eyes and experiences of the celebrities themselves.”

Yet to anti-Israel activists, Israeli tourism is political, unlike a 15-day walking tour of Japan, another swag bag giveaway, which no one is talking much about. They are accusing Israel of “bribing” celebrities. BDS founder Omar Barghouti went so far as to compare the gifts to the “Hunger Games” trilogy, likening Israel to the “Capitol” oppressing the “Districts” (Palestinians). 

Rezvanipour, for her part, sees only the positive.

“There has been no backlash,” she said. “Nor do I expect any. I think people are more shocked that I have included a Fiera Arouser for Her [a libido booster] than a trip to Israel! 

“Plus I’m a Jew at heart,” said Rezvanipour, who is not Jewish. “And some of my favorite people are Jewish, including Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler, so for any Israel haters out there I simply say, ‘Shalom!’” 

Academy sues over $200,000 so-called Oscar gift bags


A “Vampire Breast Lift.” A laser skin-tightening procedure. A 10-day first-class trip to Israel.

Those are a few of the services included in the $200,000 gift bags that one marketing firm has promised for celebrities attending the Oscars ceremony on Feb. 28.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which hands out the awards, wants the public to know that it hasn't approved any of those items. In a federal lawsuit filed on Tuesday in Los Angeles, the organization accused Distinctive Assets of promoting the gift bags as official Oscars swag.

“Distinctive Assets uses the Academy's trademarks to raise the profile of its 'gift bags' and falsely create the impression of association, affiliation, connection, sponsorship and/or endorsement,” said the lawsuit, which names the company's founder, Lash Fary, as a defendant.

Neither Distinctive Assets nor a lawyer representing the company immediately responded to a request for comment early on Wednesday.

Gift bags have been a persistent headache over the years for the Academy, which stopped giving gift baskets to presenters and performers in 2007 after the practice came under closer scrutiny by U.S. tax authorities.

Celebrities who receive gifts and free vacations at awards shows are expected to declare them as income and pay the appropriate taxes, according to the Internal Revenue Service.

The lawsuit said Fary was misleading media outlets by promoting the gift bags with slogans like “Everyone Wins Nominee Gift Bags in Honor of the Oscars(R),” adding that the use of the trademark symbol was a deliberate attempt to imply an official connection.

The Academy cited numerous news articles that referred to the gift bags as “official” or as “Oscar Swag Bags,” arguing the coverage shows Fary has engaged in deceptive marketing.

The lawsuit asked a federal judge to prevent Fary from using any Academy trademark and seeks compensation for damages as well as three times the amount of Fary's profits and the academy's legal fees.

And the Oscar for the best popcorn ever goes to…


It's Oscars time, and in addition to dressing for the occasion, we always like to set the table with award-worthy snacks. This year, we plan to honor the movies with their best-loved partner, popcorn.

Of course, because it's the Oscars, it couldn't be just any microwaved popcorn. Last week when I found some dried popcorn being cut off the cob at the farmers' market, I knew it was time to use my newly inspired love for spices to elevate popcorn to a starring role.

First, you must be willing to set aside the iconic melted butter and find the very best extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) to dress the hot kernels. EVOO's intense flavor will lend an earthy, grassy, herbal flavor that just belongs with farm-grown popcorn.

Next, your choice of salt is critical to the perfect box of popcorn. It's got to be soft enough to cling to the kernels, but crunchy enough to hold its own on the palate. I found that the moisture of grey sea salt fit the bill perfectly.

Finally, adding variety with ground spices, grated cheeses and even cocoa powder creates an interesting mix of options for movie-loving guests. Any blend of favorite flavors will do, but my winning combination was hot salted popcorn tossed with grated pecorino romano cheese, sprinkled with Aleppo pepper flakes and doused with another healthy drizzle of olive oil.

Old-Fashioned, New-Flavored Popcorn

Serves 4

  • Ingredients
  • ½ cup popcorn kernels
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • Extra virgin olive oil, to taste
  • Sea salt, to taste

 

Flavoring suggestions:

  • Grated hard or semi-hard cheese
  • Aleppo or Marash chili pepper
  • Cocoa powder mixed with sugar
  • Cinnamon
  • Smoked paprika
  • Saffron
  • Freshly ground peppercorns

 

Directions

1. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a 3-quart, deep saucepan. As soon as the oil melts and spreads evenly, add enough kernels to fill one layer on the bottom. Cover and increase heat to high flame. As soon as the corn starts popping, shake rigorously over heat until popping is complete.

2. Immediately dress with olive oil and salt and toss to coat.

3. If you are adding grated cheese, do so immediately after removing from heat to ensure that cheese clings to popcorn.

4. Sprinkle with other seasonings to taste.

What the $55,000 Israel trip for Oscar nominees looks like


Whether or not Leonardo DiCaprio finally wins Best Actor at this year’s Academy Awards, he’ll at least take home a free trip to the Holy Land.

As announced last week, the 26 nominees in the top Oscars categories as well as the presenters will get a record-setting $200,000 “goody bag” — with the most valuable item being an all-expenses-paid trip to Israel worth up to $55,000.

The actual cost of the Middle Eastern getaway will vary depending on the traveller — be it “Joy” actress Jennifer Lawrence or “The Big Short” director Adam McKay. Those who redeem the offer before its December expiration date will get to customize 10-day itineraries for themselves and a companion.

What does a $55,000 celebrity trip to Israel look like?

About $25,000 will go toward two first-class round-trip flights, and another $10,000 can be expected to cover fancy hotels, said Sam Gee, the COO of ExploreIsrael.com, which is putting together the trips.

For $1,000 a night, the Oscars elites could afford the sweetest suite at the luxurious Beresheet Hotel in Israel’s Negev. The Villa Deluxe Crater View room has a private balcony and pool with a view of the Ramon Crater, over which the boutique hotel hangs.

That leaves a generous $20,000 for transportation, security and, of course, fine dining — or $2,000 a day.

Dinner for two at Messa, arguably Tel Aviv’s best restaurant — think “shakshuka sashimi” followed by sea bass and lamb chops and washed down with a bottle of Israeli red wine — will only dent the daily budget, at under $200.

It may take a limousine ride under armed guard to Jerusalem’s bustling Machane Yehuda market — where street vendors will happily take some money off an American celebrity’s hands — to max out the budget.

Whence all this money, anyway?

The trip sounds like a brilliant act of PR by the Israeli government. And indeed, Israel’s Tourism Ministry released a statement Monday crediting its New York office with the idea to lure Hollywood’s top talent to the country. Tourism Minister Yariv Levin said celebrities will have the opportunity to “experience the country first hand and not through the media,” Haaretz reported.

But Gee told JTA that ExploreIsrael.com, was the real mastermind of the trip, which the brand-new travel company is co-funding and organizing to drum up business.

“Personally, I am Jewish and I do like Israel, but this is a business venture,” he said.

The Tourism Ministry did not respond to attempts to reconcile the two accounts.

The Israel trip and a 15-day walking tour in Japan are the first international travel packages offered in an Oscars goody bag (past gift bags have included domestic travel packages). Some of the other items in the pricey collection of swag include a year’s worth of unlimited Audi car rentals ($45,000), a lifetime supply of Lizora skin creams ($31,200), three private sessions with a celebrity trainer ($1,400) and a $249.99 vaporizer.

Only actors in the main acting and directing categories receive the gifts, along with the presenters. ExploreIsrael.com and the Tourism Ministry just want the celebrities to know: When they get tired of luxury driving, self-beautification and smoking — Israel is waiting.

 

‘Ave Maria’: The Friday night dilemma


Filmmaker Basil Khalil has come up with an astute resolution to the Mideast conflict, based on the proposition that Israeli Jews and Palestinians will cooperate if that’s the only way they can get away from each other.

Khalil, born in Nazareth of a Palestinian father and a British mother, illustrates this dictum in his 15-minute movie “Ave Maria” (Hail Mary), which is among the five finalists for Oscar honors in the live-action short film category.

The opening scene has an Orthodox family driving toward their West Bank settlement, with the burly, bearded Moshe accompanied by his wife, Rachel, and sharp-tongued mother, Esther. They are in a hurry due to delays that Moshe blames on his mother’s incontinence, and Shabbat is about start in just a few minutes.

Distracted, Moshe sideswipes a statue of the Virgin Mary in front of a small convent, knocking her off her pedestal. Living inside the convent are five Carmelite nuns of the Sisters of Mercy who have taken a vow of silence.

A noviate nun is sent outside to investigate the crash. She returns, gesticulating wildly, and in her agitation she breaks her vow of silence to exclaim, “The Jews have violated the Virgin.”

In the meanwhile, it’s Friday evening, and while the nuns own an ancient rotary phone to call for outside assistance, no one can use it: Moshe can not break Shabbat rules by dialing out, and the nuns, of course, cannot speak to anyone.

As the nuns try to figure out how to get rid of their unwanted guests and the Jewish family is desperate to leave and get home, antipathy becomes the mother of invention.

In a lively email exchange, Khalil, 34, reported that initially both potential financial backers and organizers of film festivals refused to touch the project.   

“I got rejected everywhere – everybody thought I was crazy to make a film about nuns and Israeli settlers,” Khalil wrote.

He persevered, and his breakthrough came when, “Ave Maria” was accepted at the prestigious Cannes film festival  and went on to win top prizes at other festivals. During the past seven months alone, the film has been shown at 56 different festivals.

While it is both quirky and funny, Khalil hopes that the film also conveys a message.

“When you grow up as a Palestinian in Israel, you realize that from the moment you are born, you have to take sides – whatever your religion,” he wrote. “You don’t get to choose, and you have to live by these rules without even choosing them. My message is to question the rules that are imposed on you.”

Asked what he would say in his acceptance speech if “Ave Maria” walks off with an Oscar, he first replied that after rehearsing his remarks in the shower for two months, he will probably say, “Hi, Mum, I’m on TV.”

Pressed for a more memorable response, Khalil answered, “I think I might give a speech something along the line of ‘the voice of art is louder than that of the extremists and their bombs, which pitch us against each other.’”

“Ave Maria,” along with other nominated short films, is now playing at the Nuart Theatre in West Los Angeles and the Regency South Coast Village in Santa Ana. Throughout February, the film will also open at the Warner Grand Theatre In San Pedro, Town Center in Burbank, Covina Theatre in Covina, Citywalk Stadium in Universal City, Rave 18 in Los Angeles, Century 20-Bella Terra in Huntington Beach and in Laemmle theaters in North Hollywood, Pasadena and Claremont.

‘Son of Saul’: For Claims Conference, Oscar nominee was a big gamble


Set amid a 1944 prisoner uprising at Auschwitz, “Son of Saul” stood out as a long shot when its producers first applied for funding from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. The film’s director, Laszlo Nemes, had no experience with feature films; its lead actor hadn’t been on a film set in 15 years; and its script included long, silent and out-of-focus shots.

But the Claims Conference, which negotiates restitution for Nazi victims, ultimately decided to help bankroll the film. It’s a gamble that now seems prescient, as “Son of Saul” is favored to win best foreign language film at the Oscars on Feb. 28.

Worldwide ticket sales for the Golden Globe-winning film are north of $2 million, already exceeding the film’s slim $1.6 million budget.

“People all over the world are realizing we’re facing the last generation of Holocaust survivors, so we’re in a race against time to cling to the experiences of the survivors still amongst us,” Greg Schneider, the Claims Conference’s vice president, told JTA.

Since the 1993 release of Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List,” which won the Oscar for best picture, representations of the Holocaust have emerged as an important genre in cinema in and beyond the U.S. market. Other award-winning productions,  such as “Life is Beautiful” (1997), “The Pianist” (2002), “Inglourious Basterds” (2009) and last year’s “Woman in Gold,” have followed.

In recent years, many filmmakers from Europe have trained their lenses on the same theme, resulting in such critically acclaimed productions as “Phoenix” (Germany, 2014), “Ida” (Poland, 2013), “Suskind” (The Netherlands, 2012) and “Sarah’s Key” (France, 2010).

The Claims Conference, which since 2008 has devoted a small portion of its budget to funding educational Holocaust films, provided about $50,000 of the “Son of Saul” budget. But even that relatively small contribution was subject to “serious internal debate,” Schneider said.

“It was a risk that paid off,” he said.

The Claims Conference receives funding requests for about 50 films a year. One factor that helped clinch the deal with Nemes was the quality of a short Holocaust film, “With a Little Patience,” that he had made back in 2007. Another factor was the director’s meticulous attention to historical accuracy, as demonstrated by the “Son of Saul” script.

While fictional, the plot uses an accurate backdrop in telling the story of Saul Auslander, a member of the Sonderkommando, a group of Jews whom the Germans forced to work in the gas chambers. In the film, an unemotional Auslander is seen herding transport after transport of his brethren to their deaths before becoming unhinged at the sight of a Nazi doctor suffocating a boy of 14 who had somehow survived the poison. Oblivious to the rebellion being planned around him, Auslander abuses the access that his gruesome job affords him in an attempt to bury the teenager.

“Auslander’s story is fictional, the rest is accurate,” Schneider told JTA last week in Berlin, where the Claims Conference organized the film’s premiere in Germany. (The Sonderkommando at Auschwitz did stage a rebellion in October  1944. Separately, two teenagers were murdered after surviving the gas chambers.)

Whereas straightforward filming of an Auschwitz-Birkenau set would have yielded “a pornography of death,” as the lead actor, Geza Rohrig, said, the camera focuses on the living Sonderkommando and scenery, weaving the carnage around them into an out-of-focus but omnipresent background.

Though the Claims Conference provided less than 4 percent of the total production cost of “Son of Saul,” its contribution “came in the final stages of production when we were really lacking money,” “Son of Saul” producer Gabor Sipos said.

Since 2008, the Claims Conference has spent a total of $2.25 million, or an average of $282,000 a year, to fund educational Holocaust films. The organization’s total annual budget has ranged from $700 million to $870 million, with the vast majority going toward improving the quality of life for Holocaust survivors.

Of the dozens of films funded by the Claims Conference, “Son of Saul” is “by far the most successful in terms of return on investment,” Schneider said. It is the first film funded by the organization that has won a Golden Globe or been nominated for an Oscar. Among others that have received funding from the Claims Conference are the award-winning “Numbered” (2012)  and “The Decent One” (2014).

The remainder of the budget for “Son of Saul” came almost entirely from the Hungarian National Film Fund. Agnes Havas, the Hungarian fund’s CEO, told the Budapest Business Journal that the film’s commercial appeal makes it “the most successful project supported by the film fund.” “Son of Saul” is also Hungary’s first Oscars nominee since 1988.

But the funding from Hungary is also exposing “Son of Saul” to criticism by those opposed to the right-wing policies of the country’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, whose government was recently accused of downplaying Hungarian complicity in the Holocaust and relegating all the blame to Germany.

“I wonder if getting money from the Hungarian state is a problem for you, or you just don’t mind,” one critical viewer, who accused the government of anti-Semitism, said at a post-screening Q&A.

In replying, Sipos said the filmmakers were “proud of the film fund,” which they “hope has nothing to do with [the policies of] Hungarian government.”

He noted that while requests for funding “Son of Saul” were “rejected in countries that are seen to be less anti-Semitic,” including France, Germany and Israel, “the Hungarian film fund decided to support us, meaning this film would not have existed if not for their help.”

‘Son of Saul’ nominated for best foreign language Oscar


The Hungarian Holocaust film “Son of Saul” was nominated for the best foreign film Academy Award.

The announcement was made early Thursday morning in a ceremony in Los Angeles.

“Son of Saul,” which tells the story of a Jewish concentration camp inmate forced to help cremate his fellow prisoners, won the Golden Globe on Sunday for best foreign language film.

Other Jewish Oscar nominees include Steven Spielberg, producer and director of “Bridge of Spies,” which made the shortlist for best picture. The film, which tells the story of a Cold War prisoner exchange, is based on a screenplay by filmmaker brothers Joel and Ethan Coen.

Also in the running is Israel-born super producer Arnon Milchan, whose Leonardo di Caprio thriller “The Revenant” is in contention for best picture.

Jennifer Jason Leigh was nominated as best supporting actress for her role in the “The Hateful Eight,” about eight strangers seeking refuge from a blizzard during the American Civil War.

The documentary “Amy,” about the British Jewish singer Amy Winehouse,” was nominated for best documentary.

“Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah,” about the director of the epic Holocaust documentary “Shoah,” was nominated for best documentary short.

The 88th Academy Awards ceremony will be held Feb. 28 in Los Angeles.

Oscar nominations: Holocaust themes and Jewish talent


The 2016 Oscar nominations are out and, beneath the best picture and best actor headlines, this year’s nods uncover and confirm two Jewish themes.

More than 70 years after the killing of 6 million Jews came to an end, there is no sign of “Holocaust fatigue” among global filmmakers and their audiences.

And, although the film industry, in Hollywood and elsewhere, is no longer as “Jewish” as in past decades, the extent of Jewish talent, in front of and behind the cameras, is impressive.

Each of 80 countries submitted its top movie for the best foreign-language film Oscar this year. Among the five finalists is Hungary’s “Son of Saul,” which, according to critical consensus, is the favorite to win the Academy Award. Winner of this year’s Golden Globe and the Grand Prix at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, the film’s central character is Saul Auslander. He is a member of the Sonderkommando at Auschwitz-Birkenau, forced to cremate the bodies of fellow prisoners gassed by the SS. As he goes about his ghastly task, he thinks he recognizes one body, which unexpectedly survived the gas chamber for a few minutes, as that of his son.

As the Sonderkommando men plan a rebellion, Saul vows that he will save the child’s body from the flames and find a rabbi to say Kaddish in a proper funeral.

“Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah,” directed by Adam Benzine (not Jewish), is in the running for best documentary short. It dissects French director Lanzmann’s epic, nine-hour documentary “Shoah,” which was 11 years in the making and was released in 1985.

Germany’s entry into the foreign-language film category, “Labyrinth of Lies,” which deals with the aftermath of the Holocaust in the land of its perpetrators, failed to make the final short list.

As a footnote, the Israeli entry, “Baba Joon,” and the Palestinian “The Wanted 18” did not survive the first round of eliminations, while Jordan scored its first Oscar nomination with “Theeb,” set during World War I.

Now for the Oscar-nominated Members of the Tribe:

Leading the list of co-producers for best motion picture of the year are Steven Spielberg for “Bridge of Spies,” Israel-native Arnon Milchan for “The Revenant” and Michael Sugar for “Spotlight.”

A non-exhaustive list of other Jewish nominees for Academy Award honors includes:

Best director: Ireland’s Leonard (Lenny) Abrahamson for the drama-thriller “Room.”

Best original screenplay: As in some years past, this category is practically a Jewish monopoly, including Ethan and Joel Coen for “Bridge of Spies”; Josh Singer for “Spotlight”; and Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff for “Straight Outta Compton.”

Best cinematographer: Emmanuel Lubezki for “The Revenant.” Born in Mexico as Emmanuel Lubezki Morgenstern, he previously won an Oscar for “Gravity.”

Best animated short film: Don Hertzfeldt for “World of Tomorrow.” He also directed a Jewish-themed segment for TV’s “The Simpsons.”

Oscar winners will triumphantly hoist the 8 1/2-pound statuette on Feb. 28 in a glamour-packed ceremony, to be seen by an estimated 37 million American TV viewers and beamed to some 225 countries and territories around the globe. 

Key nominations for the 2016 Oscars


Nominations for the 88th Academy Awards, the highest honors in the movie industry, were announced on Thursday.

[Noms: Holocaust themes and Jewish talent]

Following is a list of nominations in key categories for the awards, also known as the Oscars. The winners will be announced at a ceremony hosted by comedian Chris Rock in Hollywood on Feb. 28.

BEST PICTURE

“The Big Short”

“Bridge of Spies”

“Brooklyn”

“Mad Max: Fury Road”

“The Martian”

“The Revenant”

“Room”

“Spotlight”

BEST DIRECTOR

Adam McKay, “The Big Short

George Miller, “Mad Max: Fury Road”

Alejandro G. Inarritu, “The Revenant”

Lenny Abrahamson, “Room”

Tom McCarthy, “Spotlight”

BEST ACTOR

Bryan Cranston, “Trumbo”

Matt Damon, “The Martian”

Leonardo DiCaprio, “The Revenant”

Michael Fassbender, “Steve Jobs”

Eddie Redmayne, “The Danish Girl”

BEST ACTRESS

Cate Blanchett, “Carol”

Brie Larson, “Room”

Jennifer Lawrence, “Joy”

Charlotte Rampling, “45 Years”

Saoirse Ronan, “Brooklyn”

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Christian Bale, “The Big Short”

Tom Hardy, “The Revenant”

Mark Ruffalo, “Spotlight”

Mark Rylance, “Bridge of Spies”

Sylvester Stallone, “Creed”

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Jennifer Jason Leigh, “The Hateful Eight”

Rooney Mara, “Carol”

Rachel McAdams, “Spotlight”

Alicia Vikander, “The Danish Girl”

Kate Winslet, “Steve Jobs”

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

“Bridge of Spies”

“Ex Machina”

“Inside Out”

“Spotlight”

“Straight Outta Compton”

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

“The Big Short”

“Brooklyn”

“Carol”

“The Martian”

“Room”

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE FILM

“Anomalisa”

“Boy and the World”

“Inside Out”

“Shaun the Sheep Movie”

“When Marnie Was There”

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE

“Amy”

“Cartel Land”

“The Look of Silence”

“What Happened, Miss Simone?”

“Winter on Fire: Ukraine's Fight for Freedom”

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM

“Embrace of the Serpent” Colombia

“Mustang” France

“Son of Saul” Hungary

“Theeb” Jordan

“A War” Denmark

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE

“Bridge of Spies” Thomas Newman

“Carol” Carter Burwell

“The Hateful Eight” Ennio Morricone

“Sicario” Jóhann Jóhannsson

“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” John Williams

BEST ORIGINAL SONG

“Earned It” from “Fifty Shades of Grey”

“Manta Ray” from “Racing Extinction”

“Simple Song #3” from “Youth”

“Til It Happens To You” from “The Hunting Ground”

“Writing's On The Wall” from “Spectre”

Two Holocaust movies among top Oscar contenders


Two movies on the Holocaust and its aftermath have made the cut to compete for best foreign-language film among entries from 80 countries vying for Oscar honors, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced on Dec. 17.

Both entries, “Son of Saul” and “Labyrinth of Lies,” are critics’ favorites to garner an Academy Award, indicating once again that 70 years after its end, the Shoah retains its grip on the minds and souls of international filmmakers.

Actor Alexander Fehling as Johann Radmann in “Labyrinth of Lies.”

Last year, the foreign-language Oscar went to the Polish movie “Ida,” which followed the path of a devout young woman raised in a convent and about to take her vows as a nun. Suddenly, she learns that her parents were Jews who perished in the Holocaust, so she sets out to rediscover her roots.

In Hungary’s “Son of Saul,” which won the Grand Prix at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Saul Auslander is a member of the Sonderkommando at Auschwitz-Birkenau, forced to cremate the bodies of fellow prisoners gassed by the SS. As he goes about his ghastly task, he thinks he recognizes one of the victims, who unexpectedly survives for a few minutes, as that of his son.

As the Sonderkommando men plan a rebellion, Saul vows that he will save the child’s corpse from the flames and find a rabbi to say Kaddish at a proper burial.

Saul is portrayed by Geza Rohrig, born in Budapest and founder of an underground punk band during Communist rule. Moving to New York, he studied at a Chassidic yeshiva and graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary.

“Labyrinth of Lies,” submitted by Germany, is set in the post-war 1950s, a time when most Germans preferred to deny or ignore the Holocaust. The film focuses on a young German prosecutor determined to bring the Nazis who ran Auschwitz to trial before a German court.

In historical retrospect, the subsequent trial is seen as a turning point in forcing Germans to face the reality of the Holocaust.

Both the Israeli submission, “Baba Joon,” and the Palestinian film “The Wanted 18,” failed to make the cut, leaving Jordan’s “Theeb,” set during World War I when the Ottoman Empire ruled the region, as the only Middle Eastern entry to place among the final nine.

Israel’s record in making the prestigious short list of the five finalists has been uneven, with bursts of recognition in some decades alternating with long dry spells.

In the first entry by the young Israeli film industry in 1965, “Sallah” was surprisingly among the five finalists, followed by four more Israeli nominees in the 1970s, and an additional four between 2007 and 2011.

Since then, no Israeli movie has made it to the final short list and none has ever won the coveted Oscar.

Rounding out the list of nine semi-finalists this year are:

Belgium: “The Brand New Testament,” an irreverent satire in which everything you read in the Bible turns out to be wrong.

Colombia: “Embrace of the Serpent” in which two scientists and an Amazon shaman search for a rare sacred plant.

Denmark: “A War” – A soldier serves in Afghanistan and the impact on his family at home.

Finland: “The Fencer” — A fencing instructor evades the Soviet secret police.

France: “Mustang” – The alternately joyful and repressed lives of five orphaned sisters growing up in a Turkish village.

Ireland:  “Viva” – Set in a Havana nightclub, a gay son struggles against his macho father.

The list of the current nine contenders will be winnowed down to five, with the remaining nominees announced Jan. 14. The glamorous award ceremony is on Feb. 28 and will be televised to more than 225 countries and territories across the globe.

Jewish themes resonate in foreign-language-film Oscar race


The annual Academy Award competition for best foreign-language (non-English) film has been described as the World Cup or Olympics of international cinema, and this year, each of 81 countries, ranging from Afghanistan to Vietnam, has entered its best movie.

Despite the usual pundits’ predictions of public “Holocaust fatigue,” two films, both tagged as front-runners to garner the prize, focus on the Holocaust and its aftermath.

One more entry deals with the conflict between Palestinians and Jews, and another with the popular topic of a strictly Orthodox woman rebelling against her upbringing.

Three additional films are of some Jewish interest.

By rare critical consensus, “Son of Saul” is seen as leading the field. In this Hungarian movie, Saul Auslander, a member of the Sonderkommando at Auschwitz-Birkenau forced to cremate the bodies of fellow prisoners gassed by the SS, believes he recognizes one body as that of his son.

As the Sonderkommando men plan a rebellion, Saul vows he will save the child’s corpse from the flames and find a rabbi to say Kaddish at a proper funeral.

Saul is portrayed by Geza Rohrig, born in Budapest and founder of an underground punk band during communist rule. Moving to New York, he studied at a Chasidic yeshiva and graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Also favored to rank among the five finalists is the German entry, “Labyrinth of Lies.” Set in the postwar 1950s, when most Germans preferred to deny or ignore the Holocaust, the film focuses on a young German prosecutor determined to bring the Nazis who ran Auschwitz to trial before a German court.

Canada is staking its hope on “Felix & Meira,” a French-language film with an admixture of Yiddish, set in Montreal. The movie’s Meira is a young, married Orthodox woman, who leaves her community after starting a romance with Felix, a gentile French-Canadian.

Meira is portrayed by Hadas Yaron, a 25-year-old Israeli actress who previously starred in the Israeli movie “Fill the Void,” also playing a young Orthodox woman who faces an agonizing choice.

“Baba Joon” breaks new ground as the first Israeli film whose dialogue is almost entirely in Farsi. At its center are three generations of Iranian Jews who run a turkey farm in the northern Negev.

 Asher Avrahami and Navid Negahban in “Baba Joon.” 

The film’s central conflict is between the second-generational father, who is now in charge of the farm and sticks to the traditions and paternal discipline he experienced as a child, and his son, who rebels against the old-country ways.

“Baba Joon” is well acted, beautifully photographed and deals with an aspect of Israeli life rarely seen by tourists, but it has attracted little attention from critics.

The Palestinian entry, “The Wanted 18,” a collaboration with Canadian producers, innovates by combining animation with political protest. Based loosely on actual events during the 1980s, the movie focuses on a group of Palestinian farmers who decide to stop buying milk from an Israeli company and form their own dairy collective.

They buy 18 cows from a sympathetic kibbutznik, send one of their group to the United States to learn the trade and start producing “intifada milk.”

However, Israeli authorities declare the new collective a security threat, and so the Palestinians set about hiding the cows from the government in what has been described as an “absurd and whimsical” film, which is also entered in the separate category of documentary features.

Although not bearing on contemporary history or Jewish concerns, three other films deserve some attention.

Romania’s entry, titled “Aferim!,” is set in the country’s Wallachian province in the early 19th century, when Gypsies were addressed as “black crows” and treated like slaves in the antebellum American South.

Two bounty hunters ride through the beautiful countryside in search of a runaway Gypsy who was seduced by the wife of a local boyar, or aristocratic ruler.

On their long ride, the boyar’s retainers encounter a country priest, who, in a lengthy rant, informs them that Jews are not human but descended from a race of ugly giants, created by God before Adam, who eventually shriveled to their present proportions.

“We never heard of that,” his two listeners respond.

Director Radu Jude (not Jewish) observed that Romania’s notorious anti-Semitism before World War II had its roots in the persecution of Jews in previous centuries.

Jordan’s entry, “Theeb,” goes back to 1916 and the midst of World War I, when a Bedouin boy struggles to survive as Ottoman soldiers fight to preserve their crumbling empire.

As depicted in the Estonian film “1944,” soldiers of the Baltic nation, some in German and others in Soviet uniforms, fought against each other during World War II. Hitler showed his appreciation by officially classifying his Estonians as “Aryans.”

One more note: Gabriel Ripstein, scion of a distinguished clan of Mexican-Jewish filmmakers, is the producer-director-writer of his country’s entry, “600 Miles.” The action revolves around a U.S. government agent (Tim Roth), who is kidnapped by a young Mexican weapons smuggler.

The 2015 foreign-language-film Oscar went to the Polish movie “Ida,” which follows the path of a devout young woman raised in a convent and about to take her vows as a nun. She discovers that her parents were Jews who perished in the Holocaust and sets out to rediscover her roots.

The 81 foreign-language entries for 2016 will be winnowed to a short list of nine in late December, and the five finalists will be announced on Jan. 14. The glitzy award ceremony is on Feb. 28 and will be televised to more than 225 countries and territories across the globe. 

Film-maker Polanski relieved after court rejects U.S. extradition request in child sex case


Oscar-winning film-maker Roman Polanski said on Friday he was grateful and relieved after a Polish court rejected a U.S. request for his extradition over a 1977 child sex conviction.

The case of the Polish-born Polanski, now 82, remains an international cause celebre nearly four decades after the crime, with some demanding harsh punishment and others urging that extradition efforts be dropped.

A judge in a Polish court in the southern city of Krakow ruled against the extradition, saying the U.S. judiciary had violated Polanski's rights in the past and that he would be subject to infringements if handed over now.

“The extradition is inadmissible,” judge Dariusz Mazur said.

“The case is over, at least in Poland, I hope. I can sigh with relief. It's difficult to describe how much time, energy and effort this costs, how much suffering it brought on my family,” Polanski told a news conference in Krakow. 

“It's simple. I pleaded guilty, I went to prison. I served my punishment. It's over,” he said.

Polanski pleaded guilty in 1977 to having sex with a 13-year-old girl during a photo shoot in Los Angeles. He served 42 days in jail after a plea bargain but later fled the United States fearing a lengthy jail time if the deal was overruled. 

In 2009, he was arrested in Zurich on a U.S. warrant and placed under house arrest. He was freed in 2010 after Swiss authorities decided not to extradite him.

The United States requested Polanski's extradition from Poland after he made a high-profile appearance in Warsaw in 2014. 

The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office has long insisted that Polanski remains a fugitive and subject to immediate arrest in the United States because he fled the country before sentencing. It says his case cannot be resolved until he returns to California to face justice.

“Our position on this matter remains the same,” Shiara Davila-Morales, a spokeswoman for the D.A., said on Friday, declining to comment further.

Since fleeing the United States, Polanski won an Oscar for best director for The Pianist, a film based on a memoir of a famous Polish Jewish pianist and composer who survived the Holocaust. Polanski, who holds both French and Polish citizenship, lives in Paris but also has an apartment in Krakow and regularly visits Poland.

REPEATED VIOLATIONS

Mazur said it was clear Polanski was guilty and deserved to be punished. But he said Polanski's right to a fair trial and right of defence had been “grossly and repeatedly violated” over the years by several U.S. judges and prosecutors, including when the first bargain deal was annulled.

The decision is not legally binding and prosecutors can appeal.

The judge said extraditing Polanski would lead to him being held in harsh conditions for weeks or months in the United States while his case was being processed and would violate his human rights, potentially putting Poland at odds with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

He said the defendant's rights had often been curtailed, judges had failed to live up to standards of judicial independence and Polanski had already been sufficiently punished.

Polanski's U.S.-based lawyer Chad Hummel on Friday declined to comment on the Polish decision. The U.S. State Department had no immediate comment.

Samantha Geimer, the victim in the case, has long made clear she believes Polanski's long exile has been punishment enough. 

Geimer, now in her 50s and living in Hawaii, said in a series of posts on her Facebook page ahead of the Polish ruling that Los Angeles prosecutors should abandon their efforts.

“The message is they will use a teenage rape victim until their dying breath to get some PR, and justice is NOT something they seek for victims,” she wrote.

Polanski's defence lawyers said the film director's fame had made him a target for some U.S. judges and prosecutors who wanted to build a reputation out of the case.

“Roman Polanski's fame has been a burden,” said defence lawyer Jan Olszewski. “There will always be someone who wants to promote themselves on a case attracting wide attention.”

Olszewski expressed disquiet at comments by some members of Poland's conservative Law and Justice party, which has just won an outright majority in parliament, suggesting that Polanski was getting undue lenient treatment.

Polanski appeared, too, to refer to this, saying: “If any decision were to be based on facts, there are so many elements in the case that are in my favour, that I see no risk. But, should it be a political decision – I should be worried.”

‘Baba Joon,’ Israel’s Farsi-language film and official 2016 Academy Awards entry, to open the Israel


The Israel Film Festival kicks off its 29th season on Oct. 28 with one of the most unusual movies to emerge from the Jewish state, with characters who speak mainly in Farsi and represent a distinct thread in the country’s ethnic fabric.

“Baba Joon” garnered five Ophirs, the Israeli equivalent of the Oscars, this year. The key Ophir was for best film, which automatically made the movie Israel’s entry for the Academy Award competition for best foreign-language film.

The film’s title is an affectionate Farsi salutation of a son to his father and takes on a more respectful dimension in speaking to one’s grandfather, said director-writer Yuval Delshad in a phone conversation from Israel.

For Delshad, 44, who is related to former Beverly Hills Mayor Jimmy Delshad, “Baba Joon” represents not only his debut feature but also an exploration of his own youth growing up in the dusty moshav of Zrahia in the northern Negev. Its inhabitants were almost all devout Persian-Jewish immigrants, who generally eked out a hardscrabble existence in a part of Israel rarely seen by tourists.

The entire 91-minute film is set on the turkey farm of Yitzhak, built by the sweat of his father after the latter emigrated from Iran to Israel. The old man ruled his family, especially his male descendants, with a heavy hand, and now that Yitzhak runs the farm, the latter applies the same discipline to his 13-year-old son Moti, so the boy can take over the farm when the time comes.

However, Moti’s passion lies in putting together junkyard cars, and he is the only one who can keep the family TV set functioning. He abhors the idea of spending his life in the company of gobbling turkeys or slicing off the beaks of turkey chicks.

So the scene is set for a classic generational clash in a culture in which the father is the pre-eminent authority, sharpened within an immigrant family whose elders speak Farsi and the children answer in Hebrew.

At this juncture, as in many Old World tales, the uncle from America arrives with tales of untold riches awaiting hardworking immigrants, particularly in golden California. Uncle Darius makes and sells jewelry, and as he trains Moti to follow in his footsteps, he promises the boy, “You can sell them in Beverly Hills and you’ll become a millionaire.”

But Uncle Darius, who has remained a bachelor, acknowledges that beneath all the glitter he is not happy. “I am all alone,” he says, triggering a tug-of-war in which the brothers try to convince each other to settle in their respective countries.

It would be unfair to reveal the emotional ending of the film, which is marked by superb cinematography of largely barren landscapes and fine acting by an oddly assembled cast.

For the key roles of father Yitzhak and son Moti, director Delshad first cast experienced actor Navid Negahban, best known in the United States as the terror mastermind Abu Nazir in Showtime’s “Homeland.” 

By contrast, 13-year-old Asher Avrahami, who had never acted before, was discovered during an audition in a village not far from the moshav where Delshad grew up in the 1980s. The boy turns in an absolutely convincing performance, and he is ably supported by a cast of actors of Iranian descent, some living in Israel and others in Europe, mostly Jewish.

Delshad said that he cast only actors who grew up in a Persian family environment. Even though he himself was born in Israel and has never been to Iran, Delshad said, “Iranian culture is amazing. It is in my DNA, my roots are there, and my dream is to visit the country some day.”

There are some 300,000 Persian Jews living in Israel and although most have integrated well, it’s a hard life, Delshad said. Those looking for greater material opportunities often move to New York or Los Angeles, to “the land of opportunities,” he said.

As for Delshad, he now lives in a Tel Aviv suburb with his wife, a son and a daughter, and he is happy to report there is no “cultural conflict between the generations.”

“Baba Joon” was made on a budget of about $1 million, with a small portion contributed by Angelenos Younes and Soraya Nazarian through their family foundation. Early buzz in the Hollywood trade papers gives “Baba Joon” a solid chance to land among the five finalists contending for the foreign-language film Oscar.

The Israel Film Festival runs Oct. 28-Nov. 19, with the opening night’s premiere of “Baba Joon” at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills. During the evening, the Israel Film Festival will honor writer and producer Aaron Sorkin with the IFF Achievement in Film and Television Award, announced Meir Fenigstein, founder and executive director of the IsraFest Foundation. On the same platform, Sharon S. Nazarian will receive the IFF Humanitarian Award.

A third honoree is actress Helen Mirren, who stars in “Woman in Gold,” which will be among the festival’s 29 narrative and documentary films, including numerous Los Angeles, American and world premieres. She will receive the IFF Career Achievement Award.


For ticket and general information, visit israelfilmfestival.com, call (310) 247-1800 or email info@israelfilmfestival.org.

Oscar gives nod to Jewish talent but bypasses Israel


Given that there were few world famous Jewish names among nominees for the 87th Academy Awards in Hollywood Sunday night, the tribe did fairly well.

“The Great Budapest Hotel” tied with “Birdman” for the most Oscars, with four each, though the latter walked off with the best picture Oscar.

“Budapest Hotel” was inspired by the writings of Austrian-Jewish ” target=”_blank”>intense Polish entry focused on a young novitiate about to take her vows as a nun, when she discovers that she is the daughter of Jewish parents killed by the Nazis. Much of the film is devoted to retracing her origins.

The film’s director, Pawel Pawlikowski, whose paternal grandmother was Jewish and was killed in Auschwitz, was asked during a backstage interview whether he considers the Holocaust and the fate of the Jewish people as one aspect of post World War II Poland.

Pawlikowski, in his response, tried to shift the emphasis.

“Of course, Polish-Jewish relations are difficult,” he said. “And the two lead characters, Ida and [her aunt] Wanda, who are Jewish, but for me they are Polish. I don’t like people who attack the film from various sides and say ‘Oh, it’s about Jews and Poles and stuff,’

“For me, [the film] is about different versions of Polishness, but it wasn’t about that. The film is about all sort of things, it’s about faith, identity, sense of guilt, it’s about Stalinism, too, and about ideals — lost ideals.”

Israel’s streak of being a frequent (nominated) bridesmaid but never an (Oscar-winning) bride continued with “Aya”, starring Israeli actress Sara Adler, which had made the finalists list for short films.

There was some consolation in the list of Jewish winners, including:

Patricia Arquette, daughter of a Jewish mother and a Muslim father, who hoisted the Oscar statuette for best supporting actress in the film “Boyhood.”

Academy on Joan Rivers: Memorial couldn’t fit all


The late Joan Rivers didn't have to be at Sunday's Oscars ceremony to make her presence felt.

Many fans were upset that Rivers, the caustic queen of so many red carpets, was not pictured during the annual In Memoriam TV segment that honors those connected to the film industry who have died in the previous year. Rivers died in September.

Asked about Rivers' absence, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the group that oversees the Academy Awards, issued a statement…

Read more at USA Today.

Design lessons from Oscar-nominated movies


This year’s crop of Oscar contenders is filled with memorable performances, meditations on life and death, nail-biting suspense and, yes, valuable decorating lessons. If you’ve ever sat through a movie and wondered not whether the butler did it, but where the butler bought that sofa, you’ll know what I’m talking about. 

“The Grand Budapest Hotel”

Color is a storyteller. It sets the mood. It stirs our emotions. And “The Grand Budapest Hotel” — both the movie and its titular hotel — is drenched in delicious color. From the bubblegum pink exterior in the hotel’s heyday — with the peacock blue rooftops (swoon) — to the glossy red lacquer inside the hotel elevators (double swoon), the movie’s color palette tells its story as much as the script. We know immediately that the Grand Budapest is a place of luxury and whimsy. And when the hotel becomes dilapidated in its later years, the colors turn muddy shades of olive and amber, as our hearts sink a little at its decline. 

What is the lesson here for our own homes? Color, baby! A $20 gallon of paint can transform the mood of a room even more than an expensive piece of furniture. This doesn’t mean you have to paint your walls pink like the Grand Budapest. We’re all different, and we react to colors differently. Any color you choose — even white — is fine, as long as it makes you happy. (OK, I take that back. Swiss coffee is not a color. Don’t pick that one.)

“Gone Girl”

At first, the home of the characters played by Ben Affleck and Oscar-nominated Rosamund Pike seems absolutely perfect. The patrician gray walls, the ebony hardwood floors and the oh-so-tasteful furniture look straight out of a design catalog. But director David Fincher’s lens has purposely drained the interiors of life. The perfection is sterile. There is no soul, no blood. Well (spoiler alert!), except, that is, for all the plasma Pike throws all over the kitchen floor. 

Gone Girl shows us that when it comes to home decor, perfection is not all it’s cracked up to be. Making your home look like a model home without showcasing your own unique personality results in a hollow shell. Fill your home with things that reflect the real you, and don’t worry whether it would be approved by the editors of Architectural Digest. Mismatched furniture? A-OK. Flea-market finds? Yes, please. As with people, a home’s personality is much more important than perfect looks.

“Boyhood”

There is not a lot of interior design to get excited about in Richard Linklater’s critical favorite. In fact, the director shows the passage of time not through furniture styles, but through the electronic devices used by the protagonist, Mason. One design element that really struck me, though, was the film’s use of children’s art — from the art taped to walls when the characters are younger, to the photographs and abstract paintings the older Mason exhibits. 

When the film begins, Mason and his sister share a room with a bunk bed, with murals painted next to each of their respective bunks. In a behind-the-scenes featurette on Hulu, Oscar-nominated Patricia Arquette, who plays their mother, reveals that she and the young actors actually painted those murals together. So it’s particularly heartbreaking when she has to paint over them when their fictional family has to move. 

Your home might feature many notable pieces of art, but the most valuable could be your child’s. A child’s artwork offers a snapshot of a particular moment in time. Collected through the years, they represent milestones captured in pencil, crayon and tempera paint. Honor the art. Frame it. Display it. Archive it. I wish my mother had saved all my drawings through the years. Boyhood doesn’t last, but the memories created by art can last a lifetime.

“Birdman”

Almost the entirety of “Birdman” takes place in the dressing rooms and narrow hallways of the St. James Theatre in New York. In fact, however, it was not filmed in the actual backstage area, but on a set so realistic, you can smell the greasepaint. This serves as an apt metaphor: Your life is like a movie, and everything around you is the set. 

Although we probably don’t live this fantasy to the extreme that Michael Keaton’s character does, the concept offers a great brainstorming method for decorating. For example, if your home were your movie set, what kind of scene would you want to live in — a Jane Austen comedy of manners with English antiques? Or a sleek, modern penthouse à la Christian Grey (with or without the Red Room)? Using a movie as a guide can give you ideas on everything from furniture to flooring to accessories.

Perhaps that’s the decorating lesson in all these movies. Create a space for yourself that will make you look and feel inspired — like a winner. You may not win an Oscar, but in a home that’s comfortable and stylish, you’ll certainly feel like a star.


Jonathan Fong is the author of “Walls That Wow,” ”Flowers That Wow” and “Parties That Wow,” and host of “Style With a Smile” on YouTube. You can see more of his do-it-yourself projects on

‘Wild Tales’: Six crazy nights make it a foreign-language contender


Members of the tribe looking for an Oscar finalist full of Jewish characters will find it in an unlikely place — Argentina’s “Wild Tales.”

The movie by director Damian Szifron is among the five surviving nominees in the foreign-language film category, culled from entries submitted by 83 different countries.

Poland’s “Ida” also made the cut with the story of an aspiring Polish nun, who discovers that her parents were Jews murdered in the Holocaust.

Two out of five entries with Jewish themes isn’t bad, considering that this year’s roster of Academy Award candidates is quite short on Jewish talent.

“Wild Tales” (“Relatos Salvajes” in Spanish) consists of six separate short stories, all directed by Szifron. The central characters in the episodes vary, but they all share a common frustration — each has had it up to here and is not going to take it anymore.

Typical is “Bombita,” in which demolition engineer Simon is having a day you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. Through a bureaucratic foul-up his car is impounded, snotty clerks ignore his protests and slap him with a heavy fine, and the tow operator overcharges him. When he finally gets home, his wife upbraids him for missing his daughter’s birthday party.

Finally it’s payback time, which the engineer accomplishes in spectacular fashion.

The crudest of the segments is “Road to Hell,” in which an enraged man urinates and defecates on the windshield of another car, with the driver inside.

Szifron recovers from this with the last and best episode, “Till Death Do Us Part.”

In this ultimate Jewish wedding reception from hell, the lovely bride Romina (Erica Rivas) discovers that her newly betrothed (Diego Gentile) has been sleeping with one of the more attractive wedding guests.

Romina embarks on an elaborate rampage, which leaves few dishes or bystanders unshattered.

The Journal interviewed Szifron at the Four Seasons Hotel, and at first sight he looks more like a UCLA graduate student than the experienced 39-year-old filmmaker he is.

His precocious beginning has a Spielbergian ring. His father was an ardent movie fan, who kept the house loaded with projectors and took his 3-year-old son to his first movie, “Superman,” starring Christopher Reeve.

There was no stopping after that, and father and son would frequently see three, occasionally five movies a day.

At 9, young Damian made his first short movie, enlisting his friends and family as actors and crew.

As a teen, he studied film at the ORT School in Buenos Aires and soon was editing and adding music to his footage.

Although Argentina became notorious as a haven for Nazi war criminals, under dictator Juan Peron, Szifron said he now feels entirely at home in the tight-knit Argentinian-Jewish community of some 230,000 — the largest in South America.

“I feel completely safe in my country, and there is no overt anti-Semitism,” he said.

That sense of security may have been shaken in recent weeks, however,  with the appearance of anti-Semitic posters in Buenos Aires referring to  the mysterious death of Argentinian state prosecutor Alberto Nisman,  who was Jewish.

Nisman was about to testify that Argentinian President Cristina Fernandez had been trying to orchestrate a cover-up of Iranian involvement in the 1994 bombing off the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, which claimed 85 lives.

Szifron said a major key to his artistic outlook is his Jewishness, which plays a part in almost all his films. “You are your origins,” he declared. “I’ve always loved movies about origins, from “Dirty Harry” and “Rocky” to “Fiddler on the Roof.”

He got his start as a television writer and director, and his first series, “The Pretenders” was loaded with Jewish characters, many bearing the names of real people Szifron remembered from his youthful days at “Bet Am del Oeste” (Bet Am of the West), a Jewish community center in the western part of Buenos Aires.

Letters to the editor: Purim alert, Limmud and more


Purim Alert: Send Us Your Funny Headlines!

Every year, the Jewish Journal’s Purim issue features a tabloid-style gloss cover with fake headlines that shock, upset and sometimes even entertain our readers. This year, we’d like to invite you to contribute one or two of your best ideas for fake Purim headlines.

We credit contributors in the Table of Contents and will post all entries online. Send your ideas to editor@jewishjournal.com by Monday, Feb. 16.

Remember, the best headlines play off big news items and personalities, or the quirks of Jewish life. Don’t pull punches — it’s Purim!


Take a Picture …

As I usually disagree with Rob Eshman’s columns on national and world affairs, I was shocked to my foundations to read his column (“Drones, Jews and Morality,” Jan. 30) several times (it was that good) with great respect.  If he is going to write such well-reasoned, rational, thoughtful columns with no detectable left-wing drivel, how am I going to be able to rage against him? His proactive stance against the mainstream at a bastion of left-wing radicals (Princeton) blew me away. I even learned something new that I found very useful. What’s this world coming to?  But please, keep up the good work.

Warren Scheinin, Redondo Beach


LimmudLA and Sustaining Support 

I commend David Suissa for shining a light on one of the most expansive and inspirational Jewish engagement programs launched locally (“Whatever Happened to Limmud in LA?” Feb. 6), as well as the considerable challenge facing social entrepreneurs and philanthropists everywhere: sustainability of these dynamic initiatives.

The Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles was instrumental in launching LimmudLA in 2007 with $250,000 awarded over three years through its Cutting Edge Grants Initiative. Additionally, The Foundation’s own donors have provided over $100,000 in additional grants to support LimmudLA.

Since establishing our Cutting Edge Grants in 2006, The Foundation has provided financial support of nearly $10.5 million to launch 53 groundbreaking programs.  Proudly, about 90 percent of these initiatives — including LimmudLA — continue to operate during and beyond their grant periods.

The fact that LimmudLA today operates with a different model and capacity from when originally launched reflects the sustainability challenge confronting even the best initiatives and start-up nonprofits. Long-term success entails more than just securing support through a seed funder like The Foundation; it takes a veritable “Jewish village” of resources. Regrettably, not all programs will take root longer term.

This underscores the vital need for second-stage funding, to support promising initiatives as they grow, adapt and become truly sustainable into the future. The Foundation continues to be committed to exploring how we, in partnership with like-minded funders, can play a leadership role in enabling the community’s most viable programs to flourish beyond our grant-making support.

Marvin Schotland, Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, President and CEO


Artistic Integrity

In reference to Ellie Heman’s piece about the Oscars (“Why I Don’t Want to Watch the [White] Oscars This Year,” Jan. 30), I am sick to death of hearing the term “white” being used as a racial invective. Herman, secure in her limited little bubble of academia, feels free to toss the word around as if skin color exempts white Academy members from any serious ability to think for themselves, forgetting that voting members come from all racial and religious backgrounds.  In all fairness to Herman, perhaps she does not realize that “Hollywood” operates as a meritocracy, and that films are not nominated for racial or ethnic consideration, but for any number of reasons, including artistic merit. Let’s face it: “Selma” was a bore, cast with British actors whose American accents at times seemed somewhat labored. If Herman, even dimly, recognizes her own bigotry, then perhaps she will be able to understand what meritocracy is all about.

Ron Southart, Marina Del Rey

Why I don’t want to watch the (white) Oscars this year


In my family, the Academy Awards are an annual event celebrated with the kind of specific rituals more often associated with major cultural events: the days of predictions beforehand; the festive spread of Fritos, onion dip and enough nosherei to feed a small army; the red-carpet gossipfest; even the inevitable boredom — all are part of our family’s life cycle, as ingrained as the Fourth of July. Even as our children grow up and move out of town, we watch the Oscars in virtual togetherness, texting feverishly: “Can you believe what she’s wearing?” “Adele Dazeem?!”

But this year I won’t be breaking out the onion dip. I can’t. The almost-complete shutout of any artist of color in any category is too nauseating. To hoist a glass and laugh along with the jokes will feel like enjoying a party at a whites-only country club.  

There may be a million reasons why “Selma” was shut out almost entirely from awards, starting with the inaccurate representation of LBJ’s conversations with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. “Selma” got nods only for best picture and best song, notably bypassing director Ava DuVernay and actor David Oyelowo; as a comparison, Oliver Stone’s conspiracy-theory movie, “JFK,” which took far more liberties with the truth, was nominated for eight Oscars, including best director, best supporting actor and best screenplay. Even this year, “The Imitation Game,” whose director was nominated, has been widely criticized for exaggerating Alan Turing’s role in cracking the Nazi codes; “Foxcatcher,” whose director was also nominated, bears so little resemblance to actual events that it is astonishing that the DuPont family has not sued for defamation.

But for me, it’s not only that the near-shutout of “Selma” feels particularly galling in the context of Ferguson, Eric Garner and marches in the street to remind America that #blacklivesmatter. It’s not only that DuVernay, however you may feel about her interpretation of LBJ, has made a powerful portrait of a movement whose work is still not finished, nor that Oyelowo has given a stunning portrayal of King, nor that Carmen Ejogo is luminous in her portrayal of Coretta Scott King.  

It’s that there are no other African-American nominees from any other movie at all. In a roster of dozens of nominees, there is only one single person of color — Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu — and he is not American, so, in fact, there is not a single American person of color.  

To contextualize this whitewash, remember that the Oscars are taking place in Los Angeles, a city whose population, according to the latest U.S. Census, is less than 50 percent white — 48.5 percent of people living here are Latino; 9.6 percent are African-American. More than 11 percent are Asian, and the rest are mixed race, American Indian or Pacific Islander. These minoritized groups, taken together, are, in fact, the majority of Angelenos. Am I crazy if I feel sick celebrating an industry that, despite being based in one of the most vibrantly multicultural cities in the world, almost exclusively tells stories by and about white people? Am I crazy when I bristle at the word “minority” when used to refer to a majority of our population?

We can dismiss all of this by saying that the Academy is made up a bunch of old, out-of-touch white men, but these awards are a pretty accurate reflection of the movies that Hollywood green-lights. The Writers Guild of America reports that 95 percent of screenwriting jobs in 2014 were taken by white people. According to a recent UCLA report, film directors of color make only 12.2 percent of movies, while actors of color play only 10.5 percent of leading roles. Of the 90 percent of movies with white leads, half of them featured a cast that was over 90 percent white.  

This gross underrepresentation speaks to the entrenchment of Hollywood’s white bubble, but the problem goes far deeper; it goes to lack of access in the entertainment business to internships and job opportunities, which in turn goes to the lack of educational equality for children of color, who are far more likely than white children to grow up in poverty. Latino-American children are twice as likely to grow up in poverty than whites. African-American children are three times as likely to grow up in poverty. In turn, children growing up in high-poverty communities are being educated in a system that has been decimated by slashes in funding that have eliminated arts education and even libraries from low-income neighborhoods.  

When I taught in a high school in South Central Los Angeles, I was stunned to find that many of my students could not sing a single note on key. Why? They’d never had a music class. Ever. High schools are required to offer students one arts class during their entire four years; many offer only that, and some offer none at all, despite the requirement. In a city with so much talent, where the entertainment business is the fifth-largest income producer, why have no companies reached out to low-income communities to offer any arts education for children?  Where is the bridge between the glitter of the red carpet and the hundreds of thousands of children living in poverty only a few miles away?  

So, forgive me if I skip the party in front of the TV this year. I can’t have fun celebrating an industry that, so many years after the civil-rights heroes were beaten down in the streets in their quest for justice, remains starkly segregated. I can hope, as King said, that the arc of our moral universe bends toward justice. And I will shut my eyes and try as hard as I can to believe it. 


Ellie Herman is a writer, teacher and life coach.

Israel bypassed in Oscars race


Israel is out, but a Polish Holocaust-related film is in, as movies from nine countries advanced on Nov. 19 in the Oscar race for best foreign-language film.

“Gett: The Trial of Vivian Amsalem,” Israel’s entry, did not make the cut. The film depicts the five-year legal struggle of an Orthodox wife to obtain a divorce from her reluctant husband.

However, “Ida,” an early favorite, made the short list. The sparse but powerful Polish movie traces the evolution of a young novitiate in a Catholic convent who, about to take her vows, learns that she is the daughter of Jewish parents killed during the Holocaust.

Among other strong contenders are Russia’s “Leviathan,” in which a simple worker battles a corrupt city hall, and Sweden’s “Force Majeure,” depicting a happy family on a ski vacation that is confronted by an avalanche.

While such traditional cinematic power houses as France, Italy and Germany failed to qualify, outsiders Mauritania (“Timbuktu), Estonia (“Tangerines”) and Georgia (“Corn Island”) made the cut.

Rounding out the list of nine are Argentina (“Wild Tales”), Holland (“Accused”) and Venezuela (“The Liberator”).

The slate of nine nominees will be winnowed down to five finalists when the 87th Academy Award nominations are announced on Jan. 15.

Oscar winners will hoist their trophies on Feb. 22 in a glamorous Hollywood ceremony, televised to 225 countries and territories throughout the world.