As Israeli cinema continues to make its mark on the world stage, two Israeli movies beat out some 140 contenders to make the short list of 10 finalists in the best short-film category of the 2015 Academy Awards. “Aya,” by Michal Brezis and Oded Binnun, tells of a young woman who forges an eerily strong bond with a stranger, and “Summer Vacation,” by Sharon Maymon and Tal Granit, spotlights a married man who must come to terms with his gay identity when his ex-lover unexpectedly turns up on a beach holiday.
Both movies — which each had a budget of approximately $100,000 — come from a very personal place for the filmmakers involved.
The idea for “Aya” began in 1994, when Brezis, then 17, left her Modern Orthodox home in Jerusalem to travel to Prague, where she chanced to sit next to a stranger at a classical music concert one evening. “He was much older than me, and he was trembling,” Brezis, who is now in her late 30s, recalled in an interview from the Tel Aviv home she shares with Binnun, her life and creative partner, and their 2-year-old son. “For some reason, I spent the entire concert holding hands with this man, even while everyone else was applauding. But we did not exchange a single word during or after the event.”
Perhaps, Brezis said, the encounter “had to do with my religious background, and sometimes trying to be rebellious and pushing boundaries. But it was also something naïve, not at all sexual — just really about an unexpected connection between two people of an indefinable quality and essence.”
The memory of that encounter eventually led Brezis, along with Binnun, to create the 39-minute “Aya,” about a 29-year-old woman who makes a similar, albeit far more dramatic, kind of connection with an older stranger she meets at an Israeli airport.
In the film — which won an Israeli Oscar in 2013 and was the first short to screen as a stand-alone in Israeli theaters — Aya (Sarah Adler) is at the airport when she is approached by a Danish musician, Mr. Overby (Ulrich Thomsen), who mistakenly believes that she is his designated driver. Aya impulsively decides to impersonate his chauffeur, and on the ride to his destination in Jerusalem, she pushes the reserved Dane to interact with her on a deeper level than he initially finds comfortable. Nevertheless, by the end of the drive, the strangers have forged an intense bond that likely will remain an indelible memory for each in the years to come.
Why does Aya act so impulsively? “It’s all about this escape that she longs to make out of her [lonely] day-to-day life,” Binnun said in a telephone interview conducted alongside Brezis.
“We chose to make Mr. Overby from Scandinavia because that culture is sometimes more reserved,” Brezis added. “Part of his normal conduct is to keep his emotions in check. As he says in the film, ‘Never follow your heart’; obviously that leads him to a place where he feels that something is missing — and is why his [bonding] with Aya can take place.”
“Summer Vacation” — which premiered in competition at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival — was inspired by filmmaker Maymon’s own struggle to come out as a gay man 11 years ago. Back then, he began envisioning what would become his 2009 feature-length film, “A Matter of Size,” in which a group of overweight people learn to accept themselves as they are — an endeavor Maymon was undertaking as a gay man at a time when homosexuality was more frowned upon by Israeli society.
“After that, I really wanted to make a film about the fact that you cannot live all your life in the closet; the truth will come out and you will have to deal with it,” Maymon said in a telephone conversation from his home in Tel Aviv, where he lives with his partner and 2-year-old son. “And that’s what happens to the main character in “Summer Vacation.”
In the opening sequence of the 22-minute film, Yuval (Yiftach Klein) has been buried up to his neck in the sand by his wife and two children on a beach in Israel. “It’s a metaphor for the fact that he is suffocating in his [heterosexual family] life; he cannot breathe in this situation because he is gay,” Maymon said.
As the tide comes in and waves begin to crash over Yuval’s head, his ex-lover suddenly arrives and helps dig him out of the sand. “It’s as if Yuval is reborn again by his ex who has saved him, and he knows that he will then have to face his true [sexual] identity,” Maymon said.
For Granit, who is gay as well, the movie is also “about love triangles, because I have the tendency to put myself in that situation,” she said by phone from Ramat Gan. “It’s about how you can make your loved one choose you or choose the truth.”
The writer-directors of both “Aya” and “Summer Vacation” were elated to discover their films had made the academy’s short list in November. “It’s a dream come true for us to be considered for the Oscars,” Granit said.
“It’s part of this great journey we’re having, both for us and short Israeli film in general,” Brezis said.
The nominees for the 87th annual Academy Awards will be announced on Jan. 15. The ceremony will air Feb. 22 on ABC.