August 17, 2019

Israeli Director Wins Oscar for Best Short, ‘Skin’

Photo by Danny Moloshok/Reuters

A few days before Oscar night, Tel Aviv-born director Guy Nattiv was pessimistic about the prospect of his live-action short, “Skin,” taking home the prize. Instead, he predicted victory for “Marguerite.”

“It’s a sensitive movie about an old lady and all the other movies are very dark and grim, and she’s the only film that has the light,” he said in a phone interview from his Los Angeles home.

“Skin,” on the other hand, is an in-your-face, cover-your-face-from-violence tinged tale about a spontaneous street war between black and white family men. That’s why Nattiv appeared shocked during his acceptance speech on Feb. 24 at the Dolby Theatre, together with wife/producer, Jaime Ray Newman.

“I moved here five years ago from Israel. Layla tov, Yisrael (Good night, Israel),” he said. “My grandparents are Holocaust survivors, and the bigotry that they experienced in the Holocaust, we see that everywhere today, in America, in Europe. This film is about education, about teaching your kids a better way.”

Nattiv became a United States citizen a month before the election of President Donald Trump in 2016. But, he said, being a filmmaking name in Israel (as director of the acclaimed “Mabul,” among others), never guarantees a successful crossover. “I moved here and started from scratch,” he told the Journal.

While commuting back and forth between Tel Aviv and Los Angeles for several years for a long-distance relationship with actress-turned-producer Newman, he held in his pocket a script for a feature film telling the real-life story about Bryon Widner, a white supremacist who undergoes reform.

“It was in 2012 and no one wanted to touch it with a 10-foot-pole,” Newman told the Journal. That was during the Obama years, she said, a time when race relations were believed to be on the mend, and neo-Nazis in middle America were considered passé. “Then [the rally in] Charlottesville [Va.], happened, and Guy said, ‘Let’s put it into our own hands.’ ”

Inspired by an article Nattiv had read about a skinhead teaching his son to shoot Mexicans at the border, “Skin,” was co-written over a weekend with fellow Israeli filmmaker Sharon Maymon, and shot in four days. The self-financed short opens with a tattooed white-supremacist father “lovingly” inculcating his son with racist ideas that come to bloody fruition after a black man interacts with the boy at a supermarket.

“There is nothing cliché about neo-Nazis,” Nattiv said. “They are fully here in the United States, more terrifying and present than you ever know.”

“My grandparents are Holocaust survivors, and the bigotry that they experienced in the Holocaust, we see that everywhere today. This film is about education, about teaching your kids a better way.” — Guy Nattiv

Nattiv cited Hebrew Scripture for the film’s lesson: “ ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’ In other words, what you teach your kids could end up biting you in the ass. We have a 5-month-girl named Alma (Nattiv and Newman dedicated their Oscar win to her during their acceptance speech), and the reason that we also have kids in this short is [to say]: What world are we bringing our kids into? It all goes back to education.”

The film is not exclusive to the American experience, Nattiv added, noting that prejudice and hate extend beyond America to Europe and Israel, especially with the rise of nationalist parties.

“I think Israel is a racist country and I think we have racism,” Nattiv said. “Look at what happened to this Ethiopian guy [in January]. I think he was mentally ill, had some problems, was running in the street in Bat Yam and shot [and killed] by policemen.”

The incident caused an uproar at the time, particularly among the Ethiopian community, spurring discussions about racism in the country.

 

Nattiv also cited ongoing tensions in Israel: between Jews and Arabs; Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews; the ultra-Orthodox and secular.

It took Trump’s election for Hollywood players to pay attention to Nattiv’s film. The short quickly became a darling of the film festival circuit, and Nattiv became a darling of the Israeli film scene. On Oscar night, “Skin” was aired on Israel’s YES satellite cable company.

The short has been made into a feature film. Israeli producer Oren Movermen and Trudie Styler (Sting’s wife) co-produced the feature, which stars Jamie Bell and Vera Farmiga. It will be released in the U.S. in July.

Both the feature and the short are expected to be shown in Israel at this summer’s Jerusalem Film Festival.

Despite the excitement surrounding his unexpected win, Nattiv remained grounded during his Oscar acceptance speech. “We all know the Oscars are very powerful,” he said, “and it’s an honor to be on this stage. But we also know you need to keep working hard.”


Correction: Nattiv’s final comment in this article, was made to the reporter during his interview with her, and not during his Oscars acceptance speech. 

Orit Arfa is a journalist and author based in Berlin. Her second novel, “Underskin,” is a German-Israeli love story.