For ‘Aya,’ a long journey from Israel to the Oscars

The idea for “Aya” began with a daydream: What if you were waiting for someone at the airport and instead you picked up a total stranger? What then?
February 17, 2015

The idea for “Aya” began with a daydream: What if you were waiting for someone at the airport and instead you picked up a total stranger? What then?

That wisp of a fantasy, dreamed up by Mihal Brezis many years ago while waiting with a friend at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport, has carried her and her partner, Oded Binnun, to an Oscar nomination for best short film.

“This film keeps surprising us with its journey,” Brezis, 37, told JTA in advance of the 87th Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday.

She was sitting in a cafe in Griffith Park here while Binnun, 39, her co-director and co-writer, was taking their son, Nuri, on a pony ride nearby.

“The most touching fact is that we get to travel this far with a film that is small and intimate,” Brezis said.

“Aya,” as it exists, was never even supposed to be made. Brezis and Binnun were working on a feature film when a French producer who had worked on their last film called and told them he had money to make another short film. They told him they had no short film ideas, but ultimately decided to distill part of their feature idea into the short that became “Aya.”

At 39 minutes, however, “Aya” is long for a short film — so long that when it first played at the Jerusalem International Film Festival in 2012, the festival had to host a special screening. Brezis and Binnun invited their friends and family assuming it would be the only public screening of the film. But a positive review from the Israeli newspaper Haaretz led to more screenings at Israeli cinematheques, and then to a commercial release in Israel.

Thanks to the Oscar nomination, “Aya” is now playing with the other short film nominees as part in more than 450 theaters across the United States. (The other Oscar contenders in the live action short category are “Boogaloo and Graham,” “Butter Lamp (La Lampe au Beurre de Yak),” “Parvaneh” and “The Phone Call.”)

The film itself is deceptively simple. The title character (played by Sarah Adler) is a young woman waiting for someone at Ben Gurion Airport when a driver asks her to hold his sign for a moment welcoming a Mr. Overby to a music competition. When Overby (Ulrich Thomsen), a Danish music researcher and juror for the competition, shows up, Aya decides on an impulse to drive him to his hotel in Jerusalem. During the course of the car ride, which forms the majority of the film, the ordinary boundaries between strangers break down, and an unexpected intimacy develops between the spontaneous Aya and the reserved Overby.

Unlike other recent Israeli Oscar nominees, there is nothing obviously Israeli about “Aya.” By contrast, the feature films “Beaufort” and “Waltz With Bashir” were set amid Israel’s wars with its neighbors; the social drama “Ajami” took a panoramic look at Israeli society, particularly the fractures between Jewish Israelis and Arabs; and the father-son drama “Footnotes” was about a complicated relationship between father and son, both of whom teach in the Talmud department at Hebrew University. But “Aya” explores neither the political, ethnic nor religious aspects of Israeli life. Even the dialogue itself is almost entirely in English.

Brezis said that many people in and out of Israel expect the country’s films to be political, and that she and Binnun (along with co-writer Tom Shoval) wondered whether they should make the film more political, more “Israeli.” But ultimately they decided to remain true to the heart of the story, which is the encounter between the two strangers.

“At the end of the day, I’m happy we managed to keep it this way,” Binnun said. “Audiences can see Israel as a place where human connections can happen.”

But she also argues that Aya is a distinctly Israeli character.

“I do think it reflects something deep which is Israeli — not following the rules, being spontaneous, following the heart,” Brezis said.

Brezis and Binnun met more than a dozen years ago at Israel’s prestigious Sam Spiegel Film and Television School, and they have been creative and romantic partners ever since, always writing and directing together. Both are natives of Jerusalem — Brezis comes from a religious family, while Binnun’s family is more secular — but they now live in Tel Aviv, the center of the Israeli film and television industry.

The couple has now resumed developing the feature-length version of the “Aya” story, and they hope that with the success and acclaim of “Aya,” they will be able to secure financing to shoot what would be their first feature film.

In the meantime, even though their film does not set out to change the world, they hope that Aya’s journey can have its own impact, however subtle.

Brezis said, “The vision we set out is that when the lights come up after the film, you feel differently towards the person sitting next to you.”

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