September 18, 2019

‘Storm’ drifts off Oscar map, but ‘Mute’s House’ stands its ground

Israel’s hopes for an Oscar in the best foreign-language film category were dashed Dec. 15 when “Sand Storm” failed to make the cut as competing entries from 85 countries were narrowed to nine semifinalists.

The elimination of “Sand Storm” spelled the end, for now, of a Cinderella story, in which writer-director Elite Zexer’s first feature film dominated the Israeli equivalent of the Academy Awards, winning six “Ophirs,” including for best picture and best director.

Centered on a clash between tradition and modernity in a Bedouin village, the film, set in the Negev and entirely in Arabic, has won top prizes at international film festivals in Taiwan, South Korea, Seattle and Jerusalem and the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize at Sundance.

Given the complicated voting system for selecting the best international picture, some early favorites, such as France’s “Elle” and Chile’s “Neruda,” also were eliminated.

Israel’s hopes remain high, however, for “The Mute’s House,” one of 10 semifinalists in the Oscars’ short documentary category. It focuses on the story of 8-year-old Yousef and his mother, Sahar, who live in a kind of no-man’s land in Hebron.

When Yousef declares, “I’m half Jewish and half Muslim,” he describes the two worlds he inhabits and personifies the often contradictory relationships between the majority and minority inhabitants of the State of Israel.

In 1997, the West Bank city was divided into Palestinian and Israeli parts and separated by a gate guarded by Israeli soldiers. All the Palestinians in the new Israeli sector abandoned their homes and relocated in their designated area, except for one stubborn woman. While her husband left and settled in the Palestinian sector, Sahar and her son refused to budge.

Yousef goes to a school in the Palestinian sector and he is the only one allowed to pass from one enclave to another, which means, for instance, that none of his classmates can ever visit him at his home.

If that weren’t enough of a challenge, Yousef was born with only one arm and his mother is completely deaf. For some confused reason, Israeli soldiers have dubbed her home “The Mute’s House” and it has become a regular stopping point for tourist guides and their customers.

With Tamar Kay, the film’s writer and director, as his interlocutor and shadow, Yousef roams among the chicken, goats, and other animals that have taken over the abandoned neighborhood, learns how to play a guitar almost as large as himself, and becomes fast friends with the Israeli soldiers manning the gate dividing the city.

Kay conceived and directed the film as her graduation thesis project at the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School in Jerusalem, after earlier earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology and philosophy at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

During an hourlong phone call from Tel Aviv, Kay, 31, displayed some of the same can-do spirit as Yousef. After learning Arabic, she spent nearly five years on “The Mute’s House,” completing the film on a miniscule $10,000 budget, with film stock and equipment provided by the Spiegel School and none of the participants drawing any salary.

Her co-producer was Ariel Richter, a Los Angeles native who moved to Israel as a teenager.

“Originally, I really intended the film solely for Israeli audiences,” Kay said, “but then I showed it at a film festival in Poland and got a very good audience response.”

Similar responses during Q-and-A sessions in Montenegro, Hungary, Romania and Belgium convinced her that she might have a shot if she entered the film in the 2017 Oscar competition for documentary short subjects.

Her next goal is to make the list of five final nominees; if she wins the Oscar itself, it would be a first for Israel in some 60 years of vying for an Academy Award.

Kay also shared her personal viewpoint as an Israeli and a filmmaker.

“I’m not a political person, I am a people’s person,” she said. “I like to explore new places and conditions. I still believe in human beings, in looking in another’s face, in the potential of opening hearts and minds.”

For her next project, Kay is considering traveling to Poland to get to know the lost world of her paternal grandfather.

From a commercial perspective, it is quite difficult to place a short documentary in a public theater, but the Israeli consulates in New York and Los Angeles are both planning public screenings for “The Mute’s House” in early January.

The nominees in all Oscars categories will be announced on Jan. 24. The ultimate winners will be crowned on Feb. 26 at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood.