Israel-Iran Rivalry Moves to Red Carpet

Article Summary
The face-off between Israel and Iran has entered the cultural realm, Raz Schechnik reports. The Israeli film "Footnote" was nominated for an Oscar in the best-foreign-language film category, and its main competition is an entry from Iran, "A Separation." "Footnote" director Joseph Cedar called the competition between the two films a "poetic moment."

Ultimately, it was reality that wrote the best screenplay. The Israeli film “Footnote” was nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Foreign Film category. Its main competition is coming at it full-steam: “A Separation,” from Iran. Drama, conflict, conflicted heroes — just what Hollywood likes. On February 26, in Los Angeles, the battle will end in tears. The question is whose tears.

Footnote deals in matters that aren’t supposed to interest too many people: Jewish roots, the Talmud, academic research. It weaves the story of a complicated relationship between a father (Shlomo Bar Aba) and his son (Lior Ashkenazi), two Talmud scholars from Jerusalem, who somehow get mixed up by the Israel Prize committee. Instead of informing the son he was chosen for the award, it tells the father. From here, the film enters the charged realm of inter-generational relations.

The world, it turns out, loves this stuff. Fact: Some six months ago, the Cannes Film Festival awarded the film the Best Screenplay Award. Another fact: the international Sony Pictures Classic acquired it for distribution in thousands of theaters around the world. And another fact, which came just yesterday: Footnote will compete for the most coveted award of all — the Oscar. We couldn’t ask for more.

Israeli films have been nominated nine times for Best Foreign Film Oscars, but the gold statuette has never reached customs at Ben Gurion Airport. Footnote’s director, Joseph Cedar, is well aware of this. He himself yesterday became a serial nominee, after walking the red carpet in 2008, in the same category, as the creator of “Beaufort.” Yesterday, Cedar was newly struck with happiness. He received phone calls from literally all over the world, and had trouble breathing. “It’s an indescribable moment,” he said. “The news is so uplifting. Having already been in this position makes it more surprising. I didn’t think this moment would happen twice in my life.”

Cedar tells that he found a good way to deal with the stress: by not thinking of the odds, by enjoying for now the fun of the nomination itself. “My hard disk is free from anything relating to thoughts of the prize itself,” he declared. “The whole thing is a bonus. In order to enjoy this position, you have to get out of the competitive mood, and that’s what I do. Anyway, you need to remember that “Footnote” was not made in order to be liked by the nations of the world, or at all. If that’s what happened, it’s not because we made an effort.”

“Footnote” will be competing against “In Darkness from Poland” (no, the name is not a Polish joke), “Monsieur Lazhar” from Canada, “Bullhead” from Belgium and the Iranian “A Separation.” The battle between Israel and the country from which the West just yesterday decided to place an embargo on fuel — but not on its films — was described by Cedar as a “poetic moment.” “It’s an amazing drama that you couldn’t capture in a screenplay,” he said. “It’s nice, I think, that two films that each deal with their own cultures, from an unexpected angle, are competing in the same field. I saw the Iranian film, and I have met its director and spoken to him at length, because both films were acquired by the same distribution company, Sony. Until now, we felt like were in the same camp.”

Shlomo Bar Aba, who is omnipresent in the Israeli cultural sphere, was also very excited yesterday. He believes that this time, finally, there’s a chance to return to Lod with the prize. “I understood from people who saw all five films that it’s us against the Iranians, who made a masterpiece,” he said. “Just imagine we lose to the Iranians — we won’t come back to Israel.”

Bar Aba takes a breath and continues: “Talmud! Talmud! Do you understand? I mean, we used to sneak out of Talmud classes in school and ultimately that’s what did it. It’s a formative moment; it’s too bad my father didn’t live to see this. This film touched people at the end of the world. We tend, out of modesty, to speak in terms of luck — but here it’s more than that. You tell me, is it possible to not be excited?”

Bar Aba gets more and more emotional, explaining why. “We in this business aspire to big hugs, fireworks, like children looking for recognition — and suddenly you get it in the ultimate way,” he said fervently. “Hello! The Oscar! I’ve already been told I’ll be in the same row as Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson. The idea makes me want to faint. It hits you like thunder on a clear day. I am in total shock, euphoria, it feels like a roller coaster at an amusement park. I really thought that “Footnote” was a film for a narrow audience, not communicative, not suited to the sexy and colorful age of ‘show-off,’ which is why the surprise is so great. We received a hug in the age of reality shows.”

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