The first thing that needs to be said is, “Way to go Israel!” This is the third year in-a-row that an Israeli film is nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. In fact, Ajami is Israel’s ninth candidate to make the final round of nominees–making Israel the country that has been nominated the most times without a win. They’re turning into the Susan Lucci of foreign films.
I wrote about Ajami back when we premiered the film in DC as part of the 20th Washington Jewish Film Festival. While I don’t think it is as strong a film as Israel’s two prior nominees (Beaufort and Waltz With Bashir), this category is particularly quirky and there are good reasons why this film could be the one to finally take home the golden statuette for Israel.
First, is the film’s subject which is a neighborhood mixed with Jews, Christians and Muslims in the city of Jaffa. It also deals with several characters who have snuck into Israel-proper from the West Bank and are working in Arab businesses illegally. The film provides real humanity to all of its characters without forcing you to choose sides. In this way it pulls off the neat trick of being a film about Arab-Jewish relations in Israel that isn’t chiefly concerned with the Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.
Second, the production team behind the film reflects the mixture of peoples in Jaffa. The film is co-written, co-directed and co-produced by the Yaron Shani, “an Israeli Jew” and Scandar Copti “a Palestinian citizen of the Israeli state” according to their bios on the film’s website. Hollywood likes the warm fuzzies that come from collaborations like these — although the film is by no means warm and fuzzy.
Third, this just might be Israel’s year by sheer fact that they have had a nominated film for the last three years. Oscars are rarely about the quality of the actual films. Sometimes they are about what makes good TV — giving Ajami the Oscar could provide a memorable moment for a Jew and a Palestinian to stand at the podium making a plea for tolerance and communication.
Finally, Israel can only be nominated so many times without winning before someone begins to cry foul.
This category is notoriously hard to predict, especially with traditional cinema powerhouses like Germany and France present. Ajami is also a difficult film to appreciate with a non-linear story-line, a host of characters to keep track of, and an ending that doesn’t send you out of the theater smiling. But it is great for Israel to have it in the Oscar mix, and another reminder of what a filmmaking dynamo the state has become.