Israel is out and Palestine is still in the Oscar race, following the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announcement of nine semi-finalists in the best foreign-language film category.
Israel’s entry “Bethlehem,” directed by Yuval Adler and winner of Best Film at the 2013 Venice Film Festival, did not make the cut, and the Palestinian film “Omar” by director Hany Abu-Assad was one of the semifinalists.
Both films reflect the intensity of the continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Omar director Abu-Assad won critical praise for two previous films, “Paradise Now” and “Rana’s Wedding,” in which the Palestinian protagonists did not hide their antagonism toward Israel but the Israeli foes were nevertheless portrayed as recognizable human beings, rather than soulless sadists.
Abu-Assad largely foregoes such balance in “Omar,” in which the title character and the beautiful Nadja pine for each other on opposite side of the Separation Wall, in Israeli terminology, or the Isolation Wall in the Palestinian dictionary.
In the process of jumping the wall and participating in the shooting of an Israeli soldier, Omar, played by Adam Bakri, is caught by Israeli undercover agents, who first torture him and then try to turn him into a collaborator.
Distrusted by the Israelis and reviled as a traitor by his own people, Omar is driven to one last desperate act.
In “Bethlehem,” director Adler and co-writer, Palestinian journalist Ali Waked, draw no moral judgments in the struggle between Shin Bet – the Israeli internal security agency, against Hamas and the Al Aksa Martyrs Brigade.
This year, a record 76 countries, from Afghanistan to Venezuela, entered their best films. As usual, the choice of nominees by the unpredictable selection committee stunned many professional prognosticators.
Most surprising was the omission of top favorite “The Past” by Iranian director Ashgar Farhadi, who won the Academy Award two years ago with “A Separation.” Similarly slighted was the heavily promoted “Wadja,” the first ever submission by Saudi Arabia.
Abu-Assad’s earlier movie, “Paradise Now,” ignited a fierce debate on how to label the sponsoring entity, with the Academy vacillating between “Palestinian Authority,” “Palestinian Territories” and finally “Palestine,” which is how such films are now designatged.
Israeli filmmakers’ record of 10 nominations place Israel among the 10 most nominated countries, though the Israeli film industry has yet to bring home its first Academy Award.
The shortlist of five finalists in the foreign-language and other categories will be announced on Jan. 16. The final winners will hoist their trophies on Oscar Sunday, March 2, in Hollywood.