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Israel’s Unique Oscar Submission Process Yields ‘Baba Joon’

Israel's Unique Oscar Submission Process Yields 'Baba Joon'

We’ve all been mentally challenged at the movies. Not very rewarding. Being mentally challenged IN the movies, on the other hand, can be the route to cash and prizes (see “Forrest Gump,” “Rain Man,” “I Am Sam,” “Shine”).  For all the great performances we’ve seen involving characters who are developmentally disabled, though, they’re very seldom presented as sexually attractive or active – in fact, sexuality itself is typically left out the equation.

Sure, there are exceptions—”Benny and Joon,” “The Other Sister”—but if erotic attraction arises, it’s generally between intellectual equals. Which is one of the reasons Israeli director Nitzan Giladi’s “The Wedding Doll” caught the attention of audiences when it played at Toronto last month, en route to an Ophir award for star Moran Rosenblatt in Tel Aviv.

In “The Wedding Doll,” Rosenblatt plays Hagit, a worker in a family-run paper factory who is in love with the owners’ son, Omri (Roy Assaf), who finds Hagit and her constantly smiling face adorable (as does the viewer). Omri knows a relationship is impossible, which makes him a louse; Hagit thinks a relationship-engagement is not just possible, but happening—which makes her an object of poignancy and pathos. And, not incidentally, desire.

But “The Wedding Doll” is not Israel’s submission for the Foreign Oscar. That would be the domestic drama “Baba Joon.” Why it’s not says something about the process by which the award is determined, and the myriad choices behind this year’s 81 ​international entries.
For one thing, most submissions are selected by committees established in the individual participating countries. Even producer Mark Johnson (“Breaking Bad”), chairman of the foreign language branch, concedes that the who-what-why of those committees is often mysterious. Another factor is that a country’s national cinema means a lot more to some nations than, say, U.S. cinema means to Americans: Very few people here feel personally affronted by, or responsible for, the content of our movies, or worry what a particular film will say about America’s image abroad (we know it’s often bad…). It’s not the same elsewhere, and especially when politics are involved (the Chinese were notably reluctant to submit politically volatile films like Tian Zhuangzhuang’s “The Blue Kite,” back in the early ‘90s”).

Israel is a curious case. It is, perhaps justifiably, highly defensive about its image. While its film industry has achieved greater and greater respect in recent years—partly by getting away from a diet of domestic dramas and films about the conflict— it hasn’t quite gotten to the point where it wants to send some off-beat movie to Hollywood. And sometimes the calculations seem obvious. 

Unlike some countries and their shadowy committees, Israel has a rule: The winner of the best picture Ophir, the award of the Israel Academy of Film and Television, is automatically the Oscar submission. In 2013, the wildly popular “Big Bad Wolves,” a bloody horror thriller, got 11 Ophir nominations—but not one for best picture. Last year, “Zero Motivation,” the often hilarious comedy about women in the Israeli military, was widely seen, and widely praised, and won six of the 12 Ophirs for which it was nominated – but again, not best picture, which went to “Gett: The Story of Viviane Ansalem” (a tremendous film, and one critical of Israeli, but not a comedy – everyone knows the the Oscars have an allergy to comedy).

Yair Raveh of Israeli film site Cinemascope suggests that those voting for the Ophir have the Oscars in mind when they make their picks. “The Israeli Academy is Oscar crazy,” he tweets. “In reality, most recent winners were not The Best Picture but rather The Film We Think The American Will Like The Most. ‘Baba Joon’ didn’t win Directing, Writing or Acting awards, only art/tech ones (Cinematography, Production Design, Score). Many Academy members told me: ‘I loved film A, but it won’t fit the Oscars so I’m voting for B.’ The system is bankrupt.”

It may be that “Wedding Doll,” with its off-center take on romance and frank portrayal of how cruelly the disabled can be treated (and certainly not just in Israel), has kept it out of the race. It certainly had support, i.e., nine Ophir nominations, just not enough to get in the mix for the Oscar short list. It’s a movie that deserves to be seen for many reasons, but especially the way it portrays a kind of character who’s quite often either dismissed, or made a cliché.​

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