Israel's Oscar Choice

· Joanthan Poritsky

I had the pleasure this past week of seeing two great new Israeli films, Nadav Lapid’s Policeman and Joseph Cedar’s Footnote. The latter is Israel’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar this year and it also ran away with almost all of the 2011 Ophir Awards (the Israeli Oscar analogue). I’m not sure if Policeman ever came close to getting the nod for Oscar, but it was nominated for top honors alongside Footnote so I can’t imagine it wasn’t considered.

The task of selecting a film to represent a national cinema at the Oscars is a daunting one. On the one hand, you want to select a film that represents your country and the state of its film community. It is a statement, on some level, of national representation and values. On the other hand, you want to submit something that has a chance of getting nominated. Even if a film doesn’t win, the nomination helps promote a country’s movie business. So the question may as well be asked: between Policeman and Footnote, which is a better snapshot of Israel and its film community today?1

Policeman is a slow, haunting story that depicts the separate travails of both an anti-terrorism police officer and a small band of Israeli extremists. Through acts of violence, the one swears to protect what Israel stands for while the other vows to change it by any means necessary. The terrorists are outraged by the economic disparity in Israel, a point that should stick in any viewer’s gut when they look at the massive protests that took place in Israel this past summer and those that are ongoing on Wall Street today. It wouldn’t be such a stretch to say that Lapid’s film moved hordes of Israelis into the streets to speak out against policy they can longer abide by.

Cedar’s Footnote is a high-brow Talmudic comedy of errors, a smart take on Judeo-intellectualism and the state of modern discourse. It is a also a sweet, at times too sweet, story of a father and son. It tells the tale of two Professor Shkolniks, Eliezer and his son Uriel. Both are Talmud scholars at Hebrew University, but the son’s achievements outshine those of the father. Though its moving parts are of particular interest to a Jewish audience (there’s a nice flourish about the death of Judaism by way of Zionist machismo), its core is wholly universal. Moreover, Footnote doesn’t go near the ongoing military and political struggles of Israel. The only thing keeping this story in the holy land is its relationship to the Talmud. Of the two films, it’s certainly the more accessible one.

I think both are excellent films. In the end I have to wonder which film I would rather represent me, not as a Jew or on behalf of Israel, but which speaks to me and which I would like to share with others. And this is the predicament. On a technical level, I find Policeman the more interesting film for its deliberateness and its tackling of seemingly untouchable material. However, I wonder if I’m getting caught up in the zeitgeist of the Occupy Wall Street movement and economic unrest across the globe. In 20 years, which film will still be available and worth watching? I don’t know.

In the end, it is Footnote that the powers that be have chosen as a national champion. It’s a worthy competitor and it may well nab the Oscar spot. Make no mistake, though, Policeman is also a great representative of what is churning in the Israeli psyche. If you have to choose between the two films here is my advice: don’t. See both.

  1. I should mention that I don’t know the inner workings of the selection of an Israeli film for the Oscars. The producers of Policeman may well have abstained. ↩︎