Two films with gay themes – Flawless and The Cakemaker – are the leading contenders at the Ophir Awards, the prizes of the Israel Film Academy, which will be given out in a ceremony at the Ashdod Performing Arts Center on September 6. It will be broadcast live on Channel 13.
This is an unusual situation, as movies about the gay community have generally been shut out by the academy or received nominations in only technical categories. But just as the transgender singer Dana International became Israel’s representative in Eurovision and won the contest in 1998, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community is finally getting recognized in this awards season.
For decades, few in Israel or abroad paid much attention to the Ophir Awards, particularly because until about 15 years ago, there were rarely more than four or five movies in contention. Due to an unfortunate quirk in the nominations process that continues to this day, movies are often nominated before they are released in theaters, effectively quashing any interest the general public might have in the awards. Imagine whether anyone would sit through the Oscar telecast in the US if most of the nominated movies had never been released.
But with the passage of the Israeli Cinema Law in 2001 and the renaissance in Israeli movies, people began to take note of what won, since the Best Picture winner automatically becomes Israel’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.
In the past decade, four Israeli movies went on to receive Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominations, most recently Joseph Cedar’s Footnote in 2012. However, as it became clear that the Ophir Award meant something, the awards came under increased scrutiny and in the past few years, have been the focus of Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev’s ire.
Whether or not she attended, her presence has hovered over the event for the last two years. In 2016, she stormed out during a performance of a song written by Mahmoud Darwish, then stormed back in and launched into a tirade against what she termed the elitism of the Israeli film industry, that overshadowed the presentation of the Best Picture Award to Sand Storm, a drama about a Bedouin family.
Last year, after her angry criticism of Samuel Maoz’s Foxtrot, a movie she admitted she hadn’t seen – and which went on to win the Best Picture Award and seven other awards – she was disinvited from the ceremony by Film Academy chairman Mosh Danon.
But this didn’t deter Regev, and she gave a press conference before the awards ceremony in which she reiterated her grievances against the film industry in general and Foxtrot in particular, a press conference that got as much attention as the Ophir Awards themselves.
This year, Danon announced Regev would be persona non grata again, following Regev’s push for a new Cinema Law which was tabled in July, following a filibuster by liberal Knesset members. The new law would require that the Culture Ministry, and not the film funds themselves, would be responsible for determining which filmmakers receive government funding, a provision that is anathema to the filmmaking community in Israel. Following the Knesset decision not to vote on the bill, Regev insisted she would cut the money that goes to filmmakers from NIS 80 million to NIS 30 million per year, an empty threat since the 2019 budget is already in place.
Regev insisted this new proposed law would make the film industry more diverse. However, this year, as in recent years, the Ophir nominees are a very diverse group of films and filmmakers, a fact Regev has yet to acknowledge.
Flawless, which received the most nominations, 12 in all, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay and awards for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, was made by Tal Granit and Sharon Maymon. The movie tells the story of three Jerusalem high-school girls – one of whom is transgender – who sell their kidneys to an organ-trafficking ring in the Ukraine to buy breast implants before their school prom. The film has yet to show at international film festivals and is just opening throughout Israel.
Flawless is a film about trendy topics and features strong performances. Since it got the most nominations, it will likely win in the top categories, including Best Picture, Director and Screenplay. It is notable for the fact that its lead, Stav Strashko, who is transgender, will likely be Israel’s first transgender Ophir Best Actress winner. Assi Levy, who is nominated for Best Supporting Actress, is well liked by the academy and could win her third Ophir Award for this performance.
Its main competitor, The Cakemaker, which was directed by Ofir Raul Graizer, tells the story of a young German baker who comes to Jerusalem after his Israeli lover dies. Nominated for nine Ophirs, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Actress, it has won awards around the world and is being remade in the US. For what it’s worth, this would have the strongest chance of getting an Oscar nod of all the nominated films if it were to win the Ophir for Best Picture, simply because of the high quality of the script and the acting.
Marco Carmel, a French-Israeli director, made the feature, Noble Savage, which received 10 Ophir nominations, in all the top categories. Based on a bestselling novel, it’s about a teenage boy with an eating disorder, who is in conflict with his overly seductive mother and his angry father. It is a throwback to the time when most Israeli movies focused on unhappy families screaming at each other in cramped apartments.
Jacob Goldwasser, the director of Laces, which is nominated for eight awards, including Best Picture, is the only filmmaker in this bunch who might meet Regev’s definition of being part of the filmmaking establishment, since he has been making movies for more than 30 years. Laces tells the story of a father who has been estranged from his special-needs son, and how they reconnect. Nevo Kimchi will likely win Best Actor for his performance as the son, and Doval’e Glickman, who also starred in Shtisel, is a shoo-in for Best Supporting Actor for playing the father.
Fig Tree, by Alamork Davidian, an Ethiopian-born director, has been highly anticipated since it won the top prize at the Jerusalem International Film Lab run by the Sam Spiegel Film School in 2014. It’s an autobiographical film, based on her experience of moving to Israel as a child. A late entry into the Toronto International Film Festival this year, it is expected to be released in Israel in 2019. Although Fig Tree is nominated for Best Picture, Davidian did not get a nod for Best Director and the movie only received five nominations in all, indicating that academy members did not like it that much.
Unfortunately, three of the strongest movies of the year – Avi Nesher’s The Other Story, Eliran Malka’s The Unorthodox and Yossi Madmoni and Boaz Yehonatan Yaacov’s Redemption (Geula) – were not submitted for Ophir consideration, each for different reasons.
The Ophir voters can be unpredictable, but you can expect that Regev will find something to meet with her displeasure before they are done handing out the statuettes on Thursday.