AND THE WINNER IS... Israeli Cinema's Greatest Triumphs in the International Arena

Edited by Amir Kaminer
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Long before Gal Gadot took Hollywood and the box office charts by storm, the international film arena was already teeming with Israeli presence. The emergent Hebrew cinema of the 1950s and 1960s was fascinating at times to many a foreigner; especially when it took on issues such as Holocaust survival, undocumented immigration to Palestine (pre-1948), the fight for Jewish independence, the challenge of breathing life into the desert, the bringing together of diasporas, and the Zionist enterprise. The characters, style, and storylines were all considered either exotic, unique, out of the ordinary, or brave and heroic.
Already in in 1955, when the Hebrew film industry was still very nascent and filmmakers were having to operate under harsh, backward conditions – including funding challenges, technical equipment and professional crew shortages, and a host of other woes, trials and tribulations – Israel nonetheless made it to the Cannes Film Festival. The film Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer, which followed the fight for Jewish independence was shortlisted for that year’s main competition and was in the running for a Palme d’Or. One of the film’s primary cast members, Haya Harareet, ended up earning a Special Mention.
In the subsequent years that followed Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer, Israeli filmgoers and critics’ taste wasn’t always in sync with that of international film festivals and award committees’ directors and other influential figures. At times, the foreign powers that be would favour Israeli entries which Israelis themselves scoffed at and tended to snub in cinemas. Long before director Amos Gitai’s films (including Kadosh and Kippur) became festival darlings, the long-defunct Israeli publication Davar reported how Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer had enjoyed tremendous artistic and business success at the Cannes Film Festival, and that one of the producers, Jack Padwa went on record and said that “the film was far better received overseas than [the reception it had had] in Israel.” Readers learnt that during the Cannes showing, “people from all corners of the world” were in attendance in the cinema, and that “two additional showings had to be scheduled, due to festivalgoers’ high demand.”
On the heels of that pioneering success, Israeli film history continued to rake in the statuettes and special mentions all over the globe – from the Czech Republic’s Karlovy Vary to Japan’s Tokyo film festivals, and from the US’s Sundance and Tribeca to Switzerland’s Locarno Film Festival. With the exception of the highly coveted Palme d’Or award, Israeli filmmakers have won virtually every other award under the sun – including Venice’s Golden Lion and Berlin’s Golden Bear, to name but a few. In fact, two Israeli directors even got to hold an actual Oscar statuette: they were Moshé Mizrahi for Madame Rosa, and Guy Nattiv for his short, Skin (although in both instances, the films were notably foreign productions.)
And whilst on the subject of the Oscars, it should be noted that a total of 10 Israeli films have thus far been nominated for the prestigious award in the Best International Feature Film Category; three were nominated for a Best Documentary Feature, whilst the remaining two were up for a Best Live Action Short Film award. These are, no doubt, formidable achievements. However, to date, all hopefuls ended up leaving the ceremony, emptyhanded.
Israeli cinema’s relationship with the festival scene and Hollywood’s award season has not been without its share of ups and downs, ebbs and flows, and years of let downs and glaring snubs – there are those who would even argue to the existence of political boycotts and exclusionary measures. And when festival chiefs in those years did finally deign to shortlist Israeli films and place them in any one of their sections, those were usually productions that focused on the Middle East conflict (and were not necessarily high quality ones) and which, ideally, shone an unflattering light on Israel and the occupation.
In this complex and convoluted context, two halcyon periods stand out: the first one went on from the 1960s and into the early seventies and was highlighted by Ephraim Kishon’s Sallah and The Policeman both winning a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Foreign Film, as well as clinching an Oscar nomination, each.
The second Golden Era takes us into the ’00s when Israeli cinema seemed to take the world by storm and would not stop raking in award after award. Between 2007 and 2008, thanks to films such as Beaufort, Lebanon, Waltz with Bashir, and The Band’s Visit, Israeli film was suddenly the talk of the town, and the hottest ticket around. After years when the likes of Iran, Denmark, Romania, and South Korea – each in its own turn – had their respective film industries lauded and celebrated – suddenly it was time for the Holy Land’s own film industry to step into the limelight, be lavished with attention and praise, and even sell quite the handsome share of tickets abroad.
Curating all Israeli triumphs in the international arena into one list is a truly challenging, momentous task; therefore, we opted to focus on the Top 20 greatest moments in Hollywood and the world’s leading festivals (Cannes, Venice, Berlin, and Sundance) when Israeli filmmakers were the men and women of the hour: from acceptance speeches and award ceremony anecdotes and memories forever etched into the filmmakers’ minds, to judging panellists explaining their decisions and of course, the most unforgettable scenes from the winning films.

Movie clips

"Haya Harareet earns a Special Mention at the 1955 Cannes Film Festival for her role in "Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer

The 8th Cannes Film Festival that took place at the French Riviera in late April 1955 and into early May, will be remembered for two major reasons. For one, that year’s festival marked the first time that a Palme d’Or was awarded in the Best Feature Film category (the inaugural winner was Delbert Mann’s Marty, starring Ernest Borgnine). The second reason meanwhile, highlights the first time in history that an Israeli film, Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer, was featured in the world’s most highly regarded film festival. The Hebrew film industry’s first ever major, high-calibre, fully-fledged offering, produced under the harshest of conditions, was up against the works of ‘big gun,’ esteemed directors such as Elia Kazan, Edward Dmytryk, Otto Preminger, Vittorio De Sica, and Carol Reed.
Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer, directed by English filmmaker, Thorold Dickinson and based on a story by Zvi Kolitz is set in the days of (pre-Israel) British Mandatory Palestine and the Israeli War of Independence. The film opens in 1948 on the strategically-located Hill 24 which overlooks the main road into Jerusalem. A group of UN observers arrive at the hill in order to determine whose sovereignty it falls under and find the bodies of four dead fighters: three men and one woman – a nurse by the name of Esther Hadassi who is found clutching a folded up Israeli flag. The observers rule that the hill is Israeli territory. The plot of the film sets out to uncover just how this brave soldier-nurse and her comrades ended up on the hill where they perished. One of the deceased fighters is James Finnigan (played by Edward Mulhare) – an Irishman who had served in the British Mandatory police and had been hunting down various resistance fighters when he fell in love with Haifan teacher, Miriam Mizrahi (Haya Harareet). Because of his love for her, Finnigan decides to switch sides and align with the Israeli forces.
In Cannes, Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer was not about to make do with the tired old “it’s an honour just to be nominated” platitude. The jury, chaired by French director-playwright Marcel Pagnol, was highly impressed with Harareet’s performance in the film and decided to award her a Special Mention. Israeli daily paper, Yedioth Aharonot’s front page from 12 May 1955, describes how “several of the jury panel’s decisions were met with vociferous protests. Haya Harareet’s Special Mention, on the other hand, was welcomed with overall zeal.”
One particular scene where Harareet positively shines is set at the British Police’s Haifa headquarters. Miriam is questioned about her ties to a renegade resistance fighter whom the British are keen on capturing, yet through it all she stands proud, stoic, and resilient in the face of her interrogators; one of whom happens to be the Irish officer who, with time, will become her lover, and makes no secret of her sentiments on British presence in the land (“This is not your country.”)
In many ways, it was this film and its impact at Cannes that launched Harareet’s international acting career. Director William Wyler first met her at that year’s festival. So taken was he with her performance that several years later, he decided to cast her in the female lead in his opus, Ben-Hur that would take home 11 Academy Awards. Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer meanwhile, would go on to earn a satirical, tongue-in-cheek tribute – by name and by plot – in Assi Dayan’s 1976 comedy, Halfon Hill Doesn’t Answer, starring the much loved comedy trio, Hagashah HaHiver (‘the pale tracker’).

Ephraim Kishon’s "Sallah" takes home the 1965 Golden Globe for Best Foreign-Language Foreign Film; Chaim Topol wins the Most Promising Newcomer category

In 1965, director-screenwriter-playwright-satirist Ephraim Kishon’s Sallah made history twice, becoming the first-ever Israeli film to take home a Golden Globe in the Best Foreign-Language Foreign Film category, and the first to have been nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. However, the road to the promised statuette and red carpet land was riddled with obstacles, challenges, and setbacks. The Story of Sallah Shabati who moved to Israel with his large family from one of the Middle East’s Muslim countries in the 1950s (Kishon got his inspiration from a new immigrant with whom he had shared a small shack at the Sha’ar Ha’aliyah Israeli migrant transit camp) started out as a play. When Kishon pitched it to the Cameri Theatre, its bosses promptly passed on the idea (“they found it too low brow,” Kishon bemoaned.) Next, he took the idea over to military entertainment troupe, The Nahal Band (‘Lahakat HaNahal’) where, according to Kishon, it was met with “staunch resistance from band members who claimed it wasn’t funny and far too serious.” However, following the band’s visit to the Ramat Hasharon migrant transit camp, those objecting finally came around.
Trouble, however, was far from over; even after the sketch – starring Chaim Topol ended up adapted into a film produced by Menahem Golan. It is said that when Topol first finished watching a cut of the film, he turned to Kishon and said, “this is no good, it’s a dud, and we need to come to terms with that fact.” Even after Sallah became a box office runaway hit, critics still tore it to shreds. Golda Meir opposed plans for its international release and claimed that showing this film around the world will disgrace the State of Israel and tarnish its standing in the eyes of gentiles. It took the Hollywood Foreign Press Association giving Sallah a Golden Globe, and Topol the award for Most Promising Newcomer for the commanding politician to have a change of heart.
Sallah is considered the first ever Israeli ‘Bourekas’ film (a genre of predominantly working class, ‘low brow’ ethnic comedies and melodramas) and indeed, Kishon came under fire from many critics and scholars for having the temerity as an Ashkenazi director to go and make a film about Mizrahi (Middle Eastern / North African Jewish) life. Critics were also fuming at Kishon’s casting of Ashkenazi actors such as Topol in the roles of Mizrahi characters, whilst also resorting to excessive mimicry of Middle Eastern Hebrew accents (over-the-top guttural pronunciation), and a host of other exaggerated and warped mannerisms. Their ire was also aimed at the stereotypical portrayal of Middle Eastern Israelis as primitive, uneducated, anise-slugging, backgammon-playing caricatures, alongside the portrayal of prostitutes of Moroccan descent, and a family patriarch that is typically unemployed and a raging alcoholic. On the flipside, other scholars have argued that Bourekas films at the very least did offer Sephardi Israelis a voice and a form of representation they were hitherto denied at the hands of the dominant classes. Professor Yehuda (Judd) Ne’eman even went as far as to suggest the existence of a subversive element in Bouerkas films: an implied, radical assault on an ethos that lies at the very core of Zionism – the ‘cult’ of labour. Bourekas films such as Sallah highlighted choosing cheap thrills, fun and entertainment, a string of casual jobs, and idly mucking about through life over hard work and toil.
One of Sallah’s most memorable scenes – the general election scene – is a perfect illustration of the highly contentious debate between critics and scholars. The scene begins when two smug, condescending political party representatives, both of whom are of course Ashkenazi, arrive at the migrant transit camp with the aim of locating the local community leader and persuading them to act as their political mouthpiece and secure them all the votes. The pair walk into the neighbourhood café where Sallah – the camp’s ‘commander-in-chief’ – is hanging out with his happy-go-lucky Mizrahi chums – all of whom are singing and dancing along to Old Messiah (‘mashiach hazaken’) (an original song by Uriel Ofek, composed by Yohanan Zarai). The uppity, stern-faced politicians end up letting their hair down a bit and get carried away by the singing and the overall joie de vivre. They are soon followed by other party reps – all of whom are lobbying the immigrants with pledges to come up with suitable housing solutions for them. However, the whole thing reaches its frenzied conclusion at the polling station where Sallah stuffs every possible ballot into the ballot box and ends up, of course, with his ballot rejected. Kishon, in this scene, highlights the chasm between the Ashkenazi establishment and its new denizens, whilst shining a satirical if not farcical light on Israeli politics.

Oded Kotler wins Best Actor at the 1967 Cannes Film Festival for his performance in "Three Days and a Child"

At the 20th Cannes Film Festival that took place towards the end of April and into early May 1967, an Israeli film was shortlisted for the official competition: it was director Uri Zohar’s Three Days and a Child, based on a short story by A.B. Yehoshua. The plot follows the course of three days in Ellie (Oded Kotler), a former Kibbutznik and maths teacher’s summer holidays in Jerusalem. Ellie’s ex from the kibbutz and her husband have now also decided to leave the kibbutz and are currently neck deep in Hebrew University entrance exams. And so, they end up reaching out to Ellie and asking him whether he could look after their little boy, Shye (Shai Oshorov)
for a while.
Three Days and a Child was well-received in Cannes, whilst Kotler certainly did seem to enjoy all the luxuries and amenities the French Riviera had to offer. Three days later, he headed back to Israel. News of him having won Best Actor found Kotler at a most unlikely setting: “That Friday night, I went to Haifa where I was meant to appear in Little Malcolm (And his Struggle Against the Eunuchs); a play which I also directed. On our way, we stopped at a café at the Binyamina petrol station, where theatre folk used to pull over and freshen up,” Kotler recalls. “We had coffee and ate some gorgeous crêpes. Alex Ansky, who was also in the play with me, was the only one who didn’t join us – he stayed in the cab and was listening to the Voice of Israel’s 7pm news on the radio. We all suddenly heard Alex shouting, ‘Oded! Oded! Did you hear the news? You won Best Actor in Cannes!’ Everyone at the café, including comedy duo, Dzigan and Schumacher, toasted the win.
I felt totally discombobulated. How could I be right here in Binyamina, whilst winning in Cannes? What happened was that the festival officials simply kept my winning a secret and hadn’t notified me that I should head back to the festival, as is standard protocol today. When we got to Haifa, the audience in the theatre was already waiting for me with flowers and all that. After the play, we headed back to Tel Aviv and straight to a party they’d whipped up in my honour at Club Federica. It was quite the celebration. A few days later, Uri Zohar and Amatsia Hayuni, the producer, who had stayed behind in Cannes and were there for the ceremony, came back to Israel and brought me over this certificate, a small statuette, and a pair of golden cufflinks the winners were given. This was back when Israel was on high alert in the runup to the Six-Day War, and my win raised the national morale like you wouldn’t believe.”
En route to his historic win, Kotler defeated a number of established and highly-esteemed actors in his category, including Dirk Bogarde (Accident) and David Hemmings (Blow-up). Speaking to daily paper, Yedioth Ahronoth, Zohar said, “The fact is, I didn’t direct Oded in the film. It would be more accurate to say that the only instructions I gave him were what not to do. He’s a huge talent, he is, and he gave a stellar performance despite all the challenges that went along with taking on a role as complex as that.” Kotler himself explained, “The jury panel looked at my character and saw someone who wasn’t your garden variety Israeli stereotype. They had a different idea of Israelis in their heads. It surprised them to see a portrayal of a new Israeli man who’s not behaving as you might expect him to, and who’s also not playing a soldier – especially considering the political climate at the time. They hadn’t conceived of a character so nuanced that could also, just as easily be English, German, or French: Ellie is simultaneously loving and cruel to the kid – he wants to get back at the kid as he’s still feeling the pain of the kid’s mother breaking up with him.”
Kotler is especially proud of the scene where the boy’s parents are dropping the child off at his place. “The boy feels abandoned, and it’s up to me to ingratiate myself to him. The reality was pretty much in line with the film’s premise – two strangers striking up a friendship in the course of one scene. Shai was three and a half, and he had to get to know me during film, just as his character did in the plot. Shai was a sensitive, special boy and I tried to keep him entertained. There wasn’t a lot of prewritten text to work with – I was adlibbing all over the place. Every take would come out a little bit different.”

Ephraim Kishon’s "The Policeman" wins a Golden Globe for Best Foreign-Language Foreign Film in 1972

In 1972, seven years after his inaugural Golden Globe win and Oscar nomination for Sallah, director Ephraim Kishon repeated this triumph with his film, The Officer. This, he achieved with yet another character that, with time, would become iconic – albeit not quite as controversial this time around. The character of the dull, clueless police officer played by Shaike Ophir already made its first appearance back in Kishon’s 1967 film, Ervinka, followed by another cameo two years later in The Big Dig (1969). The character stole viewers’ hearts and in 1971 Kishon decided he would dedicate his next film entirely to Ophir and his onscreen alter ego. This time, he even named the character: Abraham Azulai – a kind-hearted albeit bumbling and clumsy police officer from Jaffa. Unsurprisingly, his commanding officers are in no rush to promote him and are in fact quite eager to see the back of him.
“When they called out my name as the winner at the Golden Globes awards ceremony, I thought I must be dreaming,” Kishon recalled. “I got up to get on stage and suddenly, there was Alfred Hitchcock clapping his hands for me.” Neither the Hollywood Foreign Press Association whose members choose the Golden Globe winners, nor the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences who decide all Oscar nominations could resist Ophir’s extraordinary performance and in particular, the film’s closing scene that has since become the single most famous sequence in Israeli film history – Officer Azulai’s farewell ceremony from the police force where he is honoured with a promotion to Sergeant and a special commendation for his work in an operation that was in fact orchestrated for his benefit by crime overlords.
The close-up on a teary-eyed Azulai giving a salute made even the most hardened of critics well up. Decades later and it remains every bit as difficult to stop yourself tearing up right there with Azulai. What is more, songwriters and composers Ehud Manor and Nurit Hirsh’s touching song, Ballad for a Policeman which is played throughout the final sequence and end credits only further increases the strain on one’s tear ducts. I said to Shaike, “I need you to be proud in this scene, and then go from proud to sad,” Kishon revealed. “I was sure we were going to have to do endless takes, but we didn’t. Already on our first take, Shaike’s eyes suddenly welled up.” Even all the tough-as-nails policemen who we got to appear as extras in the farewell line-up scene were moved by Ophir’s tears.” Kishon went on to declare that “Shaike was indeed a true genius. The press around the world was calling him Charlie Chaplin.” The Officer, Ophir once said, “was my greatest, most perfect, wholesome part. I treated it with the utmost seriousness.”
Notably, that same year saw Chaim Topol take home a Golden Globe and earn an Oscar nomination for his role in Fiddler on the Roof; Hollywood’s adaptation of the musical, Tevye the Dairyman, originally based on a book of short stories by Sholem Aleichem. “When Sallah was up for an Oscar, both Kishon and I were pretty flippant about the whole thing,” Topol admitted in his autobiography, Topol by Topol. “Meanwhile, with time and experience, we came to appreciate and truly grasp the huge weight the Oscars carried in the film industry. When I walked into that venue where the ceremony was being held in 1972, I spotted Kishon who was nominated for The Officer, and we ended up making eye contact. Kishon then took a single garlic clove out of his pocket and hurled it at me over people’s heads. He held up his little finger and waved it at me; it was a kind of signal between the two of us, as if to say, ‘keep it together.’ In the end, we both had to contend ourselves with just being nominated. We must try an onion some other time instead of garlic. And if all else fails – then zhug [Yemeni hot sauce – AK] it is.”

Director Moshé Mizrahi’s "Madame Rosa" wins the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1978

The 50th Academy Awards ceremony that was held on 3 April 1978, saw a most fascinating faceoff between two Israeli directors; both of whom were competing for the night’s top honours in the Foreign Language Film category: representing Israel was Menahem Golan with his film, Operation Thunderbolt about the 1970s Entebbe plane hijacking terror attack, whilst representing France was Moshé Mizrahi with his film, Madame Rosa; his big screen adaptation of Romain Gary’s bestselling novel (written under the nom de plume, Emile Ajar). This was an especially loaded and complicated showdown seeing as how Golan had produced several of Mizrahi’s previous films. At the end of the night, Mizrahi was the one to emerge triumphant, becoming the first ever Israeli director to take home an Oscar – and would remain the only one with this credit for many more years to follow.
“Winning wasn’t all that consequential to me,” Mizrahi admitted when he appeared in a 2015 episode of Israeli educational TV programme, Chai Be’Seret (‘living in a movie’), hosted by Gilad Emilio Shenkar. “I’d been through the Oscars before those previous times I was nominated, so I was no longer a ‘virgin,’ so to speak. It just wasn’t the same thrill as those previous ceremonies. I got to sit there, at the ceremony in peace, knowing that there are other things [beyond this], and that I don’t get to decide who takes home the Oscar. This is why I don’t remember winning as this of huge moment of elation.”
Mizrahi’s acceptance speech was very succinct and unemotional: “I thank you. I thank all the people who have worked on film. And above all else, I’d like to thank Madame Rosa, herself – Simone Signoret.” Indeed, Madame Rosa does owe much of its success to Signoret who, at the time, was one of France’s biggest stars, and who delivered a phenomenal performance as Madame Rosa – a retired, elderly, and ailing Jewish prostitute and Holocaust survivor plagued by her past, who lives in the poverty stricken Parisian suburb of Belville where she makes a living raising other prostitutes’ children. Signoret is particularly striking in this one scene where she asks Momo, the Muslim boy whom she had raised to not let her be taken to hospital. “If you hear any mention of hospitals, you take a pillow and you smother me. Just kill me,” Madame Rosa pleads with him. “All things come to end, Jews too. I don’t want to live any longer than what’s necessary. I don’t want to go hospital – they’ll torture me there. I spent 25 years giving my body to johns. I’ve no intention of offering my body to science.”
Mizrahi revealed that Signoret in fact hated the book, La vie devant soi (which Madame Rosa is based on) and had turned down all previous offers to appear in any cinematic adaptations of it. When Mizrahi offered her the lead in his film, she agreed to take a meeting with him. “Simone greeted me with the following words: ‘I saw one of your films; the one called I Love you Rosa, and I did love it ever so much which is why I agreed to meet with you. But in no way am I pleased to meet the future director of La vie devant soi.’ Mizrahi apologised for having imposed on her but Signoret replied, ‘don’t talk rubbish. Come on, let’s go to a restaurant.’”.
“We discussed a thousand and one things over our meal; none of which necessarily were about the film La vie devant soi, and we clicked, and in the end, she came around,” Mizrahi explained. Notably, Mizrahi also gave his wife, actor-director Michal Bat-Adam a major part in the film.
Mizrahi, who passed away in 2018 chose to display his golden Oscar statuette on a bookshelf in his Tel Aviv flat. “The only thing you can actually use an Oscar statuette for is to balance books on a shelf,” he said in his episode of Chai Be’Seret. In a 2009 interview with daily broadsheet, Haaretz’s film critic, Uri Klein, Mizrahi added, “I think the fact that I won an Oscar did me a disservice in Israel. It was that I’d won with a film that wasn’t Israeli that somehow labelled me ‘not one of us.’ Granted, outside of Israel, winning did help me quite a bit, but of course that too faded over the years.”

"Gila Almagor and Kaipu Cohen share a Silver Berlin Bear Award at the 1989 Berlin International Film Festival for their performances in "Aviya’s Summer"

In the 1980s, Gila Almagor – the ‘grande dame’ of Israeli film was in the throes of a major career crisis that left her unemployed, even in theatre. “A six-year, complete and utter drought during which no one wanted me,” she recalls. Out of frustration, distress, and despair, she sat down and began revisiting her troubled childhood in the shape of a written memoir: her father, Officer Max Alexandrowitz, was killed at the hands of an Arab sniper in Haifa before she was born, leaving her mother, Chaya – a deeply traumatised and mentally scarred Holocaust survivor to raise her on her own. The result was a novel, a woman-woman show, and a film titled Aviya’s Summer (aka The Summer of Aviya).
In the film, directed by Eli Cohen, Almagor played her own mother whilst Kaipu Cohen was cast as Aviya (Almagor’s young onscreen alter ego) – the girl who became a social pariah and the subject of everyone’s derision over her mother’s illness, and for having had her head shaved over lice.
“Aviya’s Summer is a film that came from my gut. How many people actually get to see a whole chapter of their lives made manifest onscreen?”, Almagor mused. “It was so very moving; a tremendous privilege to have recreated the scenes of my childhood, and to have worn my mother’s clothes. It was this part that won me a great many international festival awards, including the Silver Berlin Bear for an extraordinary artistic contribution at the 1989 Berlin International Film Festival which I shared with Kaipu. At the awards ceremony, they called out my name and I got up on stage – I was in such a state of shock and so overwhelmed by it all that I could only manage a ‘Thank you, thank you.’ Never mind the fact no one told me I might want to have an acceptance speech ready. Winning was such a huge honour.”
Aviya’s Summer is set in the 1950s. And whilst a many of the scenes in the film are etched into one’s memory, none stays with you more than the ‘bersday’ scene – Aviya’s birthday party which no one showed up to. The mother, in an attempt to salvage the situation, sets up a table by the fence which she then packs full of goodies and a massive cake, and proceeds to entice girls and boys passing by, as well as neighbours to come in and celebrate with a crestfallen, devastated Aviya, “Come in, come on in. Now is Aviya’s ‘bersday’. Congratulate her.’
“It is a heartrending, incredibly touching scene that is a play by play of what happened to me in my childhood. None of it is made up,” Almagor reveals. “My mother also made an effort, and with what little money she had, she put together a birthday party for me – which no one came to. When we were shooting that scene, I wasn’t going around telling myself, ‘Oh, what an awfully sad thing that was back then.’ I was busy making the scene as terrific and as dramatic as it should be, with the odd comedic touches along the way. Director, Eli Cohen did an immaculate job directing the scene and capturing its tragicomic aspect. Kaipu also helped make the scene utterly unforgettable. As a whole, Kaipu was a gift bestowed on this film.”
Almagor believes that the reason why the birthday scene has since shot to cult status is because, “people, not once, will organise an event, and they will have that fear of no one turning up. That scene touches upon many people’s anxieties. Adults’ too. And so, both ‘Aviya’s summer’ and ‘momuledet’ [the mother’s mispronunciation of the Hebrew word, ‘yomuledet’ for birthday] have since become coined phrases in Hebrew – synonyms for an event or a birthday which no one has turned up to. Incidentally, to this day, whenever I’m having to go to all the trouble of hosting, I still get these pangs of dread ahead of the event, thinking, ‘don’t let this be a repeat of my childhood when no one shows up.’”

Director Keren Yedaya’s "Or (My Treasure)" wins a Golden Camera award at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival

The 2004 Cannes Film Festival saw director, Keren Yedaya win the prestigious Golden Camera award for Best Debut Feature for her film, Or (My Treasure). The plot follows the daily life of Ruthie (the late Ronit Elkabetz,) an ageing Tel Avivian prostitute who is on a downward physical and mental spiral. Her daughter, Or (Dana Ivgy), a high school student does everything in her power to save her, and to get her out of the sex worker trade. When Yedaya was handed her Golden Camera award, she announced, choked up: “I dedicate this award from the depths of my heart to all those people out there in the world who aren’t free, and who are living in a state of slavery.”
One scene that makes it painstakingly obvious why the jury panel was so taken with the film is when Or is chasing after her mother, trying to stop her from going out for another night of sex work. “Or’s heart-wrenching tears, the physical altercation with Ruthie who keeps pushing her away over and over again, and just keeps on waking, the static frame closing in on them the further they advance towards us and in doing so, gradually exit the frame until the squabble between them morphs into something almost essential, conceptual, as opposed to a physical confrontation; Or’s desperate and ultimately failed attempt to save her mother is the thing that ultimately pushes her once and for all into prostitution. Anything to numb the pain,” Yedaya explains.

"Hana Laszlo (aka Laslo) wins Best Actress at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival for her performance in "Free Zone"

One of the most touching moments during the 2005 Cannes Film Festival closing ceremony was Hana Laszlo’s acceptance speech after winning Best Actress for her performance in Amos Gitai’s Free Zone. “I share this award with my mother, who is an Auschwitz Holocaust survivor, and with all Holocaust survivors who are still with us,” Laszlo announced. “I also share this award with all victims on both sides: Israeli and Palestinian. It’s high time we talked and worked through our problems, together.”
The ceremony, Laszlo recalls, was held just as the world was commemorating the 60-year anniversary of the Nazis’ surrender, and the end of World War II in Europe. As such, she felt compelled to mention her mother, and the fact she was a Holocaust survivor. “I went to Amos and asked whether he thought this was something I could do, mentioning Auschwitz in my acceptance speech. His response was, ‘Of course you can. This is your moment, and you get to say whatever you damn well please.’”

Laszlo worked her own family history and the fact that she is a child of Holocaust survivors into the character she portrayed in Free Zone: Hanna, an orthodox woman from Israel’s southern Negev region; a former resident of the removed Sinai settlement and a second generation Holocaust survivor who makes a living selling armoured cars, and who sets off on a trip to Jordan’s Free Trade Zone with an American tourist (Natalie Portman) to collect some money her husband is owed. In one of the scenes, she meets with Laila (Hiam Abbass) – A Palestinian woman who has been Hanna’s husband’s contact with the Jordanian black market. Laila asks Hanna where she’s from. “Amos let us adlib, and after I told Hiam [in character – AK] I was from Israel she asked me, ‘and before that; where are you from?’. So I told her: ‘Auschwitz. My parents are from Auschwitz.’ Amos gave me free rein, and he gave my answer a thumbs up. That scene defines my character, and it both explains and references that very thing that drives those people who came here after the Holocaust, who have done all their surviving in Israel, and who are still in survival mode.”
Laszlo recalls how moments before she set off to the Cannes closing ceremony, she rang her mother and said, “Mum, it looks like I’m going to win this. And then mum replied: ‘as far as I’m concerned, you already have won,’ It was a moment that brought her tremendous joy. She died just days after my win.”

Director Dror Shaul’s "Sweet Mud" wins the Grand Jury Prize in the World Cinema – Dramatic category at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival

The Sundance Film Festival, held annually in the US state of Utah, is the country’s biggest indie film festival. The illustrious event was first held in 1978 and its founders include, among others, actor-director Robert Redford. Through the years, Sundance has seen numerous Israeli films compete for its top honours. One such hopeful, Sweet Mud, director Dror Shaul’s (Operation Grandma) autobiographical film went on to win the 2007 World Cinema Dramatic competition.
Sweet Mud is a bold and honest portrayal of a 12-year-old boy’s (Tomer Steinhoff) coming-of-age journey in a southern Kibbutz during the 1970s, against the backdrop of a series of tragedies that have befallen his family. These events were also referenced in Shaul’s acceptance speech at the festival: “When I was a kid, it used to make me sad hearing my mum say, ‘I wish someday the whole world gets to hear this story.’ I’m now here without her, but I’m here with all of you, and the whole world. I’m elated.”
Shaul admits that to this day, he is moved by many scenes from Sweet Mud. “Those are etched into me forever. One in particular makes me very emotional: when Miri (Ronit Yudkevitz), the protagonist’s widowed, depressive, and mentally unstable mother throws together a makeshift dinner with Stefan (Henri Garcin), her Swiss lover. Why does it move me? Because it represents the dream and that inexhaustible urge human beings have throughout all kinds of situations to carry on hoping, believing, and living. It is very nearly the film’s penultimate moment of optimism – a moment when the two of them actually believe they could have a life together. Every time I watch that scene, I find myself picking at my open scab again and asking myself why my mother never remarried, and why couldn’t we have gone to live with her lover in his snowy Swiss village, far away from all the troubles. After all, it was possible. In fantasy, that is.”

Joseph Cedar wins the Silver Berlin Bear award for Best Director for his film "Beaufort" at the 2007 Berlin International Film Festival

At the 2007 Berlin International Film Festival’s closing ceremony, the jury panel named director Joseph Cedar the winner of that year’s Silver Berlin Bear award for his film, Beaufort. Cedar’s fellow nominees in his category included highly esteemed filmmakers such as François Ozon, André Téchiné, Jacques Rivette, Robert De Niro, and Steven Soderbergh. This marked the first time an Israeli filmmaker has ever won top honours at the Berlin International Film Festival – one of the world’s top three festivals.
Beaufort, a film based on author Ron Leshem’s best-selling novel of the same title (original Hebrew title – If there is a Heaven) follows a group of soldiers stationed at the Beaufort outpost on the very cusp of the Israeli army’s withdrawal from the South Lebanon Security Belt in the year 2000. The most touching highlight of the film’s Berlin premiere was when Cedar asked Arye and Yafit Itach onstage whose son, Tzachi, was the last Israeli soldier to be killed in Lebanon, and who also inspired the character of soldier, Jonathan Spitzer. Cedar also called Aaron Barnea onstage whose son, Noam served in the engineering corps’ bomb squad unit and was killed in 1999, just five days shy of completing his military service, and who inspired the character of Ziv Faran.
Beaufort, that was also nominated for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Language Film category, is teeming with powerful moments that are etched into one’s memory. For example, the outpost detonation scene by the IDF as part of the withdrawal campaign. As the military sapper is counting down, the soldiers – following orders – get in their APCs. Only Lieutenant Liraz Liberty (Oshri Cohen), the outpost commander insists on watching the detonation – among other things, because Battalion Chief Kimhi who was wounded in the battle to capture the outpost during the First Lebanon War asked him on the radio to get one last look at Beaufort for him. The camera stays on Liraz’s face as he watches the outpost explode and go up in flames. The convoy of soldiers then starts making its way back towards Israel. That scene ties into Cedar’s words during his moving acceptance speech after winning his award in Berlin: “Beaufort is a story about how wars come to an end, about complex feelings that are part and parcel of taking down a flag, leaving a mountain, and coming home. It’s a story about tremendous fear, my own included, and I would just like to wish us all that our leaders too, find their fear of war, and the courage to also know when to end it.”

Filmmakers Etgar Keret and Shira Geffen’s "Jellyfish" wins the Golden Camera award at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival

At the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, authors Etgar Keret and Shira Geffen got to prove that they are also highly adept filmmakers when their film, Jellyfish took home the Golden Camera award for Best Debut Feature. The film, which is made up of three separate storylines that converge at the Tel Aviv seaside defeated 32 other newcomer contenders in its category. Russian director Pavel Lungin who was on the jury panel explained his choice of Jellyfish: “It’s a film we were especially taken with because of its humanity, its poetic lyricism, and immense sensitivity.” At the festival’s closing ceremony, when Geffen and Keret took to the stage to claim their award, they were emotional, bewildered, and amused in equal measure. Keret, pulling faces, said the following in his acceptance speech: “The last time I had a suit on was at my Bar Mitzvah.”
Jellyfish is bursting with poetic, endearing, and thoroughly surprising scenes. The Geffen-Keret duo chose one particular scene for our project here in which Batya (Sarah Adler), the waitress shows up at a police station with a young girls who’s just come out of the water, hoping to find out whose child she is, only to have the child leave with her in the end. “The night before we were meant to shoot the police station scene, our Production Manager informed us that the location had fallen through and that we had all of 14 hours to find a new location,” the pair recall. “Having no choice, we had to shoot in the only place we were able to secure at such zero notice: a travel agency. The new location was the polar opposite of everything we’d imagined: there were no windows, it had low ceilings, and was pretty rundown. We began the shoot on quite the gloomy note but soon enough, we realised that this curve ball we’ve had thrown at us has actually benefited the scene. The officer (Tzhai Grad) who was originally meant to be sat in this spacious, well-lit office suddenly seemed like this defeated giant, trapped in this tiny space, and the overall sad, sorry state of the place seemed to echo his own helplessness. And suddenly, the scene that was supposed to portray an encounter with a closed-minded bureaucrat with a badge delivered something altogether different: an officer who genuinely wants to help but can’t. That was the moment the fundamental difference between the literary world which we both come from and the world of filmmaking clicked into place in our heads. Whilst with prose fiction, creating is entirely the writer’s domain, in film, there’s another partner to your creative process – reality, and the limitations it throws at you.”

Director Eran Kolirin’s "The Band’s Visit" wins the 2007 Cannes Film Festival whilst leading man, Sasson Gabay wins the 2008 European Film Awards for his performance in the film

Director Eran Kolirin’s The Band’s Visit certainly has come a long way from its surprising, moving premiere at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival to its 2016 opening in Broadway as a stage musical adaptation that went on to win 10 Tony Awards in 2018. The film, starring Sasson Gabay and Saleh Bakri follows an Egyptian band that comes to Israel to play a gig at a peace centre, gets lost, and ends up in a small southern town. “It’s a nod to [Shaike Ophir’s 1971] The Officer on the one hand, and to the weekly Friday afternoon Arab film feature Channel 1 used to show, on the other,” Kolirin explained. “I used to watch those films at my late grandmother’s, which is why the film is dedicated to her.”
The Band’s Visit was competing in the Cannes Film Festival ‘Un Certain Regard’ section – the festival’s second most important section and was given a Special Mention. What is more, it also walked away with the prestigious FIPRESCI Prize and the Award of the Youth. “I’d like to thank the jury and the wonderful people here in Cannes who’ve given the film such a warm welcome,” Kolirin said in his acceptance speech, “and I’d like to repay them that love.” A few months later, leading man Sasson Gabay won his European Actor category at the European Film Awards for his role in the film.
Already at the film’s Cannes premiere, it became obvious that a number of scenes were about to become Israeli cannon. The audience was especially full of praise for the scene where Saleh Bakri who plays Egyptian violinist, Khaled shows one of the townsmen, Pappi (Shlomi Abraham) how to woo the frumpy Yula (Rinat Matatov) at the local disco whilst I Have a Little Bird in my Heart (‘yesh li zipor ktana balev’), a modern adaptation of late Israeli singer-songwriter Yigal Bashan’s hit song plays in the background. “I know that courtship scene with the handkerchief at the disco will become a permanent fixture, along with the memory of the film itself,” Kolirin believes. “I have a lot of affection for it. It is basically the very essence of the film – it sums up the whole atmosphere of The Band’s Visit. At all the major showings, that was when the audience always used to clap. I crafted it based on some theatre acting I’d remembered from summer camp when I was a kid – an acting class with three people when one of them starts moving and the other two then continue that movement. It amuses me how that flash in a pan moment from summer camp ended up becoming one of the scenes that are most synonymous with my body of work.”

Ari Folman’s "Waltz with Bashir" wins the 2009 Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film

During the 2008-09 awards season, director Ari Folman’s intimate animated film, Waltz with Bashir was a standout frontrunner – with a Palme d’Or nomination at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival (the film left emptyhanded following a jury scandal), and an Oscar nomination in the Best Foreign Language Film category. The film, in which Folman revisited and confronted his memories and nightmares of the First Lebanon War, left people shaken around the world; including those unfamiliar with the finer points of the Middle East conflict. In total, Waltz with Bashir took home a whopping 45 awards, with the peak being a Golden Globe win for Best Foreign Film. Folman, who was handed his statuette by actor Colin Farrell, dedicated it to “the eight wonderful children our production crew has had in the four years we spent making the film at a small Tel Aviv studio,” adding how he hoped that “one day, they’ll grow up and watch the film together, and that the war it depicts will seem to them like some ancient video game that has no bearings whatsoever on their lives.”
Waltz with Bashir is packed full of powerful, poignant scenes and one of its most unforgettable moments is the slow motion scene in which Folman’s platoon heads into a Lebanese grove where the soldiers cross paths with a child carrying an RPG missile launcher. The boy fires a missile at the soldiers and they kill him, to the soundtrack of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 5 (The Caesar) that’s playing in the background. Folman didn’t even remember their run in with the boy. It was only after a conversation with Shmuel Frankel, Commander of the infantry unit that the director realised his mind had blocked out any and all recollections of that encounter. “It’s a scene that touched many hearts,” Folman says. “It’s hard to remain indifferent at the sight of a grown man standing in front of this little kid who’d been sent to shoot missiles and essentially kill himself for a cause he doesn’t even understand. It’s a scene that captures the paradox and sheer absurdity of this foolishness we call an all out war.”

Director Samuel Maoz’s "Lebanon" wins the Golden Lion at the 2009 Venice Film Festival

Director Samuel Maoz arrived at the 2009 Venice Film Festival with Lebanon – his debut feature that is based on his traumatic recollections of the summer of 1982 – that first day of the First Lebanon War. The film, starring Yoav Donat, Itay Tiran, Oshri Cohen, Michael Moshonov, Zohar Strauss, and Dudu Tassa managed to make history, winning the Golden Lion award that is awarded to that year’s best film – the second most important award in the international festival arena. “I dedicate this award to all those people around the world who came back from the war in the state that I did,” he spoke, sending chills through everyone present at the ceremony. “Thousands of people who’ve learnt to live and smile even, through the pain. On the outside, they may seem just fine – they go to work, get married, have kids – but the memories, they stay burnt into their souls. War, paradoxically, needs death to sustain itself. The second we stop killing – we stop war. It is that simple. I’d like to believe that this film I’ve made will open people’s minds; that they’ll turn around and ask themselves, who have we become and who we could never be again, unless we put an end to this right now.”
Lebanon is set entirely inside an IDF tank that goes on a joint mission with a paratroopers’ squad: they must survey a Lebanese town that’s already been bombed by the Israeli air force. Maoz feels that the scene when the soldiers go into a Lebanese banana plantation where they first cross paths with a car driven by armed insurgents, then have an encounter with a local farmer is intentionally and distinctly Lebanon’s key sequence. “It’s the image of that first war, and it brutally charges into the film, shaking things up and creating a major shift in the dramatic scale, from a quiet and balanced starting point to an impossibly awful conflict. A conflict between our most primal instinct, our survival instinct, and the most sublime of all values on the scale of human morals – ‘human life.’ It’s a conflict between taking a life and leaving yours and your friends’ lives for the taking.
That sequence forces the protagonist to grapple with these two conflicts, leaving him just split seconds to take some life-changing decisions that will leave his soul scarred. The two identical conflicts, and the different ways that the protagonists reacts to them, shape the sequence like a mathematical formula that defines war. You don’t shoot – you get a soldier killed. You shoot – you’ve killed a ‘fellah’ [Middle Eastern farmer – AK]. It’s a formula that produces a simple and crucial message that informs the viewer what kind of world they’re stepping into. The message isn’t based on dialogue per se, or any other kind of text. It’s a visual, sensory message that demarcates the film as an ‘experiential film.’ You do get the odd word here in there, but that’s not what the message is based on. The message is experience-centric. You watch, you hear the voices on the radio; you pick up on things as the characters do and look at them from the protagonist’s POV – A physical point of view to which the tank driver’s cross-shaped periscope sight adds a conscientious element. It’s a simple, straightforward cinematic structure in which the scenes function as steps that ascend, increase, and escalate the pressure on the viewer – to the point of… bang! – a bullet to a multi-limb amputee fellah’s head. And that, ladies and gents, is what war looks like. It’s a sequence that mirrors trauma in the making at us.”

Joseph Cedar wins Best Screenplay for "Footnote" at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival

Drama was afoot at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival’s closing ceremony: screenwriter-director Joseph Cedar wasn’t able to make it in time to receive the Best Screenplay award for his film, Footnote. The festival’s management was late to inform Cedar of his win; and granted, he was on the first available flight out, however – that wasn’t enough to get him to the ceremony in time. Instead, he had to contend with watching it on a TV screen at a Munich airport terminal. The person receiving the award on his behalf was producer, Sharon Harel. “Cedar is on his way from Tel Aviv to Cannes and he’d like to thank the jury, everyone who’d worked on the film, the cast, and his family,” she said.
At the press conference that followed immediately after the ceremony, I asked the jury panel to discuss their vote for Footnote whilst also trying to figure out why Cedar found out he’d won so late in the game that he ended up having to miss the ceremony. Members of the jury seemed confused and a bit flustered. Robert De Niro, who had been Chair of the jury panel replied: “I don’t know about the delayed announcement, [but] we chose Footnote because the majority of us felt that this was a very well-written script.” When Cedar finally made it to the French Riviera, he had to make do with a celebratory meal in the winners’ honour. “It’s hard to put into words these feelings that seem so utterly removed from real life,” Cedar said when asked to express what winning means to him. “I’m just happy the film’s had the recognition that it has.” Later on, Footnote also clinched an Oscar nomination in the Best Foreign Language Film category.
Footnote explores the complex and loaded relationship between Prof. Eliezer Skolnick (Shlomo Bar-Aba) and his son, Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi), both of whom are Jerusalemite Talmud scholars, against the backdrop of the Israel Prize nominations. The father is erroneously informed of winning whereas, in fact, it was his son who was meant to take home the grand prize. From the wealth of brilliant scenes available from the film, Cedar has chosen a truly remarkable one for us that’s set at the Ministry of Education: Prof. Skolnick Jr. shows up for an emergency meeting with the ministry reps and the awards committee where he finds out there’d been a mistake and that he – not his father – is in fact the intended winner. The flabbergasted son, in response, tries to convince everyone at the meeting that his father is in fact the one who’s worthy of the prize and that they mustn’t ever tell him the truth. The meeting is held in a small, cramped room – a setting that lends itself to a range of comedic moments, as well as a showdown between Skolnick Jr. and Prof. Yehuda Grossman, his father’s arch nemesis. “This is not a film about conflict on a national level; instead, it explores it within the context of one’s personal narrative,” Cedar explained in Cannes. “It echoes one’s desire to live in peace in Israel. The Talmud tells you, ‘do not do unto others as you would that they should unto you,” or in other words: have compassion. Our country is displaying a complete and utter lack of compassion before the rest of the world.”

Hadas Yaron wins Best Actress for her performance in "Fill the Void" at the 2012 Venice Film Festival

The 2012 Venice Film Festival’s jury panel, chaired by director Michael Mann (Heat, The Insider) ruled that Hadas Yaron, star of the film Fill the Void, is deserving of that year’s Best Actress award. “Wow, thanks so much, I’m so excited,” said Yaron who was only 22 at the time, whilst clutching the golden trophy. “This is such a huge honour. We’ve had the most incredible experience here.” In her acceptance speech, Yaron thanked Rama Burshtein, Fill the Void’s Jewish ultraorthodox director: “Rama is perfection personified; a magical being and a truly wise, unique, and razor sharp individual. She knew how to engage with each and every one of us.”
Yaron plays Shira, a young Tel Avivian orthodox woman whose arranged marriage (Shidduch) is delayed following a family tragedy: her older sister, Esther (Renana Raz) dies in childbirth and their family tries to stop a just-widowed Yochai (Yiftach Klein), who is about to remarry, from moving to Belgium and taking their newborn grandson along with him. Rivka, Shira’s mother tries to match her surviving daughter with Yochai in the hopes of thwarting his emigration plans and keeping him in the country.
“There’s this one scene where Yochai is just sitting there at night, sobbing, and Shira comes in to talk to him. This is after their Shidduch had already fallen through a second time because of Shira’s inability to admit that she loves him. After all, he’s the husband of her very recently-deceased sister, and she’s carrying all this guilt around with her,” Yaron explains. “I remember how during filming, Yiftach was sat there crying, and when we were shooting my side, I was watching him and I started to well up. Only that wasn’t in the script, so I held back the tears. After a few takes, Rama came up to me and was like, ‘could you maybe try throwing in some tears in the next take?’. And this time, I couldn’t muster up any. I think that though I didn’t get it at the time, that that is exactly what that scene is about: the difficulty to follow through with the truth of whatever it is we’re feeling. All that human beings ever really need is a genuine heart-to-heart. And it’s extraordinary, how hard it is to have a conversation like that, despite the fact that it’s always the thing that ends up bringing people the closest together.”

Director Elite Zexer’s "Sand Storm" wins the Grand Jury Prize – World Cinema – Dramatic at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival

Sand Storm, director Elite Zexer’s film, blew the 2016 Sundance Film Festival’s main competition grand jury panel’s minds. The jury awarded it the prize for best film, explaining it was “extraordinary; left us completely and utterly floored and obliterated.” The plot of Sand Storm follows Jalila (Ruba Blal-Asfour), a 42-year-old Bedouin woman who must grapple with her husband, Suleiman’s (Jalal Masarwa) marriage to a second wife, 20 years her junior. At the same time, her student daughter (Lamis Ammar) is having a forbidden relationship with her schoolmate (Hitham Omari). When word of this relationship gets out, her father Suleiman decides to marry his daughter off to an older man. Against this backdrop, mother and daughter must band together and learn how to brave this new reality that’s been forced upon them.
“In the scene where Jalila is throwing out her husband, Suleiman for marrying off their daughter, Layla, to a man who isn’t worthy of her, underneath it all, Jalila is actually having a fight with him about something entirely different – the fact that he went ahead and took a second wife. In fact, with every word coming out of her mouth, Jalila isn’t just talking about her daughter – but also, and mainly about herself,” Zexer explains. That scene features the moment when all of the film’s storylines and conflict coalesce and collide, which leads to an epic blowout that very nearly destroys the whole family. “And it is made up of many layers and the finest nuances which for me, as a director, to have accurately conveyed onscreen was essential, seeing as how they are the key to reading the whole film,” Zexer adds.
“Of course, the day we were shooting that scene, out of all days, was when we had an especially challenging day onset,” she recalls. “The scenes we were shooting that morning just seemed to run on and on, and when we finally got to the aforementioned scene, we had less than one third of the time we’d originally allocated to it. Of the 12 planned shots, we ended up having to go down to two. Just before I called out that first ‘Action!’, I went up to Ruba – the magnificent, extraordinary actress I was so tremendously privileged to have worked with – and I said to her: ‘this is our moment.’ This is on you and me now. We’d both realised well in advance that this was the hardest, most important scene, and we were both feeling the sheer weight of that day. But with those words I’d said to her, with that look we shared just seconds before we began – we both knew full well that we were going to make this into everything we’d dreamt it would be, and then some.”
Zexer recounts that already, on their first take, Blal-Asfour unleashed such an enormous burst of energy and emotion, it had rendered everyone onset absolutely dumbstruck. “There was screaming, clapping, and cheering from everyone behind the monitors whilst Ruba dissolved into these grand, epic tears on Hitham, her scene partner’s shoulders. Crew members came up to me, tapping me on the shoulder, and whispered in my ear – now we understand exactly what the film is about. Whereas I went up to Ruba, held her in my arms and asked her: ‘did you just hear all that applause you got?.’ And she, still overwhelmed with having just bawled her eyes out, replied, ‘what applause?’. Her burst of emotions was so huge; so much so that she couldn’t hear anything else. It was one of those moments when you felt as if you’ve just had magic happen onset. And looking back, that is exactly the word I have left to describe the whole experience that was shooting Sand Storm. For me, it was pure magic.”

Director Samuel Maoz’s wins the Silver Lion award at the 2017 Venice Film Festival

Eight years after winning a Silver Lion award at the Venice Film Festival for his debut feature, Lebanon, director Samuel Maoz made his triumphant return to the Italian canal city – this time, with Foxtrot which walked away the winner of that year’s Silver Lion – the festival’s second most important award. The inspiration for Foxtrot came to Maoz from an incident that took place in the mid-1990s: his eldest daughter escaped the Tel Aviv bus route no. 5 suicide bombing attack – she was on her way to school and was due to catch the ill-fated bus but fortunately, had missed it. Maoz and his wife, Laura who was the film’s Costume and Wardrobe Designer experienced that crippling anxiety right up to the moment when their daughter walked through their front door. That very anxiety, Maoz later channelled into Foxtrot. The plot of the film is set around two parents (Lior Ashkenazi and Sarah Adler) who are informed that their soldier son, Jonathan (Yonaton Shiray) was killed in the line of duty. The film follows the couple’s coping with the devastating news.

“I’d like to thank my wife, Laura, my light, my soul,” Maoz said in his Venice acceptance speech. “Foxtrot is a type of dance. And one can dance it in any number of ways but eventually, one always goes back to the starting point.” Foxtrot’s Venice premiere was mired in quite the scandal; the architect of which was Israel’s then-Culture and Sports Minister, Miri Regev MK. Though she never actually bothered watching it herself, that did not stop Regev from arguing that the film is a smear campaign against the IDF, and that it portrays it as an army that covers up serious offences. At a press conference that was held right after the ceremony in Venice, Maoz addressed Regev’s words: “Every society should want to better itself and learn from its mistakes, for our children’s sake. Self-criticism is important, so that we don’t end up sinking in [our own] mud. I criticise my country out of concern, and I do so with love.”
One of the scenes which Foxtrot critics were most affronted by was the Mercedes burial scene. The film’s second act is set in a military outpost where Jonathan is stationed. One rainy night, a Mercedes carrying four Arab youths pulls up to the military checkpoint. One of the soldiers mistakes a soft drink can for a hand grenade and opens fire. The soldiers then report back to the outpost with news of the incident. The outpost’s chiefs then send over a backhoe loader to bury the vehicle along with the passengers’ bodies inside. A senior officer instructs the soldiers to keep quiet or suffer the consequences.
“Throughout the whole creative process, the Mercedes burial scene stood out as an explosive scene,” Maoz reveals. “Many people who were concerned for my safety and who’d had my best interests at heart, advised me whilst I was editing that I should cut the scene. They also threw in quite the dramatic argument, saying how ‘the narrative arc doesn’t really need it there,’ because they knew full well I would never even conceive of chucking a scene for reasons that weren’t dramatic. In a sense, they were right: that scene could have been sent packing with one click of a button. The scene before it would have melted into the next one like butter. Not one viewer would have felt as if something were missing, and the sequence would have ended with an accident; human error – which is terribly sad but does happen.
‘It’s an utterly useless scene,’ they used to tell me, ‘and it’ll fuck you and the film over, and it’s best that you just cut it!’ ‘Since when did you become such a political activist?”, one of my friends asked me. ‘You’re the dramatic kind,’ he added and ruled. And that, right there, is the first reason why I refused to cut the scene. Because let’s have a little cognitive exercise here, shall we? Let’s say we remove the scene from its military context and suppose it’s the final act in a spate of assassinations in a crime film – not one viewer would take issue with it. On the contrary. The scene would draw them further into it. What turned me on in the sequence’s dramatic scale was its double climax. I am the dramatic kind, and I do like to go higher and higher, and when I reach a dramatic summit, like the Mercedes shooting scene, I will take a breath and then take a step further, beyond the peak. You all thought this was it. Well, guess again. We have back-to-back climaxes here.
‘If this were a crime film, we would have been in favour of the scene, except the film is set in a military reality,’ they argued, and rightly so. Which brings us to the second reason why the scene made the cut. Because if in a crime film, the viewer connects with the scene whereas in a military one, it would elicit the most threatening, crude, inciteful, violent, and visceral sense of antagonism in them – then, in their reaction, they will have validated the very trauma that the film is about – Israeli society’s trauma. In that sense, that scene is a key scene which only affirms the film’s message.

Director Nadav Lapid’s "Synonyms" wins the Golden Berlin Bear at the 2019 Berlin International Film Festival

At the 2019 Berlin International Film Festival, Synonyms made history when it became the first ever Israeli film to win a Golden Berlin Bear – the award given to the best feature film, which is hands down one of the most coveted prizes in the world festival arena. Director and screenwriter Nadav Lapid was handed the award by French film star, Juliette Binoche who was chair of the grand jury. Lapid defeated a slew of top-ranking directors including German Fatih Akin, Polish Agnieszka Holland, and French François Ozon.
“The film may be viewed as scandalous in Israel, and folks in France may well think of it as outrageous, but for me this film is a huge celebration of all things cinema,” an emotional Lapid said in his acceptance speech. “I do hope people realise that rage, and anger, and hostility, and hatred only happen between brothers and sisters and that they’re the product of a deep bond and some very intense emotions.” Lapid got especially teary-eyed as he thanked his late mother, Era Lapid who had edited Synonyms. “At this very moment, my thoughts are mainly with my intimate [film] partner, who was my mother. We did the editing between [trips to] the editing suite and the hospital, and she died whilst we were still editing. If mum’s still out there for me in some form, it’s in her editing cuts now.”
Synonyms is based on Lapid memories of the time when he decided, after completing his military service, to leave Israel for good and resettle in Paris. The film follows his adjustment and assimilation journey into the city without speaking a word of French, and whilst living in squalor. Already in the unsettling opening scene when the protagonist (played by Tom Mercier) arrives in an abandoned Parisian flat and starts running around in it stark naked, Lapid illustrates the crisis, change, and re-birth that he himself was undergoing.
“I think that Synonyms is a film where nearly every scene contains the core of it,” Lapid muses. “In a sense, it’s all a recurring variant of the same scene. And yet, I do feel that that opening scene has something about it that very interestingly encapsulates the film’s very essence – both in concept and in form. From the shaking, wet pavement the film opens on – a pavement that can exist anywhere that’s rained – therefore, it is the start of every man’s story. From there, onto the hand that’s moving rhythmically – an unsettling, frenzied, wild shot – and then, onto the stylised shots in in the lavish, OTT, abandoned and dilapidated flat – a type of grandeur long past its prime, and in it – a man who is both powerful and vulnerable, muscular yet weak, strong yet lost. His naked body, running to and fro, is looking for salvation and redemption, but it’s also looking for a way to freeze, to be rid of itself. [Traversing] frantic movement and paralysis; vitality and death. Death that is the only way for this man to be reborn, after he’s shed not only his clothes but also, his self.”

Director Guy Nattiv’s "Skin" wins the Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film

Whilst Skin is technically an American production, the movie that took home the 2019 Oscar in the Best Live Action Short Film category is credited to two born and raised Israeli filmmakers: Director Guy Nattiv, and screenwriter Sharon Maymon. The plot of the film explores a hate crime and its consequences from the point of view of two children – one white and the other, black. “We are proud and excited that a short film made by Israelis and Americans about racism in the US was given the Academy’s extraordinary support,” an emotional Nattiv said in his acceptance speech. “This film was made from a place of genuine concern for our children’s future.”
Nattiv made Skin with his wife, producer Jaime Ray Newman. In his speech, Nattiv tied the film to his own personal and family heritage: “my grandparents are Holocaust survivors. The things they went through back there – we see them everywhere, in the US and in Europe. This film is about education; about teaching your kids how to do better.”
Nattiv struggled to choose the one scene he would deem representative of his hard-hitting Skin. “You see, I’m biased, because this is my work. Far be it from me to say, but my brother Gil did tell me he will never forget the scene where the African-American kid is watching through the car window as the white guys are beating the shit out his dad and he’s trying to call out to him with these heartrending cries. Beyond that scene that mirrors the countless wrongs committed unto the black community in the US, and other communities on a daily basis, there is also the cumulative damage that’s seeping into future generations. Many of these kids grow up with a sense of vindictiveness and in some form of another, they end up engaging in antisocial behaviour that’s rooted in hatred of the other. The scene is a call to arms to all educational systems, and to all detention, correctional and rehabilitation systems. Without education, there can be no rehabilitation and no future.”

Director Nadav Lapid’s Ahed’s Knee wins the Jury Prize at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival

In 2021, after a decade-long absence, an Israeli film once more made the official selection for the Cannes Film Festival – Ahed’s Knee, a film by Nadav Lapid, is a deeply personal piece about a man in crisis and an artist’s loneliness. As such, it leans heavily into its creator’s own personal experiences. In the film, Lapid follows the story of a film director (Avshalom Pollak) in his mid-forties who travels to a desolate small town, in the far end of the desert, for a screening of one of his films. There, he meets a dutiful pencil pusher (Nur Fibak) who works in the Department for Culture and Sport and finds himself waging two losing battles: one, against the death of artistic freedom and freedom of expression in his country and the other, against his mother’s death.

“I wrote Ahed’s Knee over a two-and-a-half-week period, about a month and a half after the death of my mother, Era Lapid, who herself was an editor,” Lapid recalled. “It came bursting out of me, almost uncontrollably. That film is drenched in this death. And my hope is that in life, too. I feel as though I’d mined Ahed’s Knee, like my previous films and perhaps, even more so, from the deepest depths of my body and soul and mind, and looking at it, it feels like I can see that those are the years of my life laid out onscreen.”

In Cannes, they were evidently rather appreciative of this mining act and indeed, Ahed’s Knee took home the prestigious Jury Prize. And the timing could not have been more opportune, seeing as how Nadav who had tested positive for COVID during the festival was finally able to come out of self-isolation, a day before the festival’s closing ceremony. His voice quivered as he delivered his acceptance speech. In it, he admitted how challenging he found the making of Ahed’s Knee, before turning to Cannes jury president, Spike Lee, and telling him how “when I was 14, my mother who was an editor, showed me your film, Jungle Fever, and it made a real impression on me.”

At the immediate press conference that followed the ceremony, I asked Spike Lee what made him choose Lapid’s film for the jury’s top honours, to which he replied, “That’s a very, very courageous film. It needs to be seen. There are several films in this festival coming from countries where if you say the wrong thing, you’re getting locked up, or worse. We needed to applaud that courage.” Lee’s jury peers, directors Mati Diop and Kleber Mendonça Filho added that Lapid also won the award owing to the film’s artistic qualities, its bold and daring form and aesthetics, and radical filmmaking style.

Ahed’s Knee also owes its success to Pollak’s impressive and powerful performance. For instance, in the scene where the Department of Culture rep, in the middle of the desert, demands that he sign a document pledging that that he will only address issues related to Israel and Judaism in his talk, and refrain from discussing any potentially touchy subjects; which then prompts the director’s staunchly and scathingly political anti-Israeli speech – a major part of his downward spiral towards an eventual breakdown.

“I think that these types of scenes exist in all my films. Although the speech/breaking point scene in Ahed’s Knee is possibly the most extreme example of that,” Lapid said at the Cannes press conference. “There’s something here [in that place] between faith and a desperate need to say it all, let out all the words. This idea that if you just did an onscreen closeup and laid it all bare, said it all – to Israelis, to people, to human beings in general – then just maybe something might change. Then, there’s also the cognisance of the fact that words are simultaneously everything and nothing, and that even after you got your closeup and you’ve said everything there was to say, you realise that you don’t in fact have the words, and that maybe there aren’t even enough words in the dictionary. I felt like there was something quite powerful in that meeting point between the ultrapersonal and the hyperpolitical – a man who delivers a political speech, then comes crashing down.”

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