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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.