its eleventh year, the Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema (CFIC) has nabbed its
greatest programming coup to date. When the CFIC team announced that its
Opening Night feature would be Sand Storm
by filmmaker Elite Sexer, I am sure most people – even people knowledgeable
about Israeli film – probably shrugged.
a difference a few months make. Sand
Storm is now the winner of an extraordinary six Ophir Awards from the
Israel Film Academy (Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actress,
as well as Best Art Direction, Best Casting, and Best Makeup) as well as an
additional six nominations (Best Actress, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Editing,
Best Music, and Best Screenplay). Yowza!
the winner of the Ophir Award for Best Picture is always Israel’s candidate for
the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar (with one notable and controversial
exception), it is now highly likely that Sand
Storm will be one of the five final nominees. And I am placing my bet now,
because I think if it is nominated then it might well win. This will be a major
cause for jubilation for Jews everywhere because although Israel has been a
finalist several times in the past decade, Israel
has never won the top prize.
makes me think THIS film could be the one? Let me start with the obvious: first
and foremost, Sand Storm is a
terrific film. Set in in the Negev desert (near
Beersheva), Sand Storm is an
intimate story of a Bedouin family in the midst
of a calamitous shake-up. "Suliman" (Hitham Omari), a very handsome
man in early middle age, thinks of himself as a progressive guy. But Suliman,
who has no sons, is also the father of four daughters, so his "bad
luck" has tragic consequences for his wife "Jalila" (Ruba Blal)
and possibly for his eldest daughter "Layla" (Lamis Ammar) as well.
Since Suliman and his family live quite far from the
Gaza Strip and the West Bank, there are no checkpoints or any of the typical
tropes about Arab life in Israel on screen. In fact, this story is so faithful
to daily life in a Bedouin community that
it is difficult to imagine it would be significantly different if set across the
neighboring borders of either Jordan (to the east) or Sinai (to the west). The
film it is most like is Wadjda, the first film ever submitted for Best
Foreign Language Film by Saudi Arabia.
As a lifelong Oscar watcher, one of my moments of greatest
heartbreak in recent years came in January 2014 when Wadjda — also a terrific film —
was not nominated for Best Foreign Language Film by AMPAS (the
Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences), even though it won a boatload of other
awards from major festival
audiences as well as prominent critics. But Wadjda’s
ommission may now result in support for Sand
After the furor of the #OscarSoWhite campaign last year, AMPAS President Cheryl Boone Isaacs engineered the
inclusion of a large new cohort of women voters from all around the world (as
well as a more diverse set of male voters), and I think they will have a great
deal more sympathy for the story Elite Zexer tells as well as the subtle
way she tells it.
So take this opportunity to see Sand
Storm at CFIC ’16 and you may well be “in the know” when the next
set of Oscar nominations are announced on January 24, 2017. What’s the worst
case scenario? Watching one of the best films of 2016 on a big screen with an
audience the way it was meant to be seen.
Also highly recommended are two shorts — one feature and
The short feature is The
Ambassador’s Wife, a poignant and beautifully acted drama directed by Dina
Zvi-Riklis, working once again with her frequent collaborator Alma Ganihar
(who also wrote the screenplays for The
Fifth Heaven and Three Mothers).
Ester Rada stars as the wife of the Eritrean Ambassador to France. Stunned when
he is assassinated, she flees to Israel where she thinks she has friends in the
diplomatic community. But even though she knows that her husband took
politically unpopular positions, she is not prepared to be totally rejected all
those from her former life. Nevertheless, The
Ambassador’s Wife ends on a note of strength and resilience that brought me
The short doc, A
Stranger in Paris, ironically follows the reverse trajectory. Acclaimed
actress Ronit Elkabetz left a promising career in Israel, flew to France, and
did odd jobs while learning her craft and making contacts. As she tells it, her
big breakthrough came in a self-financed play about Martha Graham. Talking
about the experience decades later with filmmaker Nir Bergman (who is sometimes
seen on screen in reflecting mirrors) Elkabetz becomes as mesmerizing as
A Stranger in Paris was
originally released in 2010 as part of a made-for-television series called
“Culture Heroes.” Bergman shows clips of the first two parts of her
ground-breaking “Amsalem Triology,” but there is no mention of Gett: The Trial of Vivian Amsalem — the third part — which won the
Ophir Award for Best Picture in 2014. Likely, Elkabetz had not started filming
it yet, and probably had no idea yet that she was ill. Elkabetz died of cancer
on April 19, 2016, so this insightful
little film catches her at her ripest moment and provides a bit of closure for
all who treasure her phenomenal artistic achievements.
Taken together, these three films provide a remarkable look at
life as actually lived by women in Israel today. Most people in the world would
be surprised to hear the word “diversity” used to describe the Jewish State,
but those who have the opportunity to see CFIC films every year know otherwise.
For a state surrounded by such hostile neighbors, as well as internal problems
derived from centuries of dispersion and persecution, Israel is, in fact,
remarkably diverse. In these troubled times of worldwide isolationism and
ethno-nationalism, we have Israeli artists who prove that their embattled
homeland is, in fact, a beacon of hope.
For times and tickets, visit http://israelifilmchi.org/
full review of Sand Storm visit my blog.
Photo: Lamis Ammar in Sand Storm.
Photo: Ester Rada in The Ambassador’s Wife.
Photos Courtesy of the Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema