Israel once again fell short at the Academy Awards Sunday night, with its two entries for Best Documentary losing out to favorite “Searching for Sugar Man.”
Despite receiving plenty of press in recent weeks, “The Gatekeepers,” a documentary featuring rare and remarkably candid interviews with the six living former heads of the Shin Bet domestic intelligence service, failed to take home top honors.
The joint Israeli-Palestinian production “5 Broken Cameras,” about a Palestinian village’s fight against Israel’s security barrier, also fell short.
Winning the Oscar in the Best Documentary Feature category was pre-show oddsmakers’ favorite, “Searching for Sugar Man,” a film about the search by two fans for American-Mexican musician Sixto Rodriguez, rumored to have committed suicide by a variety of means but found to be very much alive in Detroit.
The Swedish/British production has plenty of Jewish connections. It is co-produced by Simon Chinn, who already has one Oscar for 2008’s “Man on Wire.” Chinn is the son of Sir Trevor Chinn, long a leading figure in Anglo Jewry.
One of the two South African music fans in the film, Stephen “Sugar” Segerman, too, is Jewish — from an Orthodox family in Cape Town — and said in interviews last year that he latched onto Rodriguez’s music because his “lyrics offered a drug-fueled escape from the harsh realities of life” and this was “wonderfully evocative and inspirational to young whites living under apartheid’s strict rules and censorship, who were searching for some kind of message or inspiration from the counter-culture happening in Europe and the U.S.A.”
“Argo,” about a daring caper by the US and Canada to extract a number of embassy employees from Iran during the 1980 hostage crisis, took home Best Picture.
Ben Affleck, who was snubbed in the Best Director category, thanked “our friends living in Iran in a terrible situation” during a frantic address to the audience inside the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles.
Hours before the ceremony, “Gatekeepers” director Dror Moreh played down his chances, noting that his film was not highly favored among those placing bets on the Oscars and claiming that he would be attending mainly to savor Barbra Streisand’s performance at the show.
Streisand’s appearance was indeed worth the wait. The superstar dedicated an ethereal rendition of “The Way We Were” to Jewish-American composer Marvin Hamlisch, who died this past August.
Moreh’s film has been hailed, both by critics and audiences, for capturing Israel’s most secretive men in frank conversation about national security and the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and the dilemmas they face in trying to safeguard the people and state of Israel. “What’s most important to me,” said Moreh, “is the doors that ‘The Gatekeepers’ has opened for me.”
Yaakov Peri, one of the six intelligence chiefs featured in the film and now a Yesh Atid MK, told Channel 2 News on Sunday that the film was a “badge of honor” for Israel.
He rejected criticism that the movie exposed secrets or was a publicity stunt. “We didn’t tell national secrets — it’s the government that’s failed to find an existential arrangement with our neighbors [the Palestinians],” Peri said.
On Saturday, Moreh also dismissed claims that his criticism of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on international television was a publicity stunt to “campaign for an Oscar.”
“I don’t live in a dictatorship, I don’t have to bow to the prime minister,” he said. “With my nomination [for the Oscar] I represent the state of Israel and not the prime minister.”
Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon, a former IDF chief of staff, had accused Moreh of selectively editing the statements of the former Shin Bet chiefs in order to convey a “Palestinian narrative.”
Israel’s second contender for the same Oscar, “5 Broken Cameras,” also finished short of the golden statue.
Officially helmed by Israeli and Palestinian directors Guy Davidi and Emad Burnat, and funded in part with Israeli government money, the film is a personal record of Burnat’s West Bank village of Bil’in’s confrontations with Israeli soldiers at the security barrier, and is relentlessly critical of Israel.
Though it was labeled as an Israeli film during the Oscar nomination process, this was an association that Burnat bitterly rejected, saying that “we never gave it in as an Israeli or Palestinian film. But they know who gave it in, they know that it’s a Palestinian story and my personal story.”
Davidi had played down the film’s chances, noting that it was a small, independent production, without big budget champions in Los Angeles.
En route to the Oscars last week, Burnat was held up by US immigration authorities at LAX. Only the intervention of filmmaker Michael Moore secured his entry into the US.
“Emad, his wife and 8-yr. old son were placed in a holding area and told they didn’t have the proper invitation on them to attend the Oscars,” Moore tweeted. “Although he produced the Oscar invite nominees receive, that wasn’t good enough and he was threatened with being sent back to Palestine.”
Israel has yet to take home an Oscar despite some 10 nominations through the decades. Last year, Joseph Cedar’s “Footnote” lost out to Iran’s “A Separation” in the foreign film category.
Rounding out the Best Documentary Feature category this year were “How to Survive a Plague” and “The Invisible War.”
“The Invisible War” is produced by Amy Ziering, daughter of Beverly Hills philanthropists Marilyn and the late Sigi (a Holocaust survivor) Ziering.
Two-time Oscar-winning director Steven Spielberg was favored once again to take home the director’s Oscar for “Lincoln,” but Taiwanese Ang Lee, a previous winner for directing 2005’s “Brokeback Mountain,” pulled off an upset and won with “Life of Pi.”
In the other top categories, Daniel Day-Lewis won best actor for “Lincoln,” Jennifer Lawrence won best actress for “Silver Linings Playbook,” Christoph Waltz won best supporting actor for “Django Unchained,” and Anne Hathaway won best supporting actress for “Les Miserables.”