Israeli film ‘Aya’ fails to take home Oscar for best short movie

Category won by ‘The Phone Call,’ UK film about a helpline center employee who takes a life-changing call

Screen capture from the Israeli movie 'Aya'. (screen capture:YouTube/Oded Binnun)
Screen capture from the Israeli movie 'Aya'. (screen capture:YouTube/Oded Binnun)

Israel’s sole representative at the 87th Academy Awards, “Aya,” was defeated Sunday night, failing to take home an Oscar for its 39-minute movie in the Best Live Action Short category.

The award went to ‘The Phone Call,’ a UK film about a woman at a helpline call center who answers a mysterious, life-changing call.

“Aya,” a delicately intimate short, directed and produced by three graduates of Jerusalem’s Sam Spiegel Film and Television School, was one of five international shorts nominated for the 2015 Oscars.

The other contenders in the category were “Boogaloo and Graham,” “Butter Lamp (La Lampe au Beurre de Yak),” and “Parvaneh.”

“Aya” was written by Mihal Brezis and Oded Binnun with Tom Shoval, also a Sam Spiegel graduate. Hillel Rosenman, another Sam Spiegel graduate, produced the film with actor Yael Abecassis, his partner in Cassis Films.

The title character (played by Sarah Adler) is a young woman waiting for someone at Ben Gurion Airport when a driver asks her to hold his sign for a moment welcoming a Mr. Overby to a music competition. When Overby (Ulrich Thomsen), a Danish music researcher and juror for the competition, shows up, Aya decides on an impulse to drive him to his hotel in Jerusalem. During the course of the car ride, which forms the majority of the film, the ordinary boundaries between strangers break down, and an unexpected intimacy develops between the spontaneous Aya and the reserved Overby.

Unlike other recent Israeli Oscar nominees, there is nothing obviously Israeli about “Aya.” By contrast, the feature films “Beaufort” and “Waltz with Bashir” were set amid Israel’s wars with its neighbors; the social drama “Ajami” took a panoramic look at Israeli society, particularly the fractures between Jewish Israelis and Arabs; and the father-son drama “Footnotes” was about a complicated relationship between father and son, both of whom teach in the Talmud department at Hebrew University. But “Aya” explores neither the political, ethnic nor religious aspects of Israeli life. Even the dialogue itself is almost entirely in English.

Brezis said that many people in and out of Israel expect the country’s films to be political, and that she and Binnun wondered whether they should make the film more political, more “Israeli.”

But ultimately they decided to remain true to the heart of the story, which is the encounter between the two strangers.

“This film keeps surprising us with its journey,” Brezis, 37, told JTA in advance of the awards ceremony on Sunday.

She was sitting in a cafe in Griffith Park in L.A. while Binnun, 39, was taking their son, Nuri, on a pony ride nearby.

“The most touching fact is that we get to travel this far with a film that is small and intimate,” Brezis said.

“Aya,” as it exists, was never even supposed to be made. Brezis and Binnun were working on a feature film when a French producer who had worked on their last film called and told them he had money to make another short film.

They told him they had no short film ideas, but ultimately decided to distill part of their feature idea into the short that became “Aya.”

At 39 minutes, however, “Aya” is long for a short film — so long that when it first played at the Jerusalem International Film Festival in 2012, the festival had to host a special screening. Brezis and Binnun invited their friends and family assuming it would be the only public screening of the film. But a positive review from the Israeli newspaper Haaretz led to more screenings at Israeli cinematheques, and then to a commercial release in Israel.

Thanks to the Oscar nomination, “Aya” was playing with the other short film nominees as part in more than 450 theaters across the United States.

Brezis and Binnun have now resumed developing the feature-length version of the “Aya” story, and they hope that with the success and acclaim of “Aya,” they will be able to secure financing to shoot what would be their first feature film.

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