In a year of acclaimed documentary films about the Middle East, Yael Melamede has achieved an unusual distinction: she is the first Israeli in the history of the Academy Awards to produce an Oscar-winning movie: Inocenete. The movie, which won the Oscar for best documentary short last February, is not about the Middle East. Its subject is a homeless teenager from San Diego with an outsize personality and an extraordinary artistic talent.
We’ve seen such extraordinary work out of Israel in the past few years, films like Footnote, The Gatekeepers and Five Broken Cameras, which attest to the creativity and urgency of artistic voices in the region. I’m honored to be the first Israeli producer of an Oscar-winning movie, but I know I won’t be the last.
More after the jump.
Melamede was born and raised in New York City, and her parents are both Israeli: her mother is a renowned architect who designed Israel’s Supreme Court building, and her father was a businessman and former Israeli Air Force pilot, a veteran of the Six Day War. Melamede has produced both documentaries and independent feature projects, covering an eclectic range of topics.
Like many people from the Middle East, I straddle multiple cultures. Though our work covers varied topics and places, my choices are always informed by who I am and where I’m from.
Inocente began as a project about homeless teens, which Melamede embarked on with the directors Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine. The 40-minute film, which charts Inocente Izucar’s extraordinary life story, aired on MTV, receiving widespread media attention and rave reviews, and was screened to select audiences everywhere from Hollywood to Capitol Hill. Glamour magazine called the film “insanely inspiring.” Another of Inocente’s distinctions is to have been the first Oscar winner financed in part by an online Kickstarter campaign.
“My Architect,” Melamede’s first foray into documentaries, was nominated for an Academy Award in 2004. It tells the story of the famous but elusive architect Louis Kahn through the eyes of his son Nathaniel. In addition to designing some projects in Israel, Kahn designed two buildings at Yale University, where Melamede was herself an architecture student; it was the perfect vehicle for Melamede’s transition from architect to filmmaker. In 2003, Melamede and Eva Kolodner founded Salty Features, with the goal of making “salty” films — films that were neither “sweet,” nor “sour.”
Among Melamede’s current projects is a reality television series entitled “Bad Habits,” being developed with Morgan Spurlock and inspired by the work of Dan Ariely, an acclaimed Israeli-American behavioral economist and bestselling author. Ariely’s work is also the impetus for Melamede’s directorial debut that’s currently in production: a feature documentary entitled Slippery Slopes.
During the next year, Melamede hopes to film in Israel her passion project: the adaptation of Amy Wilentz’s best-selling novel Martyrs’ Crossing, which delves into the harrowing personal struggles that result from the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
A friend and colleague recently told me that I seem to be drawn to stories about people doing the impossible. I had never thought about it that way but it’s true. I am a fervent idealist and realist and a lot of that comes from my particular Israeli background. I dream of being back in the running for an Academy Award, perhaps with a film from Israel.