First Israeli to Produce an Oscar-Winning Film Keeps Dreaming

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.

Melamede said:

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.

The Gatekeepers: Israel’s Nominee for the Oscar

— by Steve Sheffy

You should see The Gatekeepers, which is nominated for a Best Documentary Feature Academy Award in the Ceremony today, while it’s still in the theaters, and urge everyone you know to see it. If you’re looking for a feel-good movie this isn’t it. If you’re looking for an intelligent, honest examination of what is going on in Israel, this is a must-see.

The Shin Bet (Shabak) is Israel’s internal security agency. The Gatekeepers features all six living former heads of the Shin Bet: Avraham Shalom, Yaakov Peri, Carmi Gillon, Ami Ayalon, Avi Dichter, and Yuval Diskin.

More after the jump.
The Wall Street Journal writes:

The Israeli journalist Dror Moreh has hit a documentarian’s trifecta with The Gatekeepers. It’s an exemplary piece of enterprise journalism, a vivid history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and a polemic that’s all the more remarkable for the shared experience of the polemicists. They are six former heads of the Shin Bet, Israel’s secretive internal-security service, and, to a man, they deplore most of the political leaders who have shaped their nation’s turbulent history — not for being too weak, as one might expect to hear from these toughest of professional hard-liners, but for being too rigid, hypocritical or indifferent to negotiate with their Arab enemies.

Yet, as the New York Times notes:

While it is true that Mr. Peri and his colleagues generally favor the curtailment of Jewish settlements on the West Bank and a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they are hardly doves or bleeding hearts. And their shared professional ethos of ruthless, unsentimental pragmatism is precisely what gives such force to their worries about the current state of Israeli politics.

The Times concludes:

It is guaranteed to trouble any one, left, right, center or head in the sand, with confidence or certainly in his or her own opinions. If you need reassurance or grounds for optimism about the Middle East, you will not find it here. What you will find is rare, welcome and almost unbearable clarity.

When people tell me that I should see a movie and decide for myself whether it is good or bad, fair or unbalanced, I usually take a pass. I haven’t got much time to waste on movies that might not be good or that advance a political agenda I may or not agree with. I’d rather read. But this movie is just too important not to see.

All six living former heads of the Shin Bet: No one can question their love of Israel, their devotion to Israel, or their knowledge. Something is not true simply because these six say it’s true. But it’s hard to imagine any other six people whose views we should take at least as seriously. You might not agree with them, but you can’t say the views they express are not pro-Israel. And yes, the film does accurately present their points of view: Carmi Gillon, one of the six, says:

The importance for me is the message the film gives to the Israeli public. The message is that occupation is bad for the future of Israeli society from all aspects — humanistic, economic, moral, etc. I can assure you that all six former heads and some 95% of my colleagues and workers from the Shin Bet from over three decades all agree with the overall conclusions of the film.

The movie is impossible to summarize and packs a lot of information into 95 minutes. Three of many key points are:

  1. Israel should talk with anyone about peace.
  2. The occupation is bad for Israel and will get worse for Israel the longer it continues.
  3. The only reason the Palestinian Authority cooperates with Israel on security matters is that they hope the result will be a state of their own. In other words, they are not cooperating to help Israel but to help themselves, and they may stop cooperating if they lose hope.

It occurred to me while listening to these former heads of the Shin Bet that if Chuck Hagel had said to the Senate Armed Services Committee what these six men say in this film, there’s no way he would be confirmed. Then on Friday I read this review, which lists the same quotes that struck me while watching the film.

If you want to cling to your illusions, I can recommend several supposedly pro-Israel groups right here (and I do mean “right”) who regularly feature speakers and programs designed to describe the world as we’d like it to be, not as it is. For them, Israel is the Israel that never was, the Israel of Paul Newman and Exodus, an Israel that doesn’t have to choose between retaining the West Bank and remaining a democracy because demographic facts to them are just myths. But we can’t effectively advocate for Israel if we divorce ourselves from reality. See The Gatekeepers and decide for yourself.

Martin Ben Moreh of the Reut Institute recommends “strongly that every Israeli and every Jew should see this film regardless of what their particular political views are.”

Let’s hope The Gatekeepers wins an Oscar tonight.