Oscars’ double standard turns Palestinian film into refugee

10 December 2002

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‘Intervention Divine’, Elia Suleiman

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences operates a double standard that may have kept Palestinian director Elia Suleiman’s award-winning feature film “Divine Intervention” out of the competition for the Oscars, EI has learned. The film, a dark comedy about a love affair between two people on opposite sides of an Israeli military checkpoint, won a prestigious jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival, and the European Film Award.

In recent days, the Palestinian activist community has been abuzz with news that Suleiman’s film was rejected by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) which gives out the Oscars, because Palestine is not a recognized country. Various action alerts have called on people to write letters of protest to the Academy to protest the purported rejection of the film.

The true story is a little more complicated, but raises disturbing questions about how a film that is acclaimed and celebrated in the rest of the world, can be turned into an artistic refugee, just because it is by and about Palestinians.

AMPAS’ director of communications John Pavlik told EI that “Divine Intervention” was never formally submitted to the Foreign Language Film Committee, and that therefore no decision was made about the eligibility of a film from Palestine.

Dawn Newell, an AMPAS spokesperson, also told EI, “Nothing was actually submitted on behalf of Palestine. No film, no paperwork, as I said, nothing came from Palestine. So the Academy and the Foreign Language Film Committee did not have to make any decisions on whether or not to accept a film from Palestine into consideration because nothing was submitted.”

The question is: is AMPAS using a technicality to in effect bar a film by and about Palestinians? Did AMPAS discourage the formal submission of this film in order to avoid having to make a decision whether or not to include it?

Keith Icove, co-president of Avatar Films, the US distributor of “Divine Intervention,” told EI that the film’s producer, Humbert Balsan, had spoken with AMPAS Executive Director Bruce Davis in early October, and had been told emphatically that a film from Palestine would not be eligible to compete.

In an email to EI, Icove wrote that Balsan had authorized him to make the following statement:

“As the producer of Divine Intervention, he [Balsan] asked the Academy if the film could run for best foreign language picture. The answer of the Academy was no, Palestine is not a state we recognize in our rules.”

Academy spokesperson Pavlik acknowledged to EI that Davis recalls having a telephone conversation with Balsan, about possible submission of the film, several months ago. According to Pavlik, Davis told Balsan that he could write to AMPAS to request a waiver of the rules that made it impossible for the film to enter. Pavlik could not be specific about exactly which rules would need to be waived.

Icove told EI that the filmmakers decided not to try to rush an application in the few weeks remaining and were discouraged by what AMPAS had told them.

Pavlik told EI that AMPAS does not decide what is a country and what is not, but “would go by what the United Nations says about the status of that country, and in the case of Palestine, I don’t know what that is.” Pavlik also told the Toronto Star that had the film been submitted, there might have been problems.

The Toronto Star reported:

“The academy does not accept films from countries that are not recognized by the United Nations, Pavlik said, adding it also had to be nominated by a committee of recognized filmmakers from Palestine. Pavlik said in both cases “Divine Intervention” might have failed the test. Palestine does not have membership in the United Nations but is recognized as an “entity” that has “observer status” in the international body.” (“Oscar escapes Mideast dispute,” Toronto Star, 9 December 2002)

But this excuse is spurious and wholly inconsistent with AMPAS’ past and current practice. AMPAS routinely admits films from countries and regions that are not members of the United Nations.

AMPAS’ published rules make no mention of the requirement that a country have any particular status at the United Nations or even be independent. For 2002, for example, the Academy accepted films from both China and Taiwan. Taiwan, however, is not considered an independent state by the international community, but a province of the People’s Republic of China. Taiwan has no official recognition, status or office at the United Nations whatsoever. In 2000, the film “Solomon and Gaenor,” a love story about a Yiddish-speaking Jewish man and a Welsh girl, was a finalist for the Best Foreign Film award, representing Wales. Wales is not an independent state, nor has any status at the United Nations, but is a region of the United Kingdom.

Palestine, by contrast, has maintained an officially recognized “Permanent Observer Mission” at the United Nations for decades, and dozens of countries have officially recognized the State of Palestine and maintain diplomatic relations with it at the ambassadorial level.

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Above: Elia Suleiman in the director’s chair.

AMPAS’ published rules state simply that, “Every country shall be invited to submit its best film to the Academy. Selection of the best picture from each country shall be made by one organization, jury or committee which should include artists and/or craftspeople from the field of motion pictures.” Director Elia Suleiman told the Toronto Star that such a Palestinian committee existed and was ready to nominate his film.

Given the precedents, and rules, there ought to be no reason why Palestine could not, like Wales and Taiwan, submit a film on its own behalf.

“Divine Intervention” appears to meet all the other criteria. To be eligible for the Best Foreign Film category, “the film must first be released in the country of origin between November 1, 2001 and October 31, 2002, and first publicly exhibited by means of 35mm or 70mm film for at least seven consecutive days in a commercial motion picture theater for the profit of the producer and exhibitor.”

It also states that, “the submitting country must certify that creative talent of that country exercised artistic control of the film.”

With East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip – the areas which the Palestinian Authority has declared to be the maximum extent of the Palestinian state – under full Israeli military occupation, and most of the population under complete curfew, there are almost no functioning cinemas left and few Palestinians have the financial means to attend them. Nevertheless, the Al-Kasaba Cinema in Ramallah is advertising “Divine Intervention” on its website, and according to a staff person EI reached by telephone today, has been exhibiting the film since early October – early enough to meet the requirements.

With the systematic destruction of Palestinian civil and cultural institutions, and decades of Israeli military censorship, it could be said that AMPAS, rather than standing with fellow artists, is allowing Israel a veto on the ability of Palestinians to exercise artistic control over their work.

Yet, as last April’s Chicago Palestine Film Festival demonstrated, Palestinians inside their country, and in the diaspora, have among them many talented filmmakers whose art will continue to thrive, even if the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences apparently doesn’t recognize it exists.

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