Nation's filmgoers flock to see Farhadi's 'A Separation'

TEL AVIV — For weeks now, Israelis have been fixated on Iran — not its government or its garrisons, but on its little independent film that could, Asghar Farhadi’s “A Separation.” Take a look at the headlines, and war between Israel and Iran seems imminent. The moviehouses, though, where tens of thousands of Israelis have queued up for sold-out showings of “A Separation,” tell a different story.

When Guy Shani, CEO of Shani Films, a family-run business here that owns the country’s ubiquitous Lev Cinema multiplexes, brought the Oscar-winning pic to Israel, he knew he would face a storm of questions. After all, Iran and Israel are locked in a potentially deadly game of nuclear chess. But Shani, like most of Israel’s cinephiles, isn’t particularly interested in politics.

“Everybody’s called me. Everybody wants blood. Everybody wants me to say something provocative,” Shani says, pacing back and forth in his Tel Aviv office. “But I’m sorry. Do you know why I bought the movie? Because it was a great movie, and this is my profession.”

The pic, which tells the story of a middle-class couple breaking up amid a fractious portrait of Iran that considers the divisions between the nation’s secular and religious sectors, opened in February on nine screens across Israel, just before another battle between the two countries for the foreign-language Oscar was about to play out. On Feb. 26, the “Footnote” delegation (helmer Joseph Cedar and topliners Lior Ashkenazi and Shlomo Bar-Aba) walked the same red carpet as Farhadi and his group, and while they were never photographed together, Ashkenazi told the Israeli press he had chatted happily on the sidelines with two of the Iranian actors.

Iran took the Oscar statuette and Israel went home empty-handed, registering its 10th Oscar defeat, more than any other country. Farhadi used his moment at the podium to try to steer things away from politics, and to herald Iran’s rich artistic history, saying, “At the time when talk of war, intimidation and aggression is exchanged between politicians, the name of their country, Iran, is spoken here through her glorious culture.”

Iranian state TV, however, struck an entirely different tone, trumpeting the win the following morning as a “triumph over the Zionist regime” and announcing that Israel’s Oscar defeat was just the first step in its eventual demise.

But to Limor Edery, managing director and chief buyer for United King Films, one of Israel’s largest production and distribution firms, such comments are irrelevant.

“Politics and films are two different things for us,” she says of United King. “In art, there is no place for this.”

“A Separation” does a delicate dance around Iranian censorship by zeroing in on one intense family story and relegating war, governments and other such elephants to the sidelines. Its humanity is precisely why it has resonated so strongly with Israelis, many of whom, after seeing the pic, said they were surprised to find Iranian kitchens, schoolhouses and domestic disputes so similar to their own.

That is also why distribs like Edery find it so palpable. “I will not buy anything that goes against Israel or against my country. For instance, Mel Gibson’s ‘Passion of the Christ,’ we ignored completely. But politics and art are separate,” she says.

Israel is no stranger to boycotts and unfavorable headlines, and is fiercely proud of its free and open nature. And while there has been some concern here that a series of controversial new laws, as well as the increasing clout of Israel’s own ultra-religious sector, are chipping away at the country’s precious democratic character, the gatekeepers of its cinema and arts remain stalwart.

Katriel Schori is CEO of the Israel Film Fund, a publicly funded NGO that bankrolls about 14 full-length features per year. Despite the fact that Israel regularly produces movies that criticize its army, promote Arab or Palestinian themes or show its religious community in an unflattering or even scandalous light, Schori says he has never received a government complaint.

“So far in my 12 years as the head of the fund, I haven’t had a single phone call from any politician, member of parliament, ministers, someone from a minister’s office, none of that,” says Schori.

That’s not to say there is not discontent in the ranks. But Israel has lobbying groups and a free press to hear those concerns, Schori says. The fund, he adds, reads and considers every submission without pretext.

“Projects are judged on three main elements: the script, the director and the producer as a package. And that’s it,” he says.

As a result, some of the country’s most successful films, like “Waltz With Bashir,” “Ajami” and “Walk on Water,” were wildly controversial. But they were also wildly popular. And when it comes to filling seats in the cinema, Lev’s Shani says, politics and religion simply don’t matter.

“I don’t force anyone to come see the movie, and I don’t tell anyone not to come and see the movie. We’re a free country,” he says.

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