Mideast pix do battle for kudos

Selection is tricky with war, censors

The road to Oscar glory is rarely smooth, but for many Mideast helmers, this year’s path to the Kodak Theater is proving particularly bumpy. Wars, censorship and electoral uncertainty are just a few of the obstacles helmers in the region have had to contend with. And that’s just to get selected as their country’s official representative, let alone pick up a much-prized foreign language nom.

In Israel, for example, the winner of best pic at the annual Orphir Awards automatically gets selected to challenge for the top prize. A wrench was thrown in the works when two pics ended up in a dead heat at the Sept. 17 ceremony. Both “Aviva, My Love” and “Sweet Mud” garnered equal votes, leading to an unprecedented runoff. “It was the first time this happened,” says Katriel Schory, head of the Israeli Film Fund. Dror Shaul’s “Sweet Mud,” about life on a kibbutz in the1970s, comfortably won the second vote.

Iranian helmers have faced an even tougher task in getting authorities’ approval. Many of the leading contenders, such as Jafar Panahi’s “Offside”– which took home the Silver Bear at this year’s Berlin fest — and Bahman Ghobadi’s “Half Moon”– which recently shared the top prize at San Sebastian — have yet to be granted official screening permits by the Iranian government, leaving them inadmissible for selection.

Execs at Sony Pictures Classics, who are handling the U.S. release of “Offside,” sent a letter to Iranian officials asking them to nominate the pic.

Meanwhile, at San Sebastian, Ghobadi made an impassioned plea for consideration of “Half Moon.” “After having done everything so that Iranians could see it, the government then decides it cannot be screened,” Ghobadi said. “What energy have I got left to continue making films?”

Eventually, authorities in the country opted for “Border Cafe,” about a widowed woman’s struggles for independence in a patriarchal society, by veteran helmer Kambosia Partovi, previously best known for scripting Panahi’s 2000 women’s rights drama “The Circle.”

Ghobadi, on the other hand, found a nifty solution to his snub: switch countries. “Half Moon,” which follows an Iranian Kurdish singer’s odyssey into Iraq to celebrate the fall of Saddam Hussein, has now been selected as Iraq’s official entry.

While censorship has been an issue across the region, the shingle behind taboo-busting Egyptian blockbuster “The Yacoubian Building” successfully fought off a local politicos’ attempts to have the film cut before securing its selection as Egypt’s entry.

Lebanon’s official entry, “Bosta,” was confidently preparing to launch its Stateside marketing blitz this summer before the war between Israel and Hezbollah scuppered those plans. The pic’s helmer and producer Philippe Aracktingi is now prepping a late offensive, and counting on Western sympathies for his devastated country to ensure he’s still in the running come February.

Ironically, the territory that caused the biggest rumpus last year is missing this time around. While Hany Abu-Assad’s “Paradise Now” found itself the victim of a concerted campaign questioning its stated country of origin as Palestine, this year there are no pics from the Palestinian Territories in contention.

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