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Israel’s entry for the Oscars’ best foreign film this year will be “Fill the Void,” a story about a family in Tel Aviv’s insular Hasidic community told through the perspective of an insider.
The movie automatically gained its berth for this year’s Academy Awards after winning the Best Feature Film category at Israel’s Ophir Awards on Sept. 21, along with another six of the 15 awards given by the Israeli Academy of Film and Television at Haifa’s Krieger Hall.
“Fill the Void” had a remarkably strong showing for first-time feature film director and ba’alat teshuva Rama Burshtein, who is Hasidic herself. Her movie won half of the 14 awards it was nominated for, netting Burshtein awards for Best Director and Best Script, as well as best film.
“I never thought this would happen,” Burshtein told JNS.org before quickly leaving the awards venue in Haifa to get back home in time for the start of the Sabbath. “There’s been so many twists and turns, it just goes to show that it is all really up to God at the end of the day.”
Actress Hadas Yaron of “Fill the Void” also took home the Ophir of Best Lead Actress for her portrayal of Shira, a young Hasidic woman who must decide whether to fulfill the wishes of her family by marrying her widowed brother-in-law, Yochay.
The evening was a visibly emotional experience for the 22-year-old Yaron, building on her unexpected best actress award at the prestigious Venice Film Festival earlier this month. Yaron’s eyes welled up with tears of joy after hearing her named announced as the Israeli Academy’s choice for this year, and she had to take several moments to collect herself before she could deliver her thank-you remarks.
While “Fill the Void” had been widely tipped to win Israel’s best film award, the extent of its awards sweep was a bit less expected. This year’s most widely nominated movie, “The World is Funny,” which was a finalist in each of the Ophir’s 15 award categories, only managed to walk away with prizes for Best Lighting and Best Soundtrack.
Written by veteran Israeli filmmaker Shemi Zarchin, “The World is Funny” was also the most successful Israeli film at the domestic box office this year. In fact, Zarchin’s flim was the only locally made movie to draw in over 100,000 viewers, the cut-off for what is considered a hit in Israel. In contrast, “Fill the Void” has had only one unadvertised showing in the Tel Aviv bedroom suburb of Ra’anana in order to qualify for both this year’s Ophirs and as a nominee for Best Foreign Language film at the Oscars. It will only be screened for Israeli audiences in October.
Burshtein publicly thanked God after her film’s victory in the Best film category. After taking the podium to receive the award for Best Screenplay, she said she made the film film out of pain that the Haredi world has no voice in [Israeli] culture.”
“It’s an entire world that isn’t well known,” she said.
While 10 Israeli films have been nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars, none have won the award yet. Last year’s nominee from Israel, and the Best Film winner at the Ophirs, was Joseph Cedar’s “Footnote.”
The Sept. 21 Ophir Awards event did have a characteristically Israeli air. Interspersed among the largely secular crowd of filmmakers were a fair share of national religious men wearing kippot and even a few ultra-Orthodox Jew associated with “Fill the Void.” Among the crowd of local film industry veterans and new talents, there were about as many who came dressed in their finery as those who came looking downright casual. Roy Assaf, this year’s winner for Best Actor for his portrayal of a thug who finds religion in “God’s Neighbors,” even claimed his award in a dark purple tuxedo.
Master of ceremonies Shlomi Bar-Aba, one of the stars of “Footnote,” captured the mood well during an interlude where he rolled off a string of jokes advising the people in this year’s Best Film how to deal with the all the attention that comes with being an Oscar contestant. After telling a few half-hearted lines that drew only a few chuckles, Bar-Aba concluded by cutting through the tension that has preoccupied most Israelis of late.
“And if we have to compete with an Iranian film again for the Oscar, let’s just attack already and get it over with,” he said, followed by a roomful of laughter.