A Landmark Night for “Palestine” at the Oscars

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March 3 2014 2:20 PM

Oscar Night for Palestine

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Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad, nominated for his filmOmar, speaks at the academy's Foreign Language Film nominees cocktail reception in Los Angeles on Feb. 28, 2014.

Photo by Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

From Mexico’s Alfonso Cuarón to Kenya’s Lupita Nyong’o to Australia’s Cate Blanchett, it was a big night—as it usually is—for non-Americans at the Oscars. But despite not taking home a statuette, one place stood out for a different reason.

For the first time in the academy’s history, a film from “Palestine” competed in the Best Foreign Language Film category last night. Whether or not the entrant—Hany Abu-Assad’s film Omar—actually took home a statuette (it didn’t), the moniker itself marks an important shift in the industry and a win for the Palestinians.

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Omar, a story of violence, espionage, love, and betrayal set in the West Bank, was the only Middle Eastern film in the category this year. With an almost entirely Palestinian cast and crew, 95 percent of the funding reportedly from Palestinian sources, including the diaspora. That level is a rarity in an industry where Israeli and European sources tend to foot the bill.

Abu-Assad, an Arab-Israeli from Nazareth and with Israeli citizenship, says: “By making a Palestinian movie with crew, money, actors—it’s a step toward independence. You are saying to everybody you can be independent. You deserve to be independent.”

A record 76 countries submitted a nominee for the foreign film category this year. Palestinian participation is relatively new: The Palestinian Ministry of Culture has submitted six films for consideration in the category since 2003, and received a nomination only once, for Paradise Now, also directed by Abu-Assad, in 2006. The academy initially listed that film’s origin as “Palestine,” but changed it to “Palestinian Authority” under intense pressure from pro-Israel groups. Eventually, they compromised on “Palestinian Territories.”

The U.N. General Assembly’s 2012 recognition of Palestine as a nonmember state paved the way for new terminology at the Oscars this year. As academy spokeswoman Teni Melidonian explained: “We follow United Nations protocol. This is not a political situation at all. We are just in the business of honoring filmmaking.”

The Palestinian ministry’s first submission attempt, in 2002, was rejected on the grounds that it was not from a state body. Critics pointed out that the academy had long allowed places such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Puerto Rico to participate, despite their not being recognized—or not universally recognized—as independent states. 

Cultural and institutional recognitions matter tremendously to all sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which last year’s battle over Palestinian membership in UNESCO made clear.

Anna Newby is a Slate intern.

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