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Palestinian film is ineligible for Oscar consideration

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Times Staff Writer

“Divine Intervention” is a film without a country, at least by the reckoning of the foreign language film selection committee of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which determines eligibility for an Oscar nomination.

The Palestinian movie, honored at numerous international film festivals, will not be among the 54 entries competing for this year’s foreign-language Oscar, and the movie’s producers and some Palestinian and Arab American organizations are crying foul. The controversy highlights some of the arcana of the academy’s guidelines as well as the importance for foreign films to have a shot at an Oscar. A nomination could mean the difference between obscurity and international distribution.

“Obviously we are disappointed,” said Feda Abdelhadi Nasser, counselor for the Permanent Observer Mission of Palestine to the United Nations. “What it comes down to is that the Palestinian people, in addition to the denial of other rights ... are now being denied the ability to compete in a competition that judges artistic and cultural expression.”

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Academy spokesman John Pavlik said the film was never submitted for consideration. Pavlik acknowledged that the film’s representatives contacted the organization’s executive director, Bruce Davis, in September to inquire if the film would be eligible. Davis then told the producer of the film, Humbert Balsan, that the academy does not recognize Palestine as a country.

Pavlik said the academy goes by the U.N. list of member nations when it determines if a film is eligible to represent a country. But on a case-by-case basis, they are willing to consider territories the U.N. may not consider countries, such as Puerto Rico, Taiwan or Hong Kong. “Divine Intervention” also did not fulfill other requirements, including the formation of a selection committee in its country and exhibiting the film in a native theater for at least one week.

“This conversation happened with Bruce three days before the deadline,” said Pavlik. “We try to let other people decide for us what country is a country ... we are not trying to be exclusive. We are trying to get as many countries in as we can, but we have to have rules.”

Mark Johnson, chair of the foreign language film selection committee, said the decision on “Divine Intervention” may be controversial, but the academy has a right to establish rules.

But Keith Icove, vice president of Avatar Films, the movie’s U.S. distributor, said Davis’ response prompted the company not to submit the film for consideration because executives knew it would be rejected.

Since they did not submit the film or fulfill the requirements, they can now lobby to get Palestine recognized as a country by the academy and submit it for consideration next year. “When we had that conversation it was not, ‘Well, submit it and let’s see what happens,’ ” said Icove. The producer “got a very negative reaction, so we said, ‘Let’s wait to try to see if we can change the rules because they are not fair.’ ”

Hussein Ibish, communications director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in Washington, D.C., said the academy needs to review its policies. “They deliberately discouraged the application of this movie in order not to have to make a decision,” he said. “That is unfortunate.”

Abdelhadi Nasser of the Palestinian U.N. mission added that Palestine is recognized as a nation by more than 115 countries and has had observer status in the U.N. since 1974.

“Divine Intervention,” the first Palestinian film to compete at the Cannes Film Festival, also won the international critics’ prize at Cannes and best foreign film at the European Film Awards. It is scheduled for release in Los Angeles in January.

A dark comedy about a love affair between two people on opposite sides of an Israeli military checkpoint, the film uses absurdist humor to illustrate hardships faced by Palestinians.

Despite the hubbub over his film, director-star-writer Elia Suleiman would rather not delve into the controversy. Reached on his cell phone in Paris, where he lives, he said in an aggravated tone: “I’m a very tired person who has been touring the world for the last five and a half months with this film. I would like to talk about my film and not about political involvements.”

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