Aya stars Aya stars Ulrich Thomsen and Sarah Adler in the Oscar-nominated short "Aya." (Photo: Cassis Films)

'Aya' and her wild airport ride earn an Oscar nod

It's been an 'amazing journey' for the creative team behind the Israeli short film.

This year’s Academy Award nominees for Best Live Action Short Film are quite the international quintet. There’s “Boogaloo and Graham,” a family story set in Belfast; “Parvaneh,” about an Afghan refugee in Switzerland; "Butter Lamp," following a photographer in Tibet; "The Phone Call," a British film about a suicidal man and the hotline operator who consoles him; and "Aya," an Israeli film about strangers who meet at an airport and get to know each other on the ride to Jerusalem.

This last film stars Israeli-French actress Sarah Adler in the title role of a woman who’s asked to hold a sign for a limo driver who has stepped away, and spontaneously decides to pick up the passenger (Danish actor Ulrich Thomsen) – a Dane who has come to Israel to judge a music competition. Their awkward, intimate and sweetly funny encounter made "Aya" a hit in Israel. The first short film to get a wide theatrical release, it topped critics’ lists, earned an award for Best Short Film at Israel’s Academy Awards, and has amassed accolades at festivals worldwide on the way to its Oscar nomination.

Sarah Adler As AyaSarah Adler plays the title character in the Oscar-nominated short "Aya." (Photo: Cassis Films)

"I hoped sometime by the end of my career I’d reach the Oscars, but I never thought it would happen in my first movie!" producer Hillel Roseman told From The Grapevine. "It’s a great honor for Israel for sure."

Writer-directors Mihal Brezis and Oded Binnun, who previously made the award-winning shorts “Sabbath Entertainment," "Tuesday’s Women," and "Lost Paradise," note that since “Aya” is the only Academy Award contender from Israel, "The whole country is very excited and rooting for us," said Brezis.

Brezis Binnun Thomsen"Aya" directors Mihal Brezis and Oded Binnun consult with one of the film's stars, Ulrich Thomsen. (Photo: Cassis Films)

The story for "Aya" was inspired in part by Brezis' childhood fascination with strangers at airports, and her fantasies about such an encounter. Although it takes place on the highway, the car sequence was shot on a soundstage before a green screen, so the directors could control the lighting conditions and optimize the performances. Most people haven’t been able to tell, said Binnum. 

The directors, who met in their first year of film school in Jerusalem and have been together ever since, don’t separate their work and relationship. "It’s a roller coaster ride … nowhere to hide," joked Binnun, but on the plus side, "Directing is all about decision-making, and you have the person you trust the most making the decisions with you." They have a 3-year-old son, Nuri, born while "Aya" was in the editing stage.

The couple are planning a feature-film version of their Oscar-nominated short. The directors had that in mind from the start, but when a 10-minute version they made was well received, they decided to expand the original short to its present 39-minute form. “But now we are going back to the original plan” for a full-length feature of "Aya," said Binnun. The story is still in flux, but Brezis said that it will include events that occur after Aya drops her passenger off. “We ask the question, ‘What happens if the following day she goes back to the hotel?’ It continues from there, a chain of encounters."

But first, there’s that Oscar ceremony. "We don’t have expectations," said Brezis. "We already feel that this journey, as it is, is amazing."

Producer Roseman outlines their goals. “Our mission is to be there and represent our country and the Israeli film industry in Hollywood, to enjoy the experience, and make it something we can grow from," he says. But he would be happy to take the gold statue home too. “We have a one in five chance. We’d love to see it happen."

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