War and immigration mark foreign Oscar picks

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Political themes weigh heavily in three films nominated on Thursday in the Oscars’ foreign-language race, with the animated anti-war movie “Waltz with Bashir” in the running to win Israel’s first Academy Award.

The film recounting Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, coming as the Mideast was convulsed by war in the Gaza Strip, will compete with “The Class” from France, Germany’s “The Baader Meinhof Complex,” Japan’s “Departures” and Austria’s “Revanche.”

“It’s a pretty good list. I’m particularly fond of the Israeli picture,” said film critic Emanuel Levy, author of the book “All About the Oscars.”

“Waltz with Bashir,” which mixes documentary filmmaking and animation, deals with Israel’s incursion into Lebanon 26 years ago by revisiting director Ari Folman’s memories of fighting in the conflict.

The film is widely considered the Oscar foreign-language front-runner after winning a Golden Globe earlier this month and being named the best movie of 2008 by the National Society of Film Critics in the United States.

Folman’s offering brings to eight the number of Oscar nominations Israeli filmmakers have amassed over the years.

“Israel has never won the Oscars, never,” he told Reuters. “I’m overwhelmed, but I was not surprised. I was hoping that nothing would go wrong,” he said of Thursday’s nomination.

The nod came one day after Israel withdrew the last of its troops from the Gaza Strip after a 22-day offensive against the Hamas group that controls the Palestinian territory.

“My film has a very strong anti-war declaration,” Folman said, adding that he is among a minority of Israelis who oppose Israel’s military assault to halt rocket attacks by Hamas.

“If you are a believer in nonviolence like me, you ask yourself if everything is being done to prevent the next conflict, and in this case I think no,” he said.

German director Uli Edel, 61, said he made “The Baader Meinhof Complex,” about the 1970s German left-wing radical group, to teach his 20-something sons about the violent politics that engulfed his country’s student movement when he was their age.

“It’s still not a so widely known story here in the United States,” said Edel, who now lives in Los Angeles.

Edel said he hoped the Oscar nomination would help the film gain exposure in the United States. He told Reuters he was so excited about Thursday’s nominations that he stayed up all night, but fell asleep minutes before the early morning announcement and was awakened with the news by a phone call.

“The Class,” which topped the competition at Cannes to win the Palme d’Or for best picture, portrays a Parisian middle school teacher’s struggles to educate a class of mostly immigrant children.

Immigration is a hotly debated political issue in France, where conservative groups have criticized large-scale immigration from African and Muslim countries.

“For me, the only message I want to convey is that diversity, far from being a problem, is really a blessing for everybody,” director Laurent Cantet said his movie.

The Japanese film “Departures” from director Yojiro Takita won the top prize at the Montreal World Film Festival. It centres on an unemployed man who takes a job preparing corpses for cremation and finds an aptitude for the intricate ritual.

“Revanche,” from director Gotz Spielmann, is about an ex-convict who plans to help his girlfriend escape a brothel by robbing a bank but finds himself enmeshed with a policeman and his wife.

The Austrian movie follows last year’s foreign-language Oscar win for Austria’s Holocaust-era drama “The Counterfeiters.”

Editing by Jill Serjeant and Philip Barbara