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Controversy Grows After ‘Zone of Interest’ Director Jonathan Glazer Uses Oscar Speech to Condemn the Israel-Hamas War

At this year’s Oscars, “The Zone of Interest” director Jonathan Glazer took the prize for most polarizing speech. And the swirl surrounding exactly what he said and what he meant — still a matter of debate — doesn’t appear to be dying down.

When the British filmmaker took the stage after the Auschwitz-set Holocaust drama was announced as best international film, he was greeted with a standing ovation. He then referred to notes he’d prepared in advance, thanked the requisite players and drew a parallel between “Zone of Interest” and the current conflict in Gaza that was difficult to decipher given the audience applause and his own mumbling.

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“All our choices were made to reflect and confront us in the present, not to say look what they did then, but rather look what we do now,” he said, according to the Academy’s official transcript of the speech. “Our film shows where dehumanization leads at its worst. It’s shaped all of our past and present. Right now, we stand here as men who refute their Jewishness and the Holocaust being hijacked by an occupation which has led to conflict for so many innocent people. Whether the victims of October — whether the victims of October the 7th in Israel or the ongoing attack on Gaza, all the victims of this dehumanization, how do we resist?”

Glazer skipped the backstage pressroom after the win and hasn’t done any interviews to clarify the point he hoped to make with his speech. He declined to comment for this story.

That hasn’t stopped people from weighing in — their divergent views correspond to the spectrum of positions on the Israel-Hamas war.

“He used his power and position and the biggest global stage to speak up for people with no power, no voice, or those too afraid to speak up, in an industry which is very conservative and risk adverse and which has a long history of blacklisting people,” Asif Kapadia, who won the 2015 best feature documentary Oscar for “Amy,” tells Variety. “He stood up and told the truth. This is what true artists do.”

That support was echoed by Jesse Peretz, director of the film “Our Idiot Brother” and the HBO series “Girls” and an Artists4Ceasefire signatory, who says: “I think this is a case where nuanced language is unfortunately a dangerous thing to try to employ, because our intense emotions can make us want to bend the meaning behind words that make us uncomfortable — so that it becomes easier to reject them.”

But others slammed Glazer’s speech, like Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt, who wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter: “It’s truly disheartening to see someone minimize the Holocaust literally as they are accepting an award for a film they made … about the Holocaust. Glazer talks about understanding where dehumanization can lead, yet is blind to the fact that it’s Hamas’ dehumanization of Jews & Israelis that led to the current war. Let me be clear: Israel is not hijacking anyone’s Jewishness. It’s defending every Jew’s right to exist.”

Greenblatt declined further comment, but an ADL rep tells Variety that he was referring to the entire speech and not just snippets that have circulated on social media. Many who initially commented on Glazer’s speech, like actor Michael Rapaport, did not appear to have heard or read the speech in full. (Rapaport wrote that Glazer “exploited the HOLOCAUST, its victims, and survivors, while you refute your Jewishness in front of the world.”) Others like commentator Ben Shapiro did not appear to have seen the film based on his well-circulated tweet the day after the Oscars that said, “In Jonathan Glazer’s ‘Zone of Interest,’ you don’t see one Jew. Those are the best Jews, according to Glazer: the faceless victims screaming in the distance. Ironically, he’s the villain: picking up awards from the bodies of those anonymous dead Jews while ignoring the living ones getting slaughtered in the Gaza Envelope by genocidal murderers.’” (There are several Jewish characters depicted in “The Zone of Interest.”)

Glazer’s speech and the reactions highlight a growing divide in Hollywood that erupted in the wake of the Oct. 7 terror attacks in Israel. Even in the room, Glazer’s speech was met with a mixed response. While Mark Ruffalo could be seen applauding enthusiastically in the front row of the Dolby Theatre, others sat motionless like Da’Vine Joy Randolph, who had just won the Oscar for her supporting role in “The Holdovers.”

Best supporting actor nominee Ruffalo was one of many Oscar attendees who wore the Artists4Ceasefire pin. He has been an outspoken advocate for the Palestinian cause. But he also has worked behind the scenes on the efforts to free the hostages who remain captives of Hamas. Sources say Ruffalo has met with family members of the hostages as well as people who survived the Hamas attack.

While discourse has raged about Glazer’s speech, perhaps an even more controversial move was who he was joined by onstage when he collected the Oscar. Standing silently behind the filmmaker was Len Blavatnik, a Soviet-born billionaire with long ties to sanctioned Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg. Blavatnik, who is one of the world’s richest men, has donated millions to GOP causes including a $1 million alone to Donald Trump’s inauguration committee. In addition, he was in business with Harvey Weinstein and Brett Ratner before they were brought down by #MeToo allegations. In an added twist, Blavatnik is reportedly a close friend of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and has contributed large sums of money to various Israeli causes. (A spokesperson for Blavatnik, who is listed as an executive producer on the A24 film, says: “Mr. Blavatnik is extremely proud of ‘The Zone of Interest’ and the acclaim it has received. His long-standing support of Israel is unwavering.”)

It was also unclear who Glazer was referring to when he said “we” with the phrase “we stand here as men who refute their Jewishness and the Holocaust being hijacked … “ Blavatnik is Jewish. It is unclear if the film’s producer James Wilson, who was standing next to Glazer, is or isn’t.

For Stefanie Fox, executive director of leftist group Jewish Voice for Peace, those attacking Glazer are simply making his point for him. “He wants to apply the lessons of the Holocaust to the horrors that ‘confront us in the present,’ while his detractors want nothing more than to avert and distract our attention from the Israeli government’s genocide of Palestinians,” she says. “Glazer speaks for the massive and growing number of Jews who honor our histories by joining our Palestinian siblings in their struggle for freedom and justice.”

A similar sentiment was added by Simone Zimmerman, founder of the grassroots organization If Not Now that is calling for a ceasefire and the end of “U.S. support for Israel’s apartheid system.”

“To me, the most important line in the speech — and the one that nobody’s having a meltdown about — is the idea that this film is meant to be a wake-up call to us in the present,” she tells Variety. “The people who are in hysterics about the speech are the very same people who are aggressively invested in denying the atrocities that are currently being committed in Gaza by those who do, in fact, invoke the memory of the Holocaust to justify their crimes.”

The last time a Holocaust drama won the Oscar for best international feature, it was Hungarian director László Nemes’ harrowing “Son of Saul,” which, like “The Zone of Interest,” was set at Auschwitz. In a statement to Variety, Nemes expressed his thoughts on Glazer’s film and speech.

“I like ‘The Zone of Interest’ very much and I think it’s an important movie,” he said. “When you make a movie like this, there is a responsibility attached to it. Glazer has clearly failed to measure this responsibility, including vis-a-vis the destruction of the European Jews. And it was appalling that the elite of cinema was applauding him for it.”

While many questions remain about Glazer’s brief speech, it does not appear as though the director plans to answer them anytime soon.

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