The 29th Jerusalem Film Festival is off and running. The most moving moment at the opening last Thursday wasn’t anything in the movie, Woody Allen’s To Rome with Love (Allen’s movies are beginning to remind me of the Gidget series – Gidget Goes to Rome, Gidget Goes Hawaiian, etc., but with kvetching rather than spunkiness). It came when Jerusalem Cinematheque and Festival Founder Lia van Leer introduced Alesia Weston, the newly appointed cinematheque executive director.

“I am handing the flag to her,” said van Leer, who has often been referred to as the Queen of Israeli Cinema. Film buffs throughout the audience of thousands at the Sultan’s Pool Amphitheater choked up along with Weston, who had the honor of declaring the festival officially open.

Five of the seven Israeli movies in competition for the Haggiag Family Award for Israeli Cinema have been shown so far, and audiences have been mainly positive.

Remember this is the festival where, in previous years, the Oscar-nominated Ajami had its Israeli premiere, along with such acclaimed films as Or, The Band’s Visit, Lebanon and many more. So expectations run high for the Israeli features.

Dana Goldberg’s Alice, about a mental health worker who is emotionally crippled herself, and Amir Manor’s Epilogue, about an elderly couple who feel out of place in the Israel of today, were well made, but are unlikely to win this year’s competition. Benny Toraty’s The Ballad of the Weeping Spring sharply divided audiences.

Some adored this pastiche of spaghetti Western clichés woven into a story about a group of Mizrahi musicians, torn apart by tragedy, who come together for one final concert. Others were just not in the mood for oud.

Yariv Horowitz’s Rock the Casbah is a moving film about the messiness and tragedy of the lives of IDF soldiers in Gaza in 1989. Meni Yaesh’s God’s Neighbors tells the story of a newly ultra-Orthodox vigilante in Bat Yam who begins to question his principles, and it’s far more engaging and nuanced than this brief description suggests.

Two of the most anticipated Israeli features, Rama Burshtein’s Fill the Void and Idan Hubel’s The Cutoff Man were MIA, because they were accepted to the Venice International Film Festival and their directors had to withdraw them. This rule was not in place in 2009, when Shmuelik Maoz’s Lebanon was shown at the Jerusalem Film Festival and went on to win the top prize at Venice, but festivals are competing for dwindling numbers of good films these days.

Stay tuned for more festival news.

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