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(photo credit: Courtesy)
The 24th Jerusalem Film Festival opens July 5 on a surprisingly light note, with a screening of Brad (The Incredibles) Bird's new animated comedy Ratatouille at the Sultan's Pool amphitheater. The festival, which will run until July 14, will feature over 200 films from nearly every country, and will also mark the reopening of the renovated Jerusalem Cinematheque on Derekh Hebron. In addition, since this has been a banner year for Israeli films, it will be an opportunity for moviegoers to check out the best new Israeli offerings.
"There are so many movies this year, the poor jury will have to work hard," says Lia van Leer, founder and director of both the festival and the Jerusalem Cinematheque. Sitting at her desk in the Cinematheque's temporary headquarters in Binyan'ei Ha'uma while she supervises the last-minute details of both the festival and the move back to the institution's home base, she takes time out to give an overview.
This year, she promises, the offerings will include cinema from countries not known for movies in the past that are now experiencing a cinematic renaissance.
"These things go in waves," she notes, pointing out that this year there will be two of the Malaysian films that made a splash at the Rotterdam Festival. "A few years ago, there were no films coming out of Malaysia." The JFF will present Love Conquers All, about a young woman lured into prostitution, and Before We Fall in Love Again, about a husband who joins forces with his missing wife's lover to find her.
This is in addition to six films from South Korea (including I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK, the latest film by Park Chan-wook, who made the ultra-violent Oldboy, the film that inspired the Virginia Tech killer, and The Host, a cult science-fiction film about a monster that slithers through a river in Seoul), as well as films from Indonesia, Thailand, China and Japan.
Van Leer points to Romania as the home of another up-and-coming film industry that will be well represented this year.
Ever since the release of Cristi Puiu's modern classic of urban despair, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, in 2005, Romanian filmmakers have been getting more recognition worldwide. This year, there will be a spotlight on the work of Cristian Nemescu, who died last summer at the age of 27 in a car accident in Bucharest. His first full-length feature, California Dreamin' (Endless), which won the Un Certain Regard Grand Prix this year at Cannes, will be shown.
It tells the story of conflicts in a town on the Romanian border with Serbia in 1999. There will also be a program of Nemescu's short films, as well as several other recent films from Romania.
As in past years, many films focus on immigration, dislocation, workers roaming the globe and questions of identity. "When you go to film festivals around the world, like Cannes or Berlin, you see a lot of films on these subjects," says van Leer. "There's a lot of suffering around the world." She admits that many of the best films today focus on this misery, and can be heavy going, which is why she chose to open this year's festival with a light comedy.
Among the features that deal with questions of identity in an original way are Persepolis, a serious animated film based on Marjane Satrapi's graphic novel about a girl growing up in Iran during the early years of the Khomeini regime; Mauvaise Foi, Roschdy Zem's look at a mixed Jewish-Muslim couple in France; Charles Burnett's 1977 cult classic, Killer of Sheep, the story of an introverted slaughterhouse worker in the Los Angeles slums, which was not shown for 30 years due to copyright problems; Mira Nair's The Namesake, an adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri's novel about Indian immigrants to the US; Antonia, a drama about female rappers from a poor suburb of Sao Paolo; and The Lark Farm, the Taviani brothers' latest film, a love story set during the tensions leading up to the Turkish genocidal attack on the Armenians in 1915.
The documentaries rival the feature films in both quantity and quality, as has been the case for a number of years. In Invisibles, five directors from around the world, including Wim Wenders and Isabel Coixet, made short documentaries about people in the Third World coping with the aftermath of war and the daily hardships of poverty.
Enemies of Happiness looks at a young Afghan woman who defies convention to run for office and fight the warlords. Several films examine the conflict in Darfur, including The Devil Came on Horseback, about the fight of an observer for the African Union to bring the carnage to the public eye in the West.
Two of the documentaries examine the Israeli reality from new and unfamiliar angles: Yael Luttwak's A Slim Peace, which follows a weight-loss group for Israeli, Palestinian and Beduin women, and Christopher Browne's Sons of Sakhnin United, about Bnei Sakhnin, the first team from an Arab town to win the Israeli National Cup.
The Jewish Experience category is particularly varied this year.
The Brazilian film, The Year My Parents Went on Vacation, is a drama about a soccer-mad boy in the Seventies who barely knows he is Jewish until his politically active parents disappear and he goes to live with his grandfather. It was an audience favorite at festivals around the world.
Several Jewish Experience documentaries explore facets of the Holocaust not yet seen on film, such as Michele Ohayon's Steal a Pencil for Me, about a man who was at the same concentration camp as both his wife and lover, and Hilary Helstein's As Seen Through These Eyes, about those who used their talent for theater and art to survive. The Yiddish film tradition will be represented by the 1931 Sidney Goldin film, His Wife's Lover, billed as "the first Jewish musical comedy talking picture."
Those who prefer films outside the mainstream will look forward to Vivian Ostrovsky's Carte Blanche programs, which include retrospectives of the films of Charles Atlas and Kenneth Anger. This year, the festival presents a special program called Intersections, in collaboration with Hazira Performance Art, which focuses on dance and experimental work on film.
Although the festival isn't about the awards, quite a few will be handed out. The Wolgin Awards are given for Israeli cinema, for features, documentaries, short films and Best Actor/Actress. The Drama Award in Memory of Anat Pirchi will be given to the best in Israeli television drama and documentary - an especially competitive category this year.
Fourteen films from all over the world will also compete for the Wim van Leer In the Spirit of Freedom Awards, which are given in memory of Lia van Leer's husband, and deal with the quest for freedom.
This year, one foreign director and three native sons are being recognized for their life's work. Ermanno Olmi, one of the founders of the Neorealist movement in Italy, is probably best known for his 1978 film, The Tree of Wooden Clogs, and will be honored with a Life Achievement Award.
Another Life Achievement Award will be given to Michael Shvily, the Jerusalemite producer and distributor who was responsible for bringing many classic films to Israel. An Achievement Award will be given to Avi Nesher, director of the beloved The Troupe (Ha'Lahaka), Turn Left at the End of the World, and the current critically praised film, The Secrets. A second Achievement Award will go to Katriel Schory, the producer who heads the Israel Film Fund and has helped improve the quality of Israeli films during his tenure there.
"I say this every year," says van Leer. "But, really, the films are the stars."
The JFF offers free outdoor screenings and concerts, as well as a number of workshops, many aimed at professional filmmakers. Check out the details at www.jff.org.il or at (02) 565-4350. Although there are hundreds of films, many sell out quickly, so it's worth buying tickets ahead of time.
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