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Israeli film buffs, your prayers have been answered. The 23rd Jerusalem Film Festival, which runs from July 6-15 at the Jerusalem Cinematheque and other Jerusalem theaters, has a star-studded guest list, led by Life Achievement Award winner Roman Polanski, director of such classics as Rosemary's Baby and Chinatown, who will be here to present his latest film, a new, grittier version of Oliver Twist. In addition to Polanski, this year's festival will host movie stars and directors who will thrill serious cineastes and more casual movie lovers alike and will feature nearly 200 movies from all over the world.
"This year, we have some very gifted people coming," says Lia van Leer, Jerusalem Film Festival founder and director, as well as founder of the Jerusalem Cinematheque, in an understatement. "And we have some wonderful films."
In the movie star category, there's actress Debra Winger (An Officer and a Gentleman, Terms of Endearment), who will be attending the festival as a juror for the Wolgin Awards for Israeli Features and the Drama Award in Memory of Anat Pirchi. She also narrates the newest documentary by Lily Rivlin, Can You Hear Me? Israeli and Palestinian Women Fight for Peace. Actress Kim Cattrall, best known as Samantha on the television show Sex and the City, will also be attending as part of a Canadian delegation (please see sidebar on special programs). Other festival guests (at presstime) include director Chen Kaige, here with his latest film, The Promise ; Istvan Szabo, who will present Relatives ; actress Julie Depardieu (daughter of Gerard), the star of Sauf Le Respect Que Je Vous Dois ; and Baltasar Kormakur, director of A Little Trip to Heaven, best known for Reykjaviik 101.
Achievement Award winners this year are Atom Egoyan, the Canada-based director of Armenian descent, whose 2002 film, Ararat will be screened; producer Robert Lantos, who has made such films as eXistenZ, Felicia's Journey and Being Julia and who first visited Israel as a water polo player for the Canadian team in the 1969 Maccabiah Games; and director/actor Eli Cohen, who has made such films as summer of Aviya and the documentary in the current festival, Fence, Wall, Border . . .
It's no surprise that an Israeli shares the honors with distinguished foreign winners, because this festival is the coming-out party for the Israeli film industry: It has officially come of age. Two years ago, the success - both here and abroad - of such movies as Avi Nesher's Turn Left at the End of the World, Eytan Fox's Walk on Water, Joseph Cedar's Campfire, Keren Yedaya's Or, Gidi Dar's Ushpizin, Eran Riklis The Syrian Bride and many other Israeli films came as a surprise. Now, with Israeli films picking up major awards at festivals all over the world, the time has come to acknowledge Israel's place in international cinema and van Leer has chosen to mark this passage by opening the festival with an Israeli film for the first time ever.
On July 6 at the Sultan's Pool amphitheater, before a crowd of thousands, Oded Davidoff's Someone to Run With, an adaptation of David Grossman's bestselling novel will play on a giant screen. It tells the story of a teenage boy and girl in Jerusalem who meet while tracking down a lost dog and the girl's drug-addicted brother. Following the screening, there will be an opening party right nearby at The Lab.
Someone to Run With is just one of a large group of promising Israeli films competing this year for the Wolgin Awards (see sidebar on Israeli cinema). 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.
The festival has a special section on French cinema, which now includes films in French from Francophone countries around the world. Abderrahmane Sissako's Bamako is set in Mali and interweaves stories about families in a courtyard with a mock-trial of World Bank officials. Alain Tasma's Nuit Noire, 17 Octobre 1961 is a feature film about a massacre in France of Algerians who protested the French occupation of that country. Well-known French directors such as festival guest Chantal Ackerman are also in the lineup. Her latest film, a documentary called La Bas, is a film diary about her 2005 stay in Tel Aviv and her feelings about her own Judaism.
The rich Panorama Section features movies from all over the world, including American movies with big-name stars such as Jennifer Aniston, who appears in Nicole Holofcener's Friends with Money. Sidney Lumet's latest film, the crime thriller Find Me Guilty starring Vin Diesel, will be shown. But some of the most intriguing films come from Asia, including Hong Kong director Johnnie To's Election and Election II look at the succession in a Sopranos-style crime family. Super-cool Japanese crime star "Beat" Takeshi is faced with an imposter in Takeshis'. The life of a family living in the Mongolian plains is the focus of The Cave of the Yellow Dog, Byambasuren Davaa's follow-up to his international hit, The Story of the Weeping Camel.
Latin American films also have a strong presence, with such movies as Claudia Llosa's Madeinusa, about a young woman in a remote Peruvian village who sees a way out when a geologist comes to town.
As you flip through the 300-page festival catalog, certain themes emerge. "There are wars everywhere, but there is also daily violence. There are the same problems all over the world," van Leer comments. As in past years, many of the films deal with refugees and others who don't feel at home in the countries they live. For example, Lebanese-born, Sweden-based Josef Fares' latest film, Zozo, looks at a teenage boy moving from Beirut to Sweden. And a special program of films from the Sarajevo Film Festival examines the fallout from that country's civil war, with films such as Jasmila Zbanic's Grbavica, the story of a Sarajevo girl searching for the truth about what her father did during the war.
The trend of strong documentaries continues with such films as Micha Peled's China Blue, a look at Chinese migrants from rural areas to the cities; A Lion in the House, a portrait of children coping with cancer; festival guest director Alan Berliner's latest, personal look at the universal problem of insomnia, Wide Awake; The Pervert's Guide to the Cinema, a portrait of festival guest philosopher and psychoanalyst Slavoj Zizek by Sophie Fiennes (sister of actors Ralph and Joseph); Ashim Ahluwalia's John & Jane shows what really goes on in a Mumbay international call center; and Deborah Scranton's The War Tapes focuses on three American soldiers in Iraq who document their experiences with video cameras.
Werner Herzog is represented at the festival by two documentaries, The White Diamond, about zeppelins and The Wild Blue Yonder, a quasi-documentary look at people who believe in aliens. He is also the subject of a third documentary, Walking to Werner.
The Jewish Experience program also features some intriguing documentaries, including Mimmo Calopresti's Volevo Solo Vivere, a look at Italian concentration camp survivors. Among the feature films vying for the Jewish Experience Awards are Song of Songs, Josh Appignanesi's look at British ultra-Orthodox; Richard Dembo's La Maison de Nina, about a Jewish refugee from Greece who sets up an orphanage after World War II; and Nina's Journey, Lena Einhorn's look at her family's fight to survive the Holocaust in Poland.
Festival consultant Vivian Ostrovsky spotlights the best of avant-garde cinema in her "Carte Blanche" program, including a look at multi-media artist Matthew Barney, Matthew Barney: No Restraint.
For tickets, call 02-565-4350 or go to the festival website at www.jff.org.il You'll want to buy early and often.