The big question at a film festival is usually which movies will win the top prizes.
But at the 31st Jerusalem Film Festival at the Jerusalem Cinematheque, which ran from July 10-20, there was a more pressing issue, both for the audiences and the organizers: How can we enjoy this wonderful festival while recognizing and respecting the fact that a war is being waged between Israel and Gaza? For everyone concerned, it was a tricky balancing act, but in the end, to paraphrase Francois Truffaut in Day for Night, cinema was king, at least at the cinematheque.
Of course, there were difficult moments.
The opening-night screening, one of the high points of the cultural year in Jerusalem, in which Eran Riklis’ latest film, Dancing Arabs, written by Sayed Kashua, was set to be screened before an audience of 6,000 at the Sultan’s Pool, had to be postponed, and then was held a week later, indoors, at the largest auditorium in the cinematheque. The film, a moving coming-of-age story about a young Palestinian student who goes to a boarding school with Israeli Jews, will not be released commercially this week as planned.
The war led to some surreal moments.
David Mamet, one of the guests of honor, looked on, nodding with interest, as a representative of the cinematheque’s security staff gave instructions on what to do if the opening- night garden party was interrupted by a missile alert. Park Chan-wook, the director of such cult hits as Oldboy, was in the middle of a master class when an alert sounded, and his enthusiastic fans kept asking questions while the director waited calmly for an allclear signal.
A few guests did cancel, but director Spike Jonze handled the situation in a different way. He showed up in Jerusalem on schedule, then canceled his master class, to be held after a screening of his film Being John Malkovich the night before. He chose not to join in when the Israeli directors of the feature films in competition in the festival released a statement emphasizing the suffering on both sides of the conflict, then released his own statement that said, in part: “It felt like it was the wrong time for me to be talking about movies with everything going on... I will come back again and screen movies and talk film with you when the time is right. My heart is with you and everyone who is suffering right now.”
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Most of the audiences and guests, on the other hand, seemed to feel that this was an excellent time to talk about movies, since so many movies at the festival were concerned with life in Israel and other conflict zones around the world.
David Mamet, who brought his daughter Clara, read a novella about the early, renegade days of the Israel Air Force, The Handle and the Hold.
Nancy Spielberg arrived a few days later to present the documentary she produced, Above and Beyond, about the foreign volunteers for the IAF. One of the many distinguished guests at the sold-out screening was Lou Lenart, who flew one of the earliest IAF missions in the 1948 War of Independence.
Martina Gedeck, the German actress who starred in The Lives of Others, brought some old-fashioned European glamour to the festival and gave a master class to a roomful of enthusiastic acting students.
THE ISRAELI feature-film competition, generally the most hotly anticipated program at the festival, was a mixed bag. The awards were presented in a ceremony held Saturday night, and Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz’s Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem and Tali Shalom Ezer’s Princess shared the Haggiag Prize for Best Israeli Feature.
Gett is a rousing final installment to their trilogy of films about Viviane Amsalem, a discontented Mizrahi wife, played by Ronit Elkabetz. While the first film, To Take a Wife (2004), opened with Viviane asking for a divorce, only in Gett does she actually have the strength to legally request the dissolution of her marriage. The entire film is made up of trial sessions with Viviane and her husband, who refuses to grant her a divorce, facing the rabbinical court, aided by their lawyers and various witnesses.
Setting the entire movie in this sterile setting was risky but it pays off, as Viviane fights a system in which a group of religious men gets to decide whether or not she can have the divorce she desperately wants. It’s a political movie – this system is still in place, and causes untold injustice for thousands of women – but also a human drama, as the tragedy of Viviane and her husband’s incompatibility is revealed gradually, in this unique but universal story of a troubled marriage.
Menashe Noy won the Haggiag Award for Best Actor for his performance as Viviane’s lawyer. Gett also received the Audience Award.
I would have been happy to see Gett win the top prize on its own, and did not enjoy Princess, one of three films in the Israeli competition about pedophilia and/or incest. Princess is a carefully made, pretentious look at a poorly supervised young girl who is raped by her mother’s boyfriend, an almost identical plot to The Slut, which came out three years ago. Shira Haas, the actress who plays the girl, deservedly won the Haggiag Prize for Best Actress, and I hope we’ll see much more of this gifted young performer, who was so good playing a very different character in the television series Shtisel. Princess also won awards for cinematography and music.
Shira Geffen’s Self Made, a strange, funny film about an Israeli and a Palestinian woman who are both at odds with their own culture and who find themselves inadvertently switching places, won awards for editing and screenplay.
The Anat Pirhi Award for Best Debut Film went to Bazi Gete for Red Leaves, the moving and beautifully acted story of a widowed Ethiopian patriarch who moves in with his children.
Nadav Lapid’s The Kindergarten Teacher, about a teacher who is convinced one of her charges is a genius poet and who develops a crazy and beautiful obsession with him, won the Israeli Film Critics Forum Prize.
Two Israeli feature films that did not win awards, Efrat Corem’s Ben Zaken and Keren Yedaya’s That Lovely Girl, both dealt with inappropriate, miserable relationships between fathers and daughters. That Lovely Girl, about a grown incest victim who carries on a relationship with her father and suffers from bulimia, was one of the most loathsome, manipulative and pointless movies I have ever seen. It just proves that pretension combined with trendy issues is still a formula that works for getting a movie funded.
The Van Leer Award for the Best Israeli Full-Length Documentary went to Vanessa Lapa’s The Decent One, a portrait of Heinrich Himmler, based on newly released archival materials.
The Van Leer Award for Best Director of a Documentary Film went to Robby Elmaliah for The Unwelcoming, the story of a Tunisian Jewish family’s difficult journey to Israel.
The In the Spirit of Freedom Cummings Award for Best Feature Film went to Abderrahmane Sissako for Timbuktu, about life under an Islamic regime. The Ostrovsky Award for Best Documentary Film went to Edet Belzberg for Watchers of the Sky, a film about the life of Rafael Lemkin, the human-rights activist who coined the term “genocide.”
The Lia Award in the Jewish Experience category was given to Alexandre Arcady for his film 24 Days, about the kidnapping and murder of a French Jew.
The Avner Shalev-Yad Vashem Chairman’s Award for Artistic Achievement in Holocaust- Related Films went to Stefan Ruzowitzky for his film Radical Evil, an exploration of the psychology behind mass killings during World War II.
Andre Singer’s Night Must Fall, a look at the making and history behind German Concentration Camps Factual Survey, a documentary made just after World War II by the British government (and on which Alfred Hitchcock is credited), won an honorary mention.
It’s worth noting that it’s been a decade since the watershed year when the Jerusalem Film Festival presented an unprecedented number of wonderful Israeli movies, among them Shlomi and Ronit Elkabetz’s first film, To Take a Wife, Eran Riklis’ The Syrian Bride, Tawfik Abu Wael’s Thirst and Joseph Cedar’s Campfire. Festival audiences who had been used to seeing Israeli movies that were mediocre at best knew that something fundamental had changed in the industry and prayed that it wasn’t just a fluke. This year had enough strong Israeli movies to prove that there is no turning back: this high-quality film industry shows no signs of slowing down.
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