It's getting harder and harder to get noticed at the Haifa International Film Festival, with hundreds of prize-winning films from around the world on the program. Despite the challenge, Adino Danny Abeba, the driving force behind the documentary Code Name: Silence, has found a new way. Invited onstage after a screening of the film, he proposed to his fianc e, handing her flowers and a ring and popping the question in front of the audience. To his - and the audience's - delight, she accepted him quietly, as viewers called out, "Mazel tov!"
It was a light moment on an emotional evening, as members of the Ethiopian community packed the auditorium for the screening of the documentary by Yifat Kedar, which deals with attempts by Abeba, a journalist with Yediot Aharonot, to break the silence surrounding abuses by members of the Komite (pronounced "committee"), Ethiopians selected by the Mossad to assist Israel in carrying out Operation Moses, the rescue of Ethiopian Jews in the mid-Eighties. The film focuses on the Ethiopian-born Abeba, who has tried for years to get victims raped by Komite members to speak out and to try to get the Israeli establishment, particularly the Mossad, to investigate these abuses. In the past, the victims were too ashamed and scared to go public about what had happened to them.
Although the establishment refused to look seriously at the charges and the statute of limitations on rape charges has run out, helping to get this movie made was clearly cathartic for Abeba. After the screening, director Kedar promised that she and others would continue to pursue this issue and try to win justice for the victims. Perhaps the most damning detail the film offered was the fact that Israeli officials were consistently dismissive of Abeba when he came forward. Why not at least listen to him?
Abuses of Africans was a mini-theme that ran through the festival's programs, right from its opening night, when Fernando Meirelles' The Constant Gardener was screened. The film stars Rachel Weisz as the wife of a British diplomat played by Ralph Fiennes stationed in Africa. Weisz is murdered after she makes it her mission to expose the corrupt practices of a multi-national pharmaceutical corporation doing drug trials in poor areas. It's a good film, but its chronicling of Fiennes' belated political awakening was a little hokey. It wasn't a huge hit with festival-goers, dozens of whom walked out during the film, but walkouts were common throughout, as viewers either headed early to post-screening receptions or (in the case of journalists and guests whose passes enabled them to enter any screening) went to other films.
While it is rude to leave a screening in progress, whether or not the director or actors are present, it's easy to sympathize with the impulse to see as many films as possible. With hundreds of films, plus seminars, press conferences and master classes, even someone who devotes an entire week to the festival can barely hope to scratch the surface.
One of the festival's special programs was a tribute to the late director Stanley Kubrick, and at a screening of a documentary about him, Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures, I learned that he had always wanted to make a movie about the Holocaust. The director of the documentary, Kubrick's brother-in-law, Jan Harlan, discussed both in the film and in person after the screening (also attended by Christiane Kubrick, Kubrick's widow), how Kubrick had searched for years for the right vehicle with which to deal with the Holocaust on screen. Harlan, a longtime collaborator of Kubrick's, became interested in the work of Isaac Bashevis Singer and showed some of Singer's books to Kubrick, who agreed that Singer would be ideal to script a movie about the Holocaust. In his remarks after the screening, Harlan revealed that Kubrick, who for many years never left England, sent him to New York to try to recruit Singer for their project. Although the Nobel Prize-winning writer received Harlan cordially, once Harlan revealed the nature of his errand, Singer replied, "But I don't know the first thing about it [the Holocaust]."
This reply "was a blow to Kubrick," but the director continued to search for the right Holocaust story to adapt for the screen. Eventually he and Harlan settled on the novel Wartime Lies, by Louis Begley, which deals with European Jews during World War II. Kubrick and Harlan spent over a year developing a screenplay, but gave up after Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List was released, feeling that the Spielberg movie would overshadow their efforts. Kubrick died in 1999, just after his last film, the Tom Cruise/Nicole Kidman drama Eyes Wide Shut, was released.
Harlan and Christiane Kubrick were just two of a large number of distinguished guests at Haifa, which was far more star-studded than this summer's Jerusalem Film Festival. Actor Willem Dafoe and his new bride, Italian director Giada Colagrande, drew admiring glances everywhere they went, although their film, Before It Had a Name, did not get an enthusiastic response. The Belgian directing team, the Dardennes brothers, were even more in demand, as they appeared to promote their latest film, L'Enfant. The drama won the Palme d'Or, the highest honor, at the Cannes Film Festival this year, the second time one of Dardennes' films has received the prize. They were in Israel in 2003 at the Jerusalem Film Festival with their previous film, Le Fils, and what a difference two years makes. In 2003, the pair gave just a handful of interviews, and the screening of Le Fils, while well attended, was hardly sold out. This year, it was standing room only for L'Enfant, and those with no tickets tried to beg their way into the auditorium. The brothers were gracious, giving interviews for eight hours straight, but were too tired from their grueling tour schedule to spend much time seeing Haifa or partying at the festival.
In spite of the inevitable chaos that comes when so many movies are screened in such a short time, audiences were enthusiastic. It's wonderful to see screenings filled by regular movie-goers, not only journalists and friends of the artists. Bringing varied movies to the public is what film festivals are supposed to be all about, and that's what Haifa definitely was.