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It's always a pleasant surprise when an Israeli movie wins a major award at an international film festival, but maybe it shouldn't be anymore. With the win at the Tribeca Film Festival for David Volach's My Father, My Lord, which was awarded the top prize for feature films, Israeli movies have taken top prizes at every major festival so far in 2007. (It's interesting that My Father, My Lord, which played at the Haifa Film Festival last fall, did not win the Israeli Feature Film Prize there).
Dror Shaul's Sweet Mud won for Best World Feature at Sundance and Joseph Cedar was awarded the Best Director Prize for Beaufort at Berlin. Israeli films have undergone a wonderfully pleasing renaissance over the past five or so years and have won prizes in the past, but never so many important ones in such rapid succession as this year.
Why now? Maybe it takes a couple of years for the world to catch up when a country's film industry suddenly transforms itself, as Israel's has, in terms of quality and quantity. 2004 is when both Israelis and audiences around the world awakened to the new Israeli cinema. Hopes were high that Joseph Cedar's original drama about a family of religious nationalists who plan to move to the West Bank, Campfire, which took the Ophir Award (the Israeli Oscar) for Best Picture in the first year that there was ever real competition, would be nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, but it wasn't. Because of problems with funding the following year, much fewer films were made and most weren't very good. Israeli films occasionally won awards, but not as much as you would have expected after the promise of 2004.
Clearly, though, they're enjoying a comeback on the international scene.
The three recent prizewinners are very different from each other. Sweet Mud is a coming-of-age drama set on a kibbutz in the Seventies; Beaufort is a hard-hitting film about the withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000; and My Father, My Lord tells the story of a troubled ultra-Orthodox family preparing for a vacation. The only common strand among them is that highly critical festival juries have been moved by them. This is certainly not the year when you would have expected Israel to enjoy success in any competitive international forum, and it's likely these movies are not winning because they are Israeli, but in spite of it. It's important to point out that none of these movies are political diatribes, and they did not win by appealing to politically correct anti-Israel sensibilities. Beaufort, the most political of the three, has actually won praise from reviewers and commentators on both ends of the political spectrum.
During International Book Week this year, I attended a dinner sponsored by Toby Press, in which a discussion took place as to why Israeli books have had relatively little success in England and America in recent years. There, Toby founder and director Matthew Miller suggested to Israeli authors that there is only one way to garner attention abroad. The answer, he said, lies not in being more or less political or more or less religiously oriented. It is simply to write excellent literature, works so good that the world cannot ignore them. It's clear that Israeli directors have already figured this out for themselves.
THE JERUSALEM AND HAIFA Cinematheques are featuring special programs to mark Jerusalem Day.
The organization Ir-Amim is co-sponsoring these evenings, which feature a discussion among various academics and authors and then the screenings of several films. These include Yigal Hecht's new documentary Streets of Jerusalem, a movie about the hardships faced by 10 city residents; and Ari Sandel's comic short musical "West Bank Story," which won the Oscar this year for Best Dramatic Short. Two movies by Daniel Rosenberg will be shown as well, Don Quixote in Jerusalem (2005), a comic imagining of a visit by the Don to contemporary Israel; and The Red Toy (2004), the story of a Palestinian boy who loses a toy in Jerusalem's Old City. The program will be held in Jerusalem on Sunday at 7 p.m. and in Haifa on Tuesday at 6 p.m.