A friendly, unassuming group stopped by the King David Hotel in Jerusalem on Wednesday night to have dinner with Tourism Minister Isaac Herzog and a group of Israeli professionals. Nothing unusual about that, except that this group was the Canadian delegation to the 23rd Jerusalem Film Festival, and included some of the world's most distinguished directors, actors and producers.
The delegation, which will be present at screenings, panels and press conferences, includes Festival Achievement Award winners director Atom Egoyan and producer Robert Lantos. Among Egoyan's best-known films are Exotica, the Oscar-nominated The Sweet Hereafter, and Ararat, which will be screened at the festival. Lantos has produced most of Egoyan's films, as well as dozens of others, including Sunshine and the Oscar-nominated Being Julia. Both Egoyan and Lantos are longtime supporters of the Jerusalem Film Festival, and festival founder and director Lia van Leer, who attended the dinner, spoke effusively about their generosity over the years, praising Egoyan for donating one of his first films, Family Viewing, to the archives of the Jerusalem Cinematheque after he presented it at the 1988 film festival.
The Hungarian-born Lantos, who has lived and worked in Canada for over 40 years, spoke of how he first fell in love with Israel when he visited the country with the Canadian Maccabiah team in 1969 (he played on the water polo team). "This group of Canadian filmmakers wanted to see the reality of Israel today," he said.
Another delegation member, director Patricia Rozema (I've Heard the Mermaids Singing and Mansfield Park, which will be screened at the festival), was already enthusiastic about Jerusalem stone architecture, and said she was eager to go on a scheduled walking tour of the Old City.
Egoyan, who was born to an Armenian family in Cairo but was raised in Canada, chatted about how he enjoys making contact with the Armenian community here. He reminisced about meeting a Canadian from his hometown on his last visit here, and asked questions about the Israeli film industry as if he were a casual visitor and not one of the world's most celebrated directors. His wife, actress Arsinee Khanjian, who has appeared in most of his films and works frequently these days in France, joked about getting a place card with her son's name instead of her own.
Documentary filmmaker Simha Jacobovici, who became religious late in his life and served in the artillery corps of the Israel Defense Forces, introduced his five children and his wife proudly. His latest documentary, The Exodus Decoded, an innovative look at the Bible, was made with the assistance of Titanic director James Cameron and will also be shown at the festival.
Actress Marie-Josee Croze smiled shyly when she was introduced, knowing that most Israelis last saw her as a femme fatale involved in the assassination of an Israeli intelligence officer in Steven Spielberg's Munich. The actress seemed relieved that at least one dinner guest also recognized her from her charming comic turn in the French film Mensonges et Trahisons, as well as from her performance in The Barbarian Invasions, which won her the best actress award at Cannes. Director/actor Paul Gross, who made the comic Men With Brooms, one of the biggest box office hits in Canadian history, stood up and let his dessert melt so that he could pose for photographs.
No one mentioned the one member of the delegation who dropped out at the last moment, Sex and the City actress Kim Cattrall. They were all far too gracious for that, and too busy thanking their hosts and asking questions about Israel.
But don't say Canadians don't know how to have fun. Although they had arrived in Israel just a few hours before the dinner and were scheduled for a long walking tour the next day, after the Israeli guests departed, quite a few of the Canadians made their way to the hotel bar, where they had a couple of drinks and watched a little World Cup soccer.