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(photo credit: Courtesy/Warner Bros. International)
As a large, well-dressed crowd circulated on the lawn behind the Haifa Cinematheque at the opening of the 22nd Haifa International Film Festival Saturday night, the only problem was that the vegetable tempura hors d'oeuvres kept running out.
No one could have guessed, looking at this party, that just two months earlier, Haifa had been a war-torn city, pummeled by Katyusha rockets. Although several speakers referred to the war during the festival's opening ceremony, which preceded a screening of Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain, the mood Saturday was not shell-shocked or even defiant, but simply festive. Israeli filmmakers and actors, film industry professionals from around the world and Haifa's own homegrown culture lovers filled the Haifa Cinematheque Auditorium to capacity, chatting away so intently that organizers had to ask audience members to take their seats several times before the event could begin.
This year's festival, which features more than 150 movies from over 40 countries, is sponsored by Stella Artois, and the beer company's sponsorship set the tone Saturday, with model-pretty young women walking around in white blazers advertising the brand.
But for all the good cheer right now, it's a fact that festival artistic director Pnina Blayer and her staff went to heroic lengths to make sure that the show would go on as planned. "This was a different year," Blayer said at the opening, recalling how she held planning meetings in bomb shelters and that members of her staff took calls on their cell phones as they drove to work, rockets falling around them as they went. She thanked Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav for "constantly telling me, 'This festival will happen.'"
Yahav, in his speech, returned the compliment, praising festival organizers and mentioning that buildings had been damaged a block away from the cinematheque during the fighting. He concluded on an upbeat note, telling the audience, "No one can destroy our wonderful city."
The Minister of Science, Culture and Sport, Ophir Paz-Pines, said that during Succot there will be 30 festivals taking place in northern Israel, and he spoke warmly of the film festival as a symbol of peace and openness.
Yehuda (Judd) Ne'eman, a distinguished director, teacher and physician known for his anti-war films and left-wing views, seemed almost puzzled as he accepted the Award for Special Contribution to Israeli Cinema. Saying he had never "shaken hands with the government" before and "now my hand is trembling," Ne'eman appeared particularly surprised to receive the award in the wake of the war. He called for dialogue with Hamas, Hizbullah and Iran.
But perhaps the most startling aspect of the evening was not that the festival opened as planned, but that the audience was able to laugh about the war. Host Moshe Ivgy, one of Israel's leading actors, followed a pretty but headache-inducing multi-media dance performance by welcoming those who had come to see movies, as well as "those of you who just came here while your houses are being repaired."
He went on to say that the war proved "Haifa is not boring, as some people claim. There were missiles. It was cheerful." The remarks were received with laughter and applause.
One difference between this year's and previous festivals was the absence of famous foreign names on the stage. Although film industry professionals from around the globe are attending this year's event, luminaries like last year's guests, who included actor Willem Dafoe and director Theo Angelopoulos, were absent from the stage. British director Ken Loach, who was invited, dealt the festival a blow in a place even Hizbullah couldn't reach in August when he announced his decision to boycott Haifa and all cultural events in Israel and urged others to join him in doing so. It's hard to know how many were influenced by his arrogant and misguided attitude, which will actually do significant harm to Palestinian directors - whose work has long and tirelessly been promoted by the Haifa International Film Festival - and how many foreigners were simply too scared by the prospect of renewed fighting to attend. But Loach's name was not uttered at all on opening night.
The audience was divided over Aronofsky's The Fountain, which stars the director's Oscar-winning fianc e, Rachel Weisz (The Constant Gardener), and Hugh Jackman, the rare actor who looks better totally bald than he does with hair.
Called "the year's trippiest film" by Premiere, the movie combines the story of a neuroscientist (Jackman) frantically trying to save his dying wife (Weisz), a plot about a 16th-century Spanish queen sending a conquistador to find the Tree of Life in the Americas, and a science-fiction tale that involved the bald Jackman floating in the lotus position in what looked like a child's snow globe. There were walkouts - one woman called it "a student film with a $40 million budget" - but others praised The Fountain as a masterpiece.
In the end, the lack of foreign talent on the opening-night stage mattered less than ever. The Israeli film industry has come of age and, as the Haifa International Film Festival will no doubt prove all week, it can now generate excitement on its own.