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'Hollywood is small compared to us," said a woman at the opening of the 23rd Jerusalem Film Festival, as thousands of viewers at the Sultan's Pool Amphitheater watched an elaborate fireworks display set off after actress Debra Winger, a festival guest and a juror this year, spoke the magic words: "I declare the Jerusalem Film Festival open."
For the first time in the festival's history, the year's opening film, Someone to Run With, was a local product, but that was not the only moving aspect of opening night. While Winger and her fellow festival guest, actor Jeff Goldblum (The Big Chill, Jurassic Park, Independence Day) drew the lion's share of paparazzi attention, other guests who have made important contributions to cinema in general and to this festival in particular were given their due.
Hungarian-born, Uruguay-raised producer Robert Lantos, currently a resident of Canada who was here heading the Canadian delegation, was visibly moved as he received an Achievement Award from festival (and Jerusalem Cinematheque) founder and director Lia van Leer. "This honor means more to me than any other," said Lantos, whose films have won prizes all over the world, including at Cannes.
Cairo-born Canadian director Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter), also an Achievement Award winner, said, speaking for himself and his wife, actress Arsinee Khanjian (who are both of Armenian descent): "As Armenians, we look at this country as a model of what a people united in destiny" can accomplish and that, as Canadians, they look at Israel in friendship.
Van Leer, who has always intended the festival to be, among other things, a showcase for Israeli films, also presented an Achievement Award to Israeli actor/director Eli Cohen (The Summer of Aviya, Ricochets). Cohen was understandably moved at receiving the honor from Van Leer, and told how, as a soldier many years ago, he would hitchhike from his base to Haifa to see movies at the Quality Movie Club, which Van Leer and her late husband Wim van Leer founded to bring the best of world cinema to Israel. The club was the nucleus for what later became the Haifa Cinematheque. Van Leer then went on to found the cinematheques in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
Inevitably and appropriately, given the fact that the municipality and the national government help sponsor the festival (through arts grants to filmmakers and other assistance), politicians gave speeches. Ofir Paz-Pines, minister of science, technology, culture and sport, said that although there are now many film festivals around the country, "this is the festival."
The one speaker who came close to putting her foot in her mouth, Education Minister Yuli Tamir, said that in Jerusalem, people usually feel far from the center of culture, but not during the Jerusalem Film Festival - an observation that many would surely dispute. But she was received with gracious applause nonetheless. Deputy Mayor Yigal Amedi praised Oded Davidoff, director of Someone to Run With, as a native son of the city who made good.
As always, the atmosphere at the opening was festive, in spite of the tense political situation and Van Leer's own concern about it. Van Leer, in a brief address, spoke of her hope that, "through movies, we can understand the world.... Perhaps make a better world." She broke off quickly, saying, "I don't want to preach to anyone."
A year ago, the festival opening took place on the very day of the bombings in London's Underground, and many guests, particularly Sir David Puttnam, referred to this event. This year, only Jeff Goldblum mentioned the captivity of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit in Gaza, saying that he hoped Shalit would be released soon. He also spoke of his excitement at being in Israel for the first time.
After Winger made her announcement, Someone to Run With played on the huge screen. If not a masterpiece, it was definitely an appropriate choice to open the festival, since most of it was filmed within a kilometer of the Jerusalem Cinematheque. Viewers nudged each other as familiar locations were shown (large portions took place in and around the Ben Yehuda Pedestrian Mall, the old Palace Hotel and Sima steakhouse on Agrippas Street). When David Grossman, author of the book on which the movie was based, strolled by in one scene, the audience burst into applause.
It was a touching moment in an evening which saw Jerusalem at its best.