Sundance in Jerusalem

Programming director of famed US film fest journeys to Israel to chair jury of Sam Spiegel Lab competition

SAM SPIEGEL jury members inaugurate ‘The Jungle of Generosity’ garden in honor of director John Cassavetes.  (photo credit: YOSSI TZVEKER)
SAM SPIEGEL jury members inaugurate ‘The Jungle of Generosity’ garden in honor of director John Cassavetes.
(photo credit: YOSSI TZVEKER)
Kim Yutani – director of programming at the Sundance Film Festival, who was in Jerusalem last week to chair the jury of the Jerusalem Sam Spiegel International Film Lab (JSFL) – kept her cool as the lobby of the Mount Zion Hotel went from being the most tranquil spot in Israel to a playpen for screaming kids in a matter of minutes.
The soft-spoken woman, who is one of the most powerful film-festival executives in the world, remained focused and calm amid the chaos, giving an intimation of how she conducts herself in her demanding job.
Yutani, who has been to Israel several times before as a guest of the Tel Aviv International Student Film Festival, said she attributed her decision to participate in the jury for the JSFL to Renen Schorr, founding director of the JSFL and the Jerusalem Sam Spiegel Film School, and his “powers of persuasion... The reputation of the [JSFL] travels. I was interested in taking part in it.”
She admitted this commitment is “a lot of work, but it’s exciting.” When we spoke, she had read 12 scripts by the Lab participants, but said she would not make up her mind until the pitching event. “While it’s interesting to look at that work, the pitch is a crucial part of the process. I always come to that with an open mind. Listening to the filmmaker is key... A lot of my job is about keeping an open mind. That’s one of the main ways I am able to discover new talent.”
The JSFL takes filmmakers at the beginning of their careers from Israel and around the world and pairs them with leading script mentors for seven months. This year, the 12 projects selected were from Brazil, Ghana, Hungary, Ireland, Poland, Georgia and Israel. A large percentage of movies that have been developed in previous labs have been produced, including Son of Saul by László Nemes, which won the Oscar and the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, as well as the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes in 2016.
Yutani said she saw parallels between the spirit of creativity and multiculturalism at the Lab and the work she does at Sundance, the international film festival in Park City, Utah that was founded by Robert Redford.
“At Sundance,” she explained, “we program as a team, that’s what makes our program strong... Each individual’s voice is heard and that makes for a stronger festival... We have always championed the voices of the outsider, of people of color, and they see Sundance as a home for them.”
YUTANI, WHO grew up in Orange County in a Japanese family, didn’t know or think much about filmmaking when she was in school, but an interest in music eventually led her to a job with indie director Gregg Araki on The Doom Generation. The movie premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 1995.
“I got my taste of what Sundance was, this energy, the new films and filmmakers, the queer new wave,” she recalled. “That was the year that Todd Haynes had the movie, Safe, with Julianne Moore, and The Usual Suspects was also there. It was a transformative experience.”
Her father, an engineer, “instilled in me a sense of taste,” which turned out to be the perfect training for a future festival programmer. She eventually became the programmer for the short films competition at Sundance and then moved on to feature films and is now the director of overall programming for the festival.
She admitted it was sometimes heart-breaking to choose what films to include and to have to turn down heartfelt work. “We get thousands of submissions, just for a single category like World Dramatic Cinema and we can only pick 12. Twelve out of a thousand! It’s so difficult.”
But the other side of that dilemma is the pride she takes when the festival presents a wonderful new film to the public. She mentioned two recent films from the festival – Isabella Eklöf’s crime drama, Holiday, and May el-Toukhy’s Queen of Hearts, a drama of forbidden love that won the Audience Award – as examples of “movies that challenged me and took big risks.”
She said she hoped that the filmmakers of the JSFL would also reach such heights with their films.
The pitching event that she came to judge was held over the weekend and the awards totaling $170,000 were given out in a ceremony on July 7.
The 2019 JSLF first prize in the amount of $50,000 was awarded to Gentle Monster, by writer/directors Anna Nemes and Laszlo Csuja of Hungary. The Jean-Claude Carriere Slow Food Dinner Award was granted to Yehonatan Indursky, one of the creators of the television series, Shtisel, for The Cantonist. The prize is a one-on-one meeting in Paris at the home of the legendary French screenwriter.
Schorr, along with the eight jury members, inaugurated the new name for the school’s unique hanging garden in the Talpiot industrial zone of Jerusalem, dubbing it “The Jungle of Generosity” in honor of director John Cassavetes, “for his inspiring activism for world cinema’s Don Quixotes… and young Israeli filmmakers.”
In addition to Yutani, the jury included Jan Mojto, CEO at Beta Film in Germany; Nadav Lapid, director-writer from Israel; Sharon Harel, distributor and producer at Westend Films in the UK, who also produced Avi Nesher’s Israeli classic, The Troupe, in 1978; Koby Gal Raday, chief content officer at YES Satellite in Israel; Thomas Pibarot, distributor at La Pacte in France; Janine Jackowski, producer at Komplizen Film in Germany; and Nashen Moodley, director of the Sydney Film Festival in Australia.
A new platform initiated by New Mandate Films for advancing projects that take on Jewish and Israeli themes in the amount of $50,000 was awarded to the film Pinhas, by director Pini Tavger and producer Haim Meckelberg. Pinhas won the 2017 JSFL first prize and will begin shooting in August.
This year, for the second time, the JSFL granted the Force-of-Nature in Filmmaking Award to a major cinematic master creator. This year’s recipient was Michael Barker, co-president and co-founder of Sony Pictures Classics, who came to Israel for the first time to accept it.
The key supporters of the JSFL are the Beracha Foundation, Jerusalem Film and Television Fund at the Jerusalem Development Authority, Mifayal Hapayis, Sam Spiegel Foundation, The Jerusalem Foundation, New Mandate Films and ARP Selection France.
Before she had to run off to an event for the JSFL, I asked Yutani what kinds of films she wished she saw more of.
“I like a good comedy,” she said. “I loved Booksmart, a smart teen comedy. And I like movies that really test the limits of what people want to see in movies.