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At the November 30 opening night gala of the 21st annual Israel Film Festival, the Beverly Hills-based Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences building busted at its seams with a cacophony of Spanish, Tagalog, Chinese, English and, of course, Hebrew chatter. "I had no idea there were Filipinos in Israel," commented Richard Carter, a 20-something Detroit-born actor while sampling the kosher sushi hors d'oeuvres at the reception following the festival debut film, What a Wonderful Place, Israel's official entry in the 2005 Academy Awards Best Foreign Film category. "Was the story really true?"
The truth is, when most Americans (Jews included) conjure up thirty-second impressions of Israel, images of the Kotel, Jerusalem, and the bloody aftermaths of terrorist attacks come to mind. This year's Israel Film Festival, which, according to public relations rep Daniel Bernstein is the largest showcase of Israeli films in the U.S., inadvertently attempts to change all that. Its roster of movies deals with such universal themes as unemployment, poverty, infertility, suicide, obesity, adultery and adolescent sexual awakening. It's a different sort of Israel tossed up on the silver screen, one not revolving around religion or international politics or proposed peace treaties.
"There's something so universal about it," said Eyal Halfon, the writer/director of What a Wonderful Place, a sobering and sympathetic expos on cross-cultural class struggle in the Arava Desert, a community saddled with mass numbers of foreign workers and illegal immigrants struggling to assimilate into Israel society as they do everything from hooking to gambling to scrape together cash.
Like the riot situation in southern France and spiking unemployment rates in urban center across the United States, Wonderful Place provides a look at a side of Israel forgotten amidst the favored news coverage of bombs and shifting party politics.
"People know about the Arabs," continues Halfon over a bottomless cup of coffee at Los Angeles' luxe landmark Roosevelt Hotel. "They know about violence. What Americans don't know is that there are 160,000 Filipinos in Israel; there are about 4,000 Thai workers on moshavim; there are about 400,000 immigrant workers in the country. It's come to extreme, like everything in Israel. What's going on in this film is completely new to them."
Exciting to the film's producer, Assaf Amir (Afula Express, Riki Riki) is the notion that Wonderful Place (the title is intentionally ironic) might ultimately act as positive PR for Israel. "It's very heavy," says Amir of the film's focus on Israel's economic despair, "but what's good about it is that it shows how Israel has the same problems as everyone else. We're normal."
The films' depictions of the "normal" side of Israeli life is keeping the festival's annual tally of 50,000 filmgoers jumping in the ticket line for more. And while Israelis can certainly be heard snapping shut their cell phones amidst festival film opening credits, 50% of those in attendance every year are American cinema enthusiasts.
"The film was completely, unexpectedly good," admits Paulina Mason, a white, 32 year-old non-practicing Catholic girl exiting a screening of director Avi Nesher's Turn Left at the End of the World, one of Israel's most critically-acclaimed successes and a 2004 box-office smash. The film once again explores the immigrant theme, following two young teenage girls-one from India, the other from Morocco-coming of age in a tiny Israeli village during the late 60's at the height of the sexual revolution as they embark on season of ethnic, intellectual and sexual discovery. "This was my story," she says, her mouth pulling at the corners into a smile, "and I'm from Vermont."
Not that Israeli cinema is above artistic criticism. "I had some problems with it," said one festival attendee of the generally low production value among the batch of films. "Some of them felt like student shorts."
In addition, Free Zone, the highly anticipated yet disjointed and disengaging Natalie Portman vehicle directed by Amos Gittai, left the American audience wishing that it had been, well, free. Though leading actress Hana Laszlo swept up a Palm D'or at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival for her portrayal of an Israeli woman steering a cab to Jordan to collect cash owed her husband, Americans simply couldn't relate.
"It's justâ€¦boring," says Jaclyn Lafevre, a rabbinical student in Los Angeles. Even hunky Israeli thesp Aki Avni, who played opposite Portman in the film, uttered his dumbfounded disappointment in the project: "How does a film get so messed up with so much talent involved?"
Despite a relatively unexciting year in Israeli film, much talent abound. And this year's Israeli Film Festival offers above all, a cross-cultural examination of the country's much overlooked hodgepodge diversity.
For more information on the Israel Film Festival, which runs in Los Angeles until December 15 and then tours New York and Miami through March 29, 2006, go to:
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