Hollywood's mission to Israel

US delegations of film industry elite are beginning to make annual trips here in an effort to put Israel's human face in the frame.

'It's almost like a birthright trip" for movie industry professionals, says David Lonner, co-head of the Motion Picture Department at the William Morris Agency. He's talking over breakfast at the Montefiore Restaurant in Jerusalem on a brief break from trip he has organized for a distinguished delegation of film-industry elite. The group includes Davis Guggenheim, the director of An Inconvenient Truth, the Oscar-winning film inspired by Al Gore's campaign to alert Americans to the menace of global warming; Amy Pascal, chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment Motion Picture Group; producer and executive Nina Jacobson; Donald De Line, former president of Paramount and producer of the upcoming, The Brazilian Job; Brad Silberling, director of Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events; Bernard Weinraub of The New York Times; and George Freeman, an agent who represents, among others, Russell Crowe. The trip was sponsored by the Los Angeles Jewish Federation. Lonner, who has always felt a strong connection to Israel since he celebrated his bar-mitzva here, organized the first such trip last year, in the wake of the Second Lebanon War. "In the Hollywood community, there's a sense of apathy about Israel, more out of ignorance than anything else. I wanted to raise the awareness of the people I work with of what Israel really is. And in a very selfish way, there's nothing I like better than spending time in Israel," he says. "I got to bring over the greatest group of people. I wanted them to have more of a human experience than a political experience." Producer Nina Jacobson, who as head of Buena Vista Pictures oversaw such movies as the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise and The Chronicles of Narnia, called the trip, "Israel on speed," referring to the packed five-day schedule, but said that she had learned a lot and hoped to return with her children. Both she and Lonner said that they felt many of their colleagues were simply afraid to visit and they hoped they would be able to present a more flattering image of this country once they return to Los Angeles. Says Jacobson, "If you're reading the L.A. Times or The New York Times and you're reading a story about Israel, it's not a peace story." Lonner and Jacobson described being fascinated by much of what they've seen in Israel, including a visit to the Rogozin School in Tel Aviv that integrates Israelis, children of foreign workers and, most recently, refugee children from the Sudan. They also gave high marks to a talk by Knesset Education Committee head, MK Michael Melchior. "He had a sense of spiritual purpose that transcends politics," says Lonner, who always makes time while in Israel to study at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem with Rabbi Danny Landes. But movies are always part of the program with a group like this, and last Saturday they hosted a panel at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque that was open to the public. The group watched clips from such recent Israeli films as The Band's Visit, Beaufort and Sweet Mud. For many, this was their first contact with the renaissance of Israeli film over the last few years. "I definitely want to see more Israeli movies now," says Jacobson. She noted that when the audience at the panel (mostly aspiring filmmakers), asked questions, "It was exactly like a panel anywhere else. They wanted to know, 'How can I get my work seen? How can I get my script read? How can I get my movie made?'" Lonner, who recruited the Israeli directors Gidi Dar (Ushpizin) and Nadav Schirman (The Champagne Spy) on his previous trip, told the wannabes that, "Quality does rise to the top," but cautioned that, "there's no magic door." Lonner is excited by "the transformation of Israeli film" and how filmmakers have focused on "the humanistic experience. That's the thrust of how Israeli filmmakers have recalibrated their craft and put Israeli cinema where it can be noticed on a more global scale." But as breakfast winds down, the group is getting ready for what promises to be a memorable last day: a visit to Pardes and trips to the Old City and Yad Vashem. Lonner promises he'll be back soon, with more of his friends and colleagues. "My dream is to be able to visit four times a year."