Israeli film makes splash on the Riviera

Shira Geffen and Etgar Keret win one of the top prizes at the Cannes Film Festival.

canne festival 88 298 (photo credit: AP)
canne festival 88 298
(photo credit: AP)
The closing night at the Cannes Film Festival was a momentous one for Israel. Filmmakers Shira Geffen and her husband Etgar Keret (better known for his prolific career as a novelist) were awarded one of Cannes' top prizes, the Camera D'Or. The prize is given to the best feature film produced by a first time filmmaker. With over 30 films contending in the category, the competition was steep. "We really didn't think we would win," Geffen said in a radio interview Monday morning. "We had our bags packed and we were practically on our way to the airport [before we found out]." When the couple did discover their film won the award, they could barely contain their disbelief. "Actually, they told us to write down everything, but it's too exciting to read it," Keret said from the stage. "Everything here is so far from our lives. I haven't worn a suit since my bar mitzvah. Thank you very much, my strong wife." Entitled Meduzot, or Jellyfish, the film tells the intertwining stories of three women who live near the beach in Tel Aviv. Geffen wrote the script and Keret co-directed. "It was the product of four years of work," Geffen said following the win. In an interview with Army Radio, Keret explained why he felt his film was such a long shot for the coveted prize. "Generally, the judges are very political and extreme. There were 33 other films, and ours was an urban fairy tale without any outstanding characteristic. The judges spoke with us after the film and were happy to tell us they saw something different in our film - real people, not items from CNN. It seems to have worked in our favor." Meduzot also garnered other smaller awards at the festival, including a French Actor's Union award. Though Geffen and Keret haven't formulated their future filmmaking plans yet, they will be off to a good start with the prestige of the prize behind them and a 50,000 euro grant from the festival. The festival also allocated 160,000 euro toward the promotion of Meduzot in France. Israeli director Keren Yedaya was the last Israeli to win in the Camera d'Or category, in 2004, with Or. Eran Kolirin's Orchestra Visit, which stars Sasson Gabai and Ronit Elkabetz, also won two minor awards in Cannes this year. Indeed this year has proven truly remarkable for Israeli filmmakers. An Israeli won a major award at nearly every major international film festival. At Berlin's festival, Joseph Cedar won the coveted Golden Bear for his direction of Beaufort. David Volach won the top prize for feature films at Tribeca's Film Festival with My Father, My Lord, and Dror Shaul's Sweet Mud won for Best World Feature at Sundance. The Israeli film industry is transforming itself in terms of quality and quantity, and the world seems to be taking notice. AS FOR Cannes, it is one of the most prestigious festivals in the world, as evidenced by the A-listers who turned out in full force this year to promote their films, many of which were not even up for competition. George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon and Don Cheadle used their Ocean's Thirteen screening and a benefit to raise more than $8 million (with a $1 million donation from Steven Spielberg) to aid victims of the genocide in Darfur. Pitt, who also co-produced A Mighty Heart featuring his partner Angelina Jolie, also made appearances to promote that film, which recounts the murder of American-Jewish reporter Daniel Pearl by Al Qaeda terrorists and the strength of his widow, Mariane. While last year's Cannes helped to launch Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, 2007 will likely go down as the year of Sicko, Michael Moore's latest polemic on the current health-care crisis in the U.S. Other films that took awards this year included Japanese director Naomi Kawase's Mogari No Mori (The Mourning Forest), which took the festival's grand prize, the second-highest award, in a surprise. The film is about two people - a retirement home resident and a caretaker at the center - struggling to overcome the deaths of loved ones. The prize for best director went to American Julian Schnabel for his French-language film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and the jury awarded a special prize to director Gus Van Sant for his impressionistic Paranoid Park. Two films shared the jury prize: Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi's moving and humorous adaptation of her graphic novels about growing up during and after Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution, which she co-directed with Vincent Paronnaud; and Stellet Licht (Silent Light), Carlos Reygadas' tale of forbidden love set among Mennonite farmers of northern Mexico. The festival's top prize, the Palmes D'Or, went to a harrowing film about illegal abortion in Communist-era Romania, beating out 21 movies by well-known directors such as Quentin Tarantino, Ethan and Joel Coen, and Wong Kar-wai. It also beat out Israeli contender Tehilim from French director Raphael Nadjari. The French/Israeli co-production, shot in Israel in Hebrew, stars Michael Moshonov, Sasson Gabai, and Ronit Elkabetz. The winning Romanian film, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, depicts the horrors a student goes through to ensure her friend can have a secret abortion. Director Cristian Mungui is the first Romanian to win the festival's top prize and said he didn't even have enough money to shoot the film just six months ago. He hoped the win would inspire other "small filmmakers from small countries." Israel's winners could easily say the same. AP contributed to this report.