Jerusalem Film Festival Diaries

The 25th Jerusalem Film Festival is history, but it was one of the most memorable.

The 25th Jerusalem Film Festival is history, but it was one of the most memorable. Like many of the critics, I saw as many films as I could but barely viewed 10 percent of everything that was shown. When I look back on it, I will remember listening to John Malkovich after watching Being John Malkovich; Israeli actor Pini Tavger's short film Pinhas, a powerful story of a lonely Russian boy who is drawn to his Orthodox neighbors; The Heart of Jenin, a documentary about a Jenin father whose son was killed by IDF fire and who donated his son's organs, which went to children who were Druze, Beduin and ultra-Orthodox; two documentaries about Antarctica, one by Wim Wenders and one by Anne Aghion, which were perfect viewing on sweltering days; trying to understand what David Mamet was getting at in the fascinating but maddening martial-arts film, Redbelt; suffering through the much-anticipated Synedoche, New York, the directorial debut of maverick screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, a film that started strong and then gradually deteriorated from being to nothingness - and much more. But, if I had to choose, the absolute highlight was a panel of Israeli filmmakers who worked on their movies at the Sundance Institute Workshops, together with some of their former Sundance mentor/instructors who were guests of the festival. The day opened with a heartfelt (and, I'm sure, much appreciated) plea from senior Sundance programmer Caroline Libresco, who invited Israeli filmmakers to apply to the Sundance workshops. The Israelis were Dror Shaul, in many ways the poster boy for Sundance, since he developed his film, Sweet Mud, a semi-autobiographical story of a boy with a mentally ill mother growing up on a kibbutz, at the Sundance workshop, then went on to win the World Drama Prize at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. Etgar Keret, who is best known as a fiction writer, also studied at Sundance. He has had an eclectic film career, co-directing the movie Jellyfish with his wife, Shira Geffen, for which they won the Camera d'Or prize at Cannes. The Sundance teachers were Ron Nyswaner, who has written such screenplays as Philadelphia; and Tom Rickman, who wrote the script for Coal Miner's Daughter, among many others. Boaz Yakin, an American director whose latest film, Death in Love, was shown at the festival, has made several other films, including A Price Above Rubies. He now teaches at Sundance and was also a student there. In two separate panels, they discussed everything from the political correctness which is omnipresent at Sundance (Shaul said that when he smoked at Sundance, "even the trees looked at you funny" and Yakin recalled one time when he was an instructor, saying, "I don't care if this filmmaker is a black, Jewish, lesbian Apache with AIDS, these two shots don't cut together"), to screenwriting tools (Keret recommended a book called Making a Good Script Great and Yakin warned writers about relying too heavily on screenwriting software) to learning how to bring characters to life (Nyswaner said he writes timelines for his characters and recommended writing from the point of view of "self-deluded characters"). Keret talked about being an "advocate" for even the most unlikable characters and told a hilarious story about teaching a film course in a prison to convicts who identified with Clint Eastwood in the Dirty Harry movies. It was interesting to see the different approaches these writers took. For example, Rickman said it is only after the first draft that he feels "you've figured out the story," and quoted the saying, "You never finish rewriting, you just run out of time." But Yakin and some of the others said they did most of their work with the first draft. Nyswaner pointed out some of the realities of the business, noting that most screenwriters in Hollywood, himself included, have a shelf of unproduced screenplays in their homes. Perhaps Shaul best pinned down the value of the Sundance workshops to young filmmakers when he noted, "They let you fall. This is the place to make mistakes so you don't make them in the real world."