The Holy Land in Hollywood

Now in its 25th year, the Israel Film Festival has become a leading cultural organization, providing a platform for blue-and-white films and filmmakers in the US.

Israel Film Festival winners 311 (photo credit: Sylvain Gaboury)
Israel Film Festival winners 311
(photo credit: Sylvain Gaboury)
A few days before Israel celebrated its 63rd Independence Day, Israeli and American film industry icons gathered in New York to celebrate another Israeli milestone – the silver anniversary of the Israel Film Festival (IFF).
Over the years, the festival has premiered more than 900 Israeli films in New York, Los Angeles and Miami and has honored Israeli and American film industry greats such as Kirk Douglas, Sidney Lumet, Avi Nesher, Menahem Golan and Gila Almagor.
“When we did the first festival years ago, I never thought in my wildest dreams that it would continue for 25 years,” the IFF’s founder and executive director Meir Fenigstein told The Jerusalem Post.
“I thought it would be something I’d do for a year or two and that’s it. And 25 years later, I feel like we’ve reached a peak. To have this be my life achievement, it’s a real fulfillment.”
Fenigstein, who was once known as “Poogy” when he was part of famous Israeli rock band Kaveret in the 1970s, came up with the idea for the film festival in the early 1980s while he was a student at Boston’s Berklee College of Music.
“I came to study music, but after a little while I found myself wanting to produce,” he said.
The former Kaveret member channeled his artistic energy into the Israel Film Festival, which debuted in Boston in 1982, featuring six Israeli films in four days.
After garnering praise in Boston, Fenigstein decided to take his chances in New York. Following three more successful festivals there, the IFF tried to make to make it in Hollywood and, evidently, it did.
“We’re now doing three festivals a year [the IFF was brought to Miami after its 15th anniversary], and today we showcase about 30 films in two weeks at each festival,” he said.
Looking back on the festivals, Fenigstein said, “I think I did something that’s important for Israel, for Israeli filmmakers and for myself. I wanted to do something that is meaningful, something through which I could connect to an audience. It’s sort of like a performance, like a continuation of what I did before. I was in Kaveret because I wanted to perform before audiences, and when I see a sold-out film at the festival, with an audience of 400 people enjoying the movie, it feels good.”
TWENTY-FIVE YEARS later, Fenigstein’s festivals continue to shine. On the occasion of the 25th Israel Film Festival’s opening gala in New York last week, a slew of stars gathered at the Plaza Hotel to show their support for the IFF and the Israeli film industry. Among them were Kirk Simon and Karen Goodman, the directors of the Oscar-winning documentary Strangers No More; Israeli actress Orly Silbersatz, who starred in the festival’s opening night film Intimate Grammar; Shlomi Eldar, director of the Israeli documentary Precious Life; Adam Sanderson, who directed the Israeli comedy This Is Sodom; American actress and playwright Tovah Feldshuh; and Israeli Consul-General in New York Ido Aharoni.
This year’s honorees included renowned actor Liev Schrieber; legendary director of Singin’ in the Rain, Stanley Donen; and venerated Israeli filmmaker Micha Shagrir. Schrieber was presented with the IFF Achievement in Film Award by his partner, actress Naomi Watts. He told the Post in an e-mail that “It was truly an honor to be recognized alongside Stanley Donen and Micha Shagrir” and he hopes “the IFF continues to grow and flourish.”
During the gala, the Defiance actor and director of Everything Is Illuminated said, “Upon hearing I was being given this honor, I did what every good Jewish boy would do – I called my mother.”
But it was Watts’s comments that Fenigstein said “moved the audience to tears.”
“Liev cares about a lot things, and Israel is one of them,” Watts said at the event.
“We had the good fortune of going there a couple of years ago. This is a man who cares about where he came from and the roots of who he is, and to share that experience with him was a great pleasure. He is a true talent. I could go on and on and be here all night speaking about this man who is my partner in crime and the father of my children. He is a wonderful human being.”
Other IFF honors went to Stanley Donen, who received the 2011 Lifetime Achievement Award, and Micha Shagrir, who was given the Cinematic Achievement Award.
“Donen is a very moving man and an American icon,” Fenigstein said.
In 1998, the 87-year-old filmmaker was granted an honorary Academy Award for his contribution to the American film industry after directing and choreographing more than 30 films.
On Micha Shagrir, Fenigstein said, “He’s been making movies for over 40 years. He’s a legend in the Israeli film industry. He was a natural fit for this event, and we’re paying homage to his films during the festival.”
Honoring these two respected filmmakers, Fenigstein said, “is a way to connect between film industry icons in Israel and America.”
Indeed, “connect” is a key word for Fenigstein, who sees the festival as a way for filmmakers to reach audiences and collaborate with the film industry in the US. The honorees, guests and moviegoers who go to the festival are those “who come to support the Israeli filmmaker, to support culture,” the IFF director explained.
“And that’s what we do. It’s all about the film community. Everyone knows there are problems in Israel today. Not everyone wants to go to Israel. But the people who come to the festival are not making a political statement. We’re not a political entity. We are facilitating a cultural exchange between Israel and the US through the powerful medium of films.”
Asked what’s in store for the IFF in the future, Fenigstein said he’d like the festival to continue growing by showcasing more Israeli films and by giving more opportunities to young Israeli filmmakers to have their work be known in the US.
“I think it’s very exciting for young filmmakers. I want to give them the encouragement to make more movies,” he said.
The IFF director also wants to take US-Israel film cooperation to another level.
“I would like to work on an initiative in the next couple of years to develop co-production of Israeli films between the US and Israel or between Europe, Israel, and the US,” he said.
Fenigstein hopes that that by bringing more co-production to Israel, the rest of the world will see a country worth visiting through the films shot there.
“We have to show people Jerusalem and other cities through these films. Then maybe they will get excited and they’ll come visit from all over the world.”