Vying from Venice to Toronto

Israeli films will play a significant part in the fall film festival season

natalie portman311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
natalie portman311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Nowhere will the Israeli presence be more front and center than at the Toronto International Film Festival, which began on September 9 and runs through the 19th. Two films that are nominated for Ophir Awards here – the prizes of the Israel Academy for Film and Television – will be facing off there as well: Avi Nesher’s The Matchmaker (previously known as Once IWas) and Eran Ricklis’s The Human Resources Manager. Both will be shown in Toronto as part of the ContemporaryWorld Cinema program, which features more than 50 films from around the world, including new works by such celebrated directors as TomTywker (Three) and Bent Hamer (Home for Christmas). Both Nesher’s and Ricklis’s films offer portraits of Israeli society that are not overtly political. Both directors have had success at home, as well as abroad – Nesher for Turn Left at the End of the World and The Secrets; Ricklis for The Syrian Bride and Lemon Tree.
Nesher will also be teaching in the LaboratoryWorkshop program at the Toronto festival, where he will work with 26 young filmmakers. Previous teachers in this workshop have included Terry Gilliam and the Dardenne brothers.
Shlomi Eldar’s documentary Precious Life, about an attempt to help a Palestinian cancer victim get treatment in Israel and the complex repercussions of that decision, will be shown at Toronto in the Real to Reel documentary category. Precious Life was sold to HBO and will be shown in the US. It was also presented at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado, which ended three days ago.
It’s now been a year since Toronto presented a week of films from Tel Aviv, marking that city’s centennial, a move that prompted calls for them to cancel this program by a group of self-styled activists, including Danny Glover and Jane Fonda. The programmers refused to cave in, and the films were well attended (with many screenings sold out), no doubt partly due to the publicity that came from the call not to show them. It’s notable that this year again, Israeli movies have a prominent place at this festival, one of the world’s largest and one that is very important for filmmakers who want North American distribution for their films (and who doesn’t?).
Oddly, an English-language remake of an Israeli film, The Debt, is also debuting at Toronto.
Directed by John Madden (Shakespeare in Love), it stars Helen Mirren in a role originally played by Gila Almagor. The Israeli version, which was not a success here, told an unconvincing tale of three Mossad agents who kidnap a Nazi doctor hiding out in Germany in the 1960s, then let him escape. When he turns up in an old people’s home years later, they plot to kill him. The original drew giggles at the wrong moments, but maybe the British can do a better job.
An Israeli film, Samuel Maoz’s Lebanon, won the Venice International Film Festival last year, and this year Maoz is serving on one of the festival juries.
The Venice festival, which is on now and runs until September 11, features the Israeli film Naomi, directed by Eitan Zur. It tells the story of a professor who discovers his wife is having an affair.
Venice will also feature Julian Schnabel’s Miral, which has already generated buzz and controversy. The film, which is also showing at Toronto, is based on the true stories of several women at an orphanage for Palestinian girls after 1948. Freida Pinto, the star of Slumdog Millionaire, stars in it and filmed part of it in east Jerusalem. Israeli-Arab actress Hiam Abbass plays the founder of the orphanage.
Israeli-born actress Natalie Portman figures prominently in US director Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, which opened the Venice film festival and is also showing at Toronto.
Described as a psychological thriller, it tells the story of a ballet dancer obsessed with playing the lead in Swan Lake. The film has drawn mixed reviews, but Aronofsky’s The Wrestler with Mickey Rourke won top prize at the Venice Film Festival in 2008, so who knows?