Cinema South Festival takes off in Sderot

Of late, there has been a surge of popularity in such outdoor entertainment facilities around the globe, due to COVID-19 and social distancing constraints, including over here.

NAOMI POLANI is the subject of Maayan Schwartz’s ‘Acting Weak.’ (photo credit: MAAYAN SCHWARTZ)
NAOMI POLANI is the subject of Maayan Schwartz’s ‘Acting Weak.’
(photo credit: MAAYAN SCHWARTZ)
On the plus side of the pandemic fallout – these days, one really must cling on to any positives, perceived or actual – there have been some delightful throwbacks to earlier forms of entertainment. Drive-in cinemas were all the rage in the US, from the late 1940s through until the sixties, and there was even one in north Tel Aviv, near Expo Tel Aviv, which operated from the early 1970s to 2000.
Of late, there has been a surge of popularity in such outdoor entertainment facilities around the globe, due to COVID-19 and social distancing constraints, including over here. On Wednesday evening, Sderot will join the al fresco cinematic bandwagon when it kicks off the 19th edition of the annual Cinema South Festival, due to run through to September 17.
So, from this evening we can all settle down in our car seats – or on our sofas at home for the online screenings – and enjoy a variegated program of documentary and feature-based creations, with the programmatic accent largely on the former.
The home-based works, of which there are many, predominantly emanate from the local Sapir Academic College and, more specifically, the institution’s School of Audio and Visual Arts. Artistic director and college teacher Michal Lavi has put together an intriguing agenda of filmic endeavor, with outdoor screenings due to take place – fluctuating Purple Badge directives permitting – in an ad hoc drive-in cinema constructed in the college parking lot.
Lavi is clearly an inquisitive soul, and is happy to venture into predominantly uncharted waters. That comes across in her choice to incorporate a Haredi Focus section in the festival lineup.
The ultra-Orthodox-themed offerings include half a dozen movies that take in a surprisingly broad sweep of topics and story lines. Dina Perlstein is in the mix with her full-length feature Pillars of Smoke, which relates a Kafkaesque tale about a hi-tech go getter whose successful professional and personal life suddenly collapses around her. Perlstein’s inclusion on the festival roster is, more or less, a given. At 54, the Bnei Brak-born director is considered a founding mother of the haredi filmmaking sector.
Marlene Venig can also lay claim to making a substantial contribution to the field, and also to getting the word out there to the uninitiated. Until recently, Lavi could have counted herself as one of the latter. “About a year ago, [festival general manager] Tamir Hod and I watched a movie by Ariel Cohen,” Lavi explains. Cohen comes from a religious background and his filmography to date includes numerous works that portray the haredi community. He is also a graduate of Sapir College, and his latest movie, End Game, is included in the haredi section of this year’s festival.
The screening opened up a whole other world to Lavi. “I felt as if I was making a new discovery,” she says. “It brought us into something else, something different for us. We went to meet all the filmmakers, watched their movies, spent time with them in their studios and their homes. It was an enlightening experience. I felt as if I was stepping into a sort of parallel universe.”
It was, she says, a matter of navigating through an oxymoronic web of the familiar and the unknown. “There is the cinematic language which I know well, but there are all these parameters which are so different.”
That also applies to the rules covering the presentation of movies to members of the haredi community. For example, audiences of screenings are exclusively female. “There was something very different about the visual format, and we were very intrigued,” Lavi notes. Hence the spotlight on works made by haredi filmmakers, or which feature related story lines.
That led straight to Venig. “Marlene shared some of her wealth of knowledge of this world, and haredi filmmaking,” says Lavi. Mother-of-seven Venig also helped to open up secular society to the existence of haredi moviemaking when she put out a book called Orthodox Cinema, in 2011. A second tome is due out in the near future.
Feminism also gets a slot in the festival program, particularly with the inclusion of Smadar Zamir’s Counter Shot – A Herstory of Israeli Cinema. The linchpin of the largely interview-based documentary is Ellida Geira, an American-born director who died in 2017 at the age of 86. When she made aliyah she ventured into an industry black hole for women filmmakers here, and helped paved the way for a whole host of female professionals, such as Michal Bat-Adam, Ronit Elkabetz, Dina Zvi-Riklis and Rama Burshtein. The latter started out in the “regular” film industry and, after becoming Orthodox, at the age of 25, changed thematic tack.
It is heartwarming to see someone like 39-year-old Lavi, a local girl born and bred in Sderot, a graduate of Sapir College, taking charge of such an adventurous cultural event there, especially in these crazy, culture-challenging, pandemic times. There are numerous contributions by locally educated directors on offer over the next week, including a First Fruits sector.
There is also a more global side to the festival, with the inclusion of a number of offshore-sourced works under the auspices of the French-based Cilect (The International Association of Film and Television Schools) organization. The Cilect lineup includes The Sisters by Polish director Michal Hytros, and British-produced animated film Inanimate, directed by Italian filmmaker Lucia Bulgheroni.
There are more homegrown socially oriented documentary offerings in the Sderotim side of the program, which includes Maayan Schwartz’s touching and inspiring 10-minute profile of indomitable nonagenarian musical director, theater director, singer, producer, actress and dancer Naomi Polani.
Thirtysomething Schwartz says his encounter with Polani was a formative experience for him. “It was incredible to meet her, and to work with her,” he says, although adding that Polani was not in his mind’s eye from the off. “I just wrote a script about an old woman living on her own.”
Eighty-six-year-old filmmaker and educator Lena Chaplin unwittingly helped to point Schwartz in Polani’s direction. “Lena was my teacher and I went to the premiere of a film she’d made called Shmonistim [“The Octettes”]. Naomi was in the film and, after the screening, she got on the stage to talk about the film. She looked so physically frail but spiritually so robust,”
Schwartz was immediately sold on the idea of basing his upcoming film, Acting Weak, on Polani. “I am intrigued by the relationship between the physical body and the soul – it’s my second film on this topic – and with Naomi the discrepancy between body and soul is so highly accentuated.”
The young filmmaker managed to convince Polani to collaborate even though she had a hard time relating to anything below her standards of sturdiness. “We had a few clashes along the way,” Schwartz chuckles. “She has always felt she has to be strong, so she found it hard to act the role of someone weak.”
It was an illuminating passage of time and work for Schwartz. “The reality of making the film with Naomi exceeded my expectations, by far,” he notes. “This was an odyssey for me,”
Polani’s power of facial and physical expression is, indeed, a powerful cinematic tool, and Schwartz captures her at her most wizened and also in delightfully playful mode.
The festival-goers can expect to be moved and entertained in the Sapir College parking lot, and in front of their computer screens at home.
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