Israeli Film Festival in Paris attracts record audiences

During the week, most of the more than 35 screenings played to full houses or close to it, the highest attendance record to date for this festival.

FOXTROT Trailer | TIFF 2017. (YouTube/TIFF Trailers)
PARIS (Tribune News Service) — The Israeli Film festival in Paris opened this year with the controversial anti-war award winner in Venice, Foxtrot, directed by Samuel Maoz. During the week that followed, most of the more than 35 screenings played to full houses or close to it, the highest attendance record to date for this festival.
For the record, it included feature films from 2017 such as The Cakemaker by Raul Graizer, Norman by Joseph Cedar, Maktub (Oded Raz), five features directed by Eran Riklis, Israeli classics Siege by Italian Gilberto Tofano (a new wave beauty from 1969), and Rage and Glory by Avi Nesher on the Stern gang 1947-48.
Also presented for the first time was a French documentary called Israel: a Land Twice Promised, scheduled for broadcast on the French-German Arte channel, a co-producer. It featured one-on-one interviews of Israeli and Palestinian historians, unfortunately sitting in a studio instead of in the field, let’s say, walking and talking on the Green Line or in Jerusalem, in sync with some of the dramatic historical footage presented.
And yes, the first two episodes of the second season of Fauda were screened, and I regretfully missed them. After running last year in the United States, the first season of Fauda just began about three weeks ago on Netflix in France, so the French are only now discovering how real, dramatic and violent it is, pitting the Shin Bet Mista’aravim unit against a renegade Hamas leader in the West Bank.
I chatted at length with French (and half Lebanese by origin) actress Laetitia Eido, who looks at home in the role of the Palestinian doctor Shirin in the series. The doctor role has sparked in her a real interest in the Israel-Palestinian situation, more than she ever could have experienced at home in the south of France. And while the Israeli and American press has been all over the series and her performance, the French press has not yet discovered her, so to speak.
The question is: why a record-breaking number of paying visitors this year? The answer involves some interesting and other not-so-interesting, more trivial factors.
As has already been well-documented in the press, Foxtrot angered right-wing Israeli culture minister Miri Regev, who accused the film of strengthening the BDS movement and slandering the IDF. Upon learning that Foxtrot was opening the Paris event, she pressured the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs to shut down its financial support for the festival. When that did not happen, Regev ordered Israel's ambassador to France, Aliza Ben-Nun, not to attend the opening night. “Because of the situation with Regev, festival sponsors from the French Jewish community were able to screen Foxtrot beforehand,” said Hélène Schoumann, president of the festival. “I was happy that all of them except two stayed with us.” She would not say which two pulled out. “But I heard I was some kind of hero in Israel for people who don’t like the minister,” she added with a smile.
“People did not come just to give the finger to the minister,” commented Danielle Coscas, a festival attendee who saw six films altogether, “but the polemic did not hurt attendance, for sure. And as I live nearby, it was very easy for me to come.”
She noted that Israeli cinema is “very absorbing, not commercial or easy-to-watch; and so most young people in Paris stay away.”
She was right about two things. For the second time, the festival was held in the Majestic Cinema, in the wealthy 16th arrondissement, or district, of Paris, with its large and comfortable Jewish population.
In earlier years, run by Charlie Zrihen, now sidelined for health reasons, the festival was a much more bohemian affair. The funky Cinema des Cineastes in turbulent Place de Clichy is next to the red-light theater zone. Opening and closing nights were always full, with community people plus an artistic set of all origins, including a young out-of-the-box Israeli crowd, with the likes of star actress and director Ronit Elkabetz. (She died of cancer in April 2016 at age 51.) But in between, afternoon screenings were sparsely attended, often by retired, modest Ashkenazi couples… cinema buffs, sandwiches in hand.
When, years ago, devoted sponsors the Hadida Foundation created a 5,000 euro cash award for the best film, it attracted attention and created a buzz.
This year, the Schoumann team was handed a buzz on a platter with the Foxtrot controversy, surely not what minister Regev was seeking, but… too bad for her. “It created what we call in French a visibilité,” noted Paul Schoumann, President Hélène’s 22-year-old son. “That and the proximity to neighborhood residents brought people.”
In fact, there was a third factor. For the first time, Paul took the festival to Facebook and Instagram, with multiple daily feeds. It paid off. “The 45-60 year old crowd, the largest festival segment, uses Facebook,” he explained. “We got 4,000 likes on FB.”
With all three factors in play, the cinema energy level was high day and night, but astute members of the public did notice certain others who were missing.
In between screenings of Etat de Siege and Le Testament, Nicole Cohen commented, “it’s too bad that this is an almost all Jewish crowd. There are few French French people and no Arabs. And our kids? Here? No way. Me, I’m a cinéphile. I watch movies in French, Hebrew, Arabic... no problem... Yes, once upon a time I was a kid in Tunisia.”
“I come to the festival every year,” said Patricia, (no surname by request), an IT engineer munching on a sandwich in the lobby. “The force of Israeli cinema is its critical nature. For example, Foxtrot is critical by the use of caricature.” She suggested that not everyone likes this type of films. “In fact, I only saw one man wearing a kipa, only one,” she said.
And just then, on closing night, a couple in their early 20s walked up the stairs into the lobby. He was wearing a baseball cap, with tzitzit extending below his jacket, and she a long skirt and sneakers. They looked around briefly, totally ignoring all the posters for the festival, and the French-style not particularly linear line beginning to form for the closing ceremony and the screening of the latest film by director Eran Riklis, Le Dossier Mona Lisa. The young couple headed for the single hall not connected to the festival and entered, to watch something called Phantom Thread. Foxtrot, Eran Riklis or even Fauda apparently meant nothing to them. Go figure.
And now after hours at this cinema in the most comfortable district of Paris talking passionately about Israel, politics, a Palestinian state, the arts, and everything going on under the warm Mediterranean sun, I went to get my pass for the closing ceremony. But at the ticketing desk, surprise surprise. “There are no more seats for the closing, not even press passes,” said the communications director. Was she serious? Yes, she was. In Tel Aviv, when the seats are gone at an important cultural event, the aisles are good for sitting. The important thing is to be there. It was the same years ago in bohemian Place de Clichy. Not in the 16th arrondissement.
No matter. It was a successful Israeli film festival in Paris.
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