Mixed bag in Israeli competition at Jerusalem film fest

Some of the most successful and important Israeli movies of all time have premiered at this festival.

YONA ROZENKIER’S ‘The Dive’ and Keren Ben Rafael’s ‘Virgins’ are in contention for the Haggiag Competition (photo credit: Courtesy)
YONA ROZENKIER’S ‘The Dive’ and Keren Ben Rafael’s ‘Virgins’ are in contention for the Haggiag Competition
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Haggiag Competition for Israeli Films is one of the most anticipated and closely watched of any at the Jerusalem Film Festival, and this year’s was no exception.
The festival continues at the Jerusalem Cinematheque and other theaters around the city through August 5.
Some of the most successful and important Israeli movies of all time have premiered at this festival, including the Oscar-nominated Ajami by Yaron Shani and Scandar Copti, Samuel Maoz’s debut film, Lebanon (he went on to make the controversial Foxtrot), Eran Kolirin’s The Band’s Visit (which was recently adapted into a Broadway musical that swept the Tony Awards), Joseph Cedar’s Campfire and Dover Koshashvili’s A Late Marriage.
This was not the strongest year for the Haggiag Competition (the prizes for which had not yet been announced at press time), although there were some highlights.
This year, there were seven films in the competition, down from a high of 14 nominees in 2004. Interestingly, in this year of #MeToo, these films could be divided neatly into female- and male-focused films, and almost half were directed by women.
The most topical film at the festival was Michal Aviad’s Working Woman. This straightforward movie follows the sexual harassment of Orna (Liron Ben Shlush), a young married mother who is starting out in the real-estate business. She gets a job working for a real-estate mogul (Menashe Noy) who is building a luxury beachfront complex in Rishon Lezion. When he starts pressuring her for sex, she feels trapped, since she desperately needs this income to support her family. Besides the sexual harassment issue, the movie tackles the rarely addressed problem of the financial predicament facing young couples in Israel.
Tsivia Barkai’s Red Cow deals with a very different issue: a young woman (Avigail Kovari), living in the Jewish nationalist/messianic community in Silwan with her father, one of its leaders, who becomes sexually attracted to a female classmate. Her discovery of her sexuality puts her into conflict with her father. This film is an unusual coming-of-age story and the only one of the films in this year’s competition to be nominated for the Ophir Award for Best Picture.
Keren Ben Rafael’s Virgins is another story of a sexual awakening, this one about a 16-year-old girl (Joy Rieger) living in Kiryat Yam with her mother (Evgenia Dodina), whose beachfront cafe is about to go bankrupt. When an aspiring novelist (Michael Aloni) comes to town, she entices him with a story about a mermaid sighting. This confused film, mixes in dystopian elements – the weather in August has turned so chilly people are wearing winter coats – and ultimately it plays like a remake of the 1990 Cher-Winona Ryder film, Mermaids (with which it shares an extraordinary number of plot elements), mixed with Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan.
Judging by the audience reaction, Redemption, by Yossi Madmony and Boaz Yehonatan Yaacov, is likely to be a hit when it is released here. It stars Moshe Folkenflik as a former rock star who has become ultra-Orthodox, but gets his band back together to raise money for his daughter’s cancer treatment. Movies about bands reuniting are fun and seeing these characters both bond and snipe at each other as they perform religious wedding tunes to a rock beat is entertaining.
The next film screened had many plot similarities with Redemption but a different background: Roman Shumunov’s Here and Now, which is set in the Russian-immigrant community in Ashdod. It follows an aspiring rapper (Vlad Dubinsky), who tries to pursue his music while supporting his younger sister. It’s a gritty film about the obstacles he faces, enlivened by wonderful performances by non-professional actors.
Yona Rozenkier’s The Dive portrays the tortured relationship of three adult brothers on a northern kibbutz in Israel during a war. It was the one film this year to deal overtly with the Israeli military situation, exploring the trauma it causes.
Amikam Kovner and Assaf Snir’s Echo is a conventional story of man who suspects his wife is having an affair and starts listening in to her phone calls. Its lack of any uniquely Israeli elements divided audiences, some of whom praised it as a well-made thriller, while I and many viewers felt it was lackluster.
One factor that may have kept several highly anticipated upcoming Israeli films out of the Jerusalem Festival – among them Sharon Maymon and Tal Granit’s YOLO (aka Flawless), their followup to their successful 2014 film, The Farewell Party – is that they are set to compete in the Venice International Film Festival this fall. Venice will not allow films into its highest profile competitions if they have screened at Jerusalem, which is considered an international, rather than a local, film festival. These Israeli movies usually compete locally at the Haifa International Film Festival in the fall after they are shown at Venice.
One strength of most of the films at the festival was fine acting. In fact, several of these films have been shown previously at international festivals, where their actors won major awards. Joy Rieger won the Best Actress Award at the Tribeca Film Festival last spring for Virgins, while Moshe Folkenflik received the Best Actor prize for Redemption at the Karlovy Vary Festival last month.
Several of these films are expected to take part in the upcoming Toronto International Film Festival, the full lineup for which has not yet been announced, and all should be released locally in the coming year.