Showcasing Israeli movies

Blue and white gems sparkle at the Jerusalem Film Festival

OPENING NIGHT of the 34th Jerusalem Film Festival at Sultan’s Pool amphitheater (photo credit: DOR KEDMI)
OPENING NIGHT of the 34th Jerusalem Film Festival at Sultan’s Pool amphitheater
(photo credit: DOR KEDMI)
THE 34TH Jerusalem Film Festival presented almost 200 films from 45 countries for 10 days at the Jerusalem Cinémathèque in mid-July. Although there were certainly many notable international films featured, the festival opened with a screening of Oscar-winner Michel Hazanavicius’s “Redoubtable” ‒ a fictionalized account of the life of French director Jean-Luc Godard ‒ in the presence of Hazanavicius and the film’s star, Louis Garrel.
Still, the main topic of conversation of critics and guests alike in the hallways, garden and press room were more often than not about the Israeli movies. And these weren’t just intellectual discussions.
Many film festival programmers, particularly but not always from Jewish film festivals around the world, attend the event to see what they should present in the coming year. Arthouse film distributors come, too, as do programmers from television channels, mainly based in Europe. So, what these programmers and distributors see in Jerusalem may show up at your local Jewish film festival or a theater or television channel near you.
Knowing how important Israeli films still are would have pleased the late cinémathèque and festival founder, Lia van Leer, who created the festival in 1984 to celebrate cinema, but always made sure that Israeli movies were front and center. It was part of her long-term plan to develop a local film industry.
In the early years of the festival, showcasing Israeli films was easier said than done because there were so few and many weren’t very good. I remember attending a screening of an Israeli film at the festival in 1985 and searching for an exit where I wouldn’t have to come face to face with the director, which would have been awkward. As I crossed the auditorium, I realized that about half the audience ‒ the half that hadn’t worked on the film ‒ were doing the same thing.
Most large international festivals give their highest-profile awards to foreign films, but, until last year, there was no international award in Jerusalem. A typical Israeli feature-film competition in those years would consist of three or four movies, none of which would have had much of a life beyond its festival screening.
What a difference a few years make. Many of the most famous Israeli movies of the last decade or so had their Israeli premieres at the Jerusalem festival, including Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani’s “Ajami, ” which went on to receive an Oscar nomination, and many others that won countless international awards, among them Eran Kolirin’s “The Band’s Visit” in 2007 and Samuel Maoz’s “Lebanon” in 2009, which went on to win the Golden Lion at the Venice International Film Festival.
Speaking of Venice, that festival has had a special impact on Jerusalem.
A decision by the Venice International Film Festival in 2012 ruled that the Jerusalem Film Festival was an international festival rather than a local one, and that movies that premiered in Jerusalem could not be screened at Venice, which takes place a month and a half later.
Israeli movies tend to do well in Venice, so Rama Burshtein withdrew her much acclaimed debut film, “Fill the Void,” from the 2012 Jerusalem Film Festival so it could be shown in Venice; the move paid off, as it went on to win the Best Actress Award for Hadas Yaron. Other films slated for the 2012 Jerusalem Film Festival also were withdrawn because of the decision.
Since then, directors who want to screen their films in Venice have chosen the Haifa International Film Festival, which is held in the fall, rather than Jerusalem, for their Israeli debut. For example, it was just announced that Maoz’s “Foxtrot,” the much anticipated follow-up to Lebanon, will be shown in Venice, so it will likely have its Israeli premiere in Haifa this fall.
Despite the Venice issue, Jerusalem screened wonderful movies this year that portrayed Israeli life in all its diversity. It’s notable, however, that the two films which took most of the big awards were on the same theme: the education system and how it does and doesn’t help working-class teens escape poverty.
Matan Yair’s “Scaffolding,” which had its world premiere last spring in Cannes, won the Robert Nissim Haggiag award for Best Israeli Feature Film, and also took the Best Actor prize for its young, non-professional star Asher Lax, and an honorable mention for Best Cinematography. Yair, a high school literature and history teacher, based the screenplay on his own experiences ‒ Lax was one of his students.
The similarly themed “Doubtful,” directed by Eliran Elya, won the Anat Pirchi Award for Best First Film. It tells the story of Asi (Ron Danker), a young filmmaker sent to a remote town to teach some tough kids who finds that the experience changes him in unexpected ways. Adar Hazazi Gersch won an Honorary Mention for his performance as one of the students, and Shai Goldman took the Aaron Emanuel Award for Best Cinematography.
Although these films may sound like conventional, inspirational education dramas, they are anything but; rather, they illustrate the complexity of the factors that keep students poor and isolated.
Part of what has made the revitalization of Israel’s movie industry in the past 15 years so successful is that filmmakers who represent all sectors of Israeli society have begun to tell their stories on-screen.
In the past year, two Muslim women made movies inspired by their lives, and won great acclaim around the world: Maysaloun Hamoud, for her film, “In Between,” and Maha Haj, who made “Personal Affairs.” Now, Shady Srour has made a movie from his perspective as an Arab Christian ‒ “Holy Air,” which won the FIPRESCI Award for Best Israeli First Feature.
“Holy Air” looks at serious issues with a light touch. Srour wrote, directed and stars in the movie about a man in Nazareth who can barely make a living and struggles with whether or not to start a family. It’s ironic that that first Israeli director to present a kind of schlemiel, Woody Allen-esque persona in decades is not a Jew but a Christian. Srour’s film is a rarity ‒ a festival movie that is truly funny.
Ofir Raul Graizer’s “The Cakemaker” also looks at a side of Israel that was once far outside the mainstream. Set both in Germany and Israel, it’s about a young German pastry chef who falls in love with an Israeli man and comes to Jerusalem to seek out his family. It’s a complicated, untraditional love story and, like the two features about education, it doesn’t look for easy answers or villains.
DANA GOLDBERG and Efrat Mishori’s “Death of a Poetess” also examines the intersection of two cultures. The lyrical, black and white film tells separate stories of two women ‒ Lenny Sade (Evgenia Dodina), a distinguished 50-year-old researcher on the final day of her life and Yasmin (Samira Saraya), a 35-year-old Jaffa resident ‒ whose paths cross at a critical moment.
Saraya took the festival’s Best Actress Award, though some were surprised that the award wasn’t shared by both actresses, particularly since Dodina, who starred in last year’s Haggiag winner, “One Week and a Day” by Asaph Polonsky, gives another outstanding performance here.
The final two films in the Haggiag competition exemplify two types of movies that used to dominate the Israeli film industry. Savi Gabizon’s unambitious, mainstream “Longing” surprised me by taking the Audience Award because it is a flat, literal story of a man (Shai Avivi, who starred opposite Dodina in “One Week and a Day”) who discovers he had a son who just died. Trying in vain to create a connection to a son he never wanted or knew, he hangs around the boy’s mother (Assi Levy) and friends. While this may sound like an interesting premise for a movie, the result is so labored and inconclusive that it feels like a first draft no one looked over. Gabizon is an established director, whose 2006 film, “Nina’s Tragedies,” helped make Ayelet Zurer a star. He works well with actors and is competent, which makes it all the more frustrating that he didn’t put more effort into this lackluster story.
Tolstoy famously said, “Happy families are all alike, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Had he seen Israeli movies such as Veronica Kedar’s Family, he wouldn’t have written that.
Years ago, the default Israeli movie was about a miserable family screaming at each other in a Tel Aviv apartment, and they didn’t attract an audience. It’s sad to see a return to that genre. Kedar tries for a twist or two: the heroine doesn’t just yell at the parents who have ruined her life, but murders them and goads her unstable siblings to commit suicide. The coda is a kind of Grand Guignol gross-out where the heroine dances with and poses the corpses; I imagine it’s meant to be queasily funny, ironic or a commentary on bourgeois hypocrisy. It may be all those things, but mainly it’s just dull.
While “Family” is a lot of unpleasantness over nothing, “Conventional Sins” by Anat Yuta Zuria and Shira Clara Winther, the winner of the Van Leer Award for Best Documentary, takes on a real and urgent problem in a way that is sure to stir controversy.
The film tells the story of a young man who was raised in the ultra-Orthodox community and left it after suffering years of horrific sexual abuse. It unfolds in an unusual way as other young men meet the documentary subject in order to create a reenactment of his life. They say truth is stranger than fiction, but it can also be more tragic. This isn’t an Israeli spotlight, exposing the extent of this issue, but an inspiring portrait of one very resilient man.
Like the bulk of the Israeli feature films, “Conventional Sins” shows us a side of life we never knew existed and finds something fascinating that was hitherto hidden in the shadows.