Culture, politics and everything in between

This year's 45th Israel Festival will be, promoters promise, bigger and better than ever before.

israel festival 88 (photo credit: )
israel festival 88
(photo credit: )
Is it due to the improved economic situation? The security quiet and calm? A new national optimism? Whatever the reason, this year's 45th Israel Festival will be, promoters promise, bigger and better than ever before. And for the first time, Jerusalemites will be able to enjoy more performances at more venues and lower prices. "The magnitude and the diversity of the major cultural event of the country is back to what is was before the intifada, the status quo antebellum," declared chairman of the board of the festival, Dan Halperin, at a press conference earlier this week. "This will be the richest festival in 25 years." Organizers are particularly gratified, Halperin continued, by the fact that they encountered no difficulty in inviting artists and groups from abroad. "Moreover, foreign governments are interested in subsidizing the performances from their respective countries." With over 1,000 artists from 14 different countries and with 50 shows, officials were upbeat and clearly pleased as they introduced the festival. Highlights will include American director Lee Bruer's DollHouse, commemorating the centenary of the death of Norwegian playwright Ibsen; the premier of Sizwe Bansi is Dead by Peter Brook, one of the most important directors of the age; Russian director Lev Dodin, with his celebrated production of Uncle Vanya; choreographer Carolyn Carlson with her new work about women; a premier especially created for the festival by top Israeli choreographer Rami Beer; choreographer Frederic Flamand with his powerful new work for the Ballet National de Marseille; Britain's Tallis Scholars in a concert combining Renaissance and contemporary music; and a special concert celebrating the 70th birthday of clarinetist Giora Feidman. For Jerusalemites and jazz aficionados, there will be jazz events in memory of American-born saxophonist Arnie Lawrence. And numerous events will be joint productions, such as a performance of Giselle by the Israel Ballet with soloists from the Bolshoi. For the first time in its history, the festival is welcoming an entire project contributed by a foreign government. "Voila! A French Season in Israel 2006" will present a wide range of French artists, during the festival and through the end of the summer. The French contribution to the festival is the second-largest component in the festival budget. Stated French Ambassador Gerard Araud, "France and Israel have made great efforts to improve bilateral relations on the political level and now, we have come to the second stage of the rocket - to reestablish the dialogue between the two societies... This will be the first time that the French flag will wave over the festival and it is a real Franco-Israeli cooperation. Culturally, Israel has much to contribute to France, just as France has much to give to Israel." And with a bit of self-deprecating humor, the ambassador added that the "real" purpose of the French contribution is to "convince you all that French people are nice." The audience was certainly appreciative of his humor, and festival-goers will no doubt enjoy the French contribution. But not everyone is pleased, especially not with the activities that will take place in Jerusalem. The French media have been particularly critical. Stated a correspondent for a major French media agency, "It's good to warm up the relationship [between Israel and France], but some of the events will take place in locations that France officially considers to be occupied territory, such as the "Peace Tents" set up by artist Clara Halter in Abu Tor. This is problematic." Capitalizing on the public's interest in India, the festival has also invited Priyadarsini Govind to perform a traditional Indian Bharatanatyam dance, in which the dancer expresses narrative and emotion through movement and gesture in the upper torso with stylized movements of the palms of the hands and facial expressions, at which Govind excels. According to festival organizers, much attention has been given to street and fringe events. This is good news for Jerusalemites, since most of these events are low-cost or free. Zirat Hafestival, the arena for a new generation of artists, is a new project in the festival this year, in which young, independent artists from a wide range of artistic disciplines have been given the opportunity to present a premiere of their original works. The event is dedicated to the memory of the late Andrea Bronfman, a longtime supporter of the arts and especially theater in Israel and who, the brochure reads, "believed in making theater accessible to all audiences." Twelve artists were selected from among over 200 candidates. Their performances will be presented between May 29 and June 4 at the Henry Crown Hall in the Jerusalem Theater. The "Zirat Hafestival" includes, among others, works combining poetry, live music and video dance ("Love Soup"); comedy with pantomime and clowns ("Velcro"); a video-dance duo ("Room for Thought"); puppets and actors theater ("The Little Man"); silent theater ("Bleeding"); sociopolitical satire ("Ayeka?"); a boutoh-mime dance ("The Water Children); and a movement theater to poems by Yona Wallach and Yehuda Amihai ("Playing Around"). Cafe Tav will be a wandering courtyard, combining coffee, cake and multidisciplinary arts. The Tav Group's press release "invites the public to an interdisciplinary gathering in their wandering cafe, which will be set up in the Sherover Plaza. Order a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, have a back massage, make use of the mail service between tables, get your portrait painted, take part in a yoga lesson." And then - you'll have the opportunity to allow someone to read the coffee grounds left in your cup. But perhaps the best news from the festival is related to its new pricing policy. In previous years, each event had different-price tickets and within most halls, better seats were sold for higher prices. And while a fair quantity of tickets were also offered at discount prices to local community centers, the general public still believed, acknowledged Yossi Tal-Gan, general director of the festival, that the festival was high-priced, high-brow and elitist. "So we decided to completely change our policy," Tal-Gan said. "In all the events, except for two, the price range is uniform in each venue (except for those halls that have a balcony, where there will be two price levels.) No ticket exceeds NIS 150, which is a fair price. "In addition, we are no longer selling package tickets or reserving tickets according to location in the hall. The first to pay will get the best seats, and we will offer a reduction of up to 15 percent to those who purchase tickets for more than one event. The policy is proving itself, Tal-Gan said. The Jerusalem performance of the National Ballet of Marseille is already sold out. Returning to the patterns of nearly a decade ago, more than 55% of the tickets have been sold to non-Jerusalemites, and less than 45% to city residents. The festival, according to Tal-Gan, has lofty goals - to expose the Israeli audience to the best of world culture and to encourage the Israeli scene. Yet funding, of course, remains a critical issue. First of all, the festival faces a new threat. VAT authorities have recently "discovered," Halperin said, that the festival must pay VAT on all of the performances and artists. But because the festival is incorporated as a non-profit organization, it cannot write-off or recoup the VAT as an expense. And to make matters worse, the VAT authorities are demanding that the festival pay the "missing" VAT payments retroactively for four years. Halperin turned directly to Culture, Sports and Science Minister Ofir Paz-Pines, who was at the press conference in one of his first appearances in his new position. Paz-Pines promised to attempt to help and also to attempt to guarantee future funding for the festival for several years ahead, so that festival officials "will be able to plan and have some breathing room." Organizers breathed a sigh of relief. The total budget of this year's festival is approximately NIS 11 million Based on a projected 60% sales rate, which Tal-Gan anticipates could be higher, income from ticket sales is expected to bring in NIS 2.5m. Foundations and sponsorships provide another 2.5m; the Culture Ministry allocates 3.5m, according to the "Jerusalem Regulation" regarding government funding in Jerusalem. The French embassy has contributed NIS 1m. In addition, following severe criticism that the banks did not provide any sponsorships in the past few years, Bank Leumi has contributed NIS 250,000 and Mifal Hapayis lottery will contribute another NIS 100,000. The Municipality of Jerusalem will contribute just over half a million shekels. This low level of contribution has been an ongoing source of tension between the municipality and the festival's organizers. Allocations to culture in Jerusalem are among the lowest in the country. While Tel Aviv has a population that is just under half that of Jerusalem, it allocates more than NIS 80m. to culture, compared with the NIS 4m. allocated by the municipality over the past three years. This year, thanks to efforts by Deputy Mayor Yigal Amedi, among others, this budget has been increased to NIS 7m. But this, according to Avner Rotenberg, a former high-ranking official in the municipality, "is still a very low budget for such a big city, not to mention for the capital and as compared with the needs of this city." Rotenberg, as reported in In Jerusalem, issued a special report on cultural life in Jerusalem for the Bracha Foundation (see "Cultural coincidence," October 7, 2005). But the issue is even more complex. Six years ago, then-mayor Ehud Olmert succeeded in passing the "Jerusalem Regulation" in response to the near-total breakdown of cultural and artistic institutions in the city, due to the poor economy, the intifada, and the low level of municipal support. The special budget, totalling NIS 25m., was set up in the Education and Culture Ministry, then headed by education minister MK Limor Livnat. But only a few months after he was elected, Mayor Uri Lupolianski and Livnat clashed over the regulation. Speaking at a demonstration of all of the local arts and cultural institutions, Livnat demanded that the municipality must also contribute funds and not merely rely on the ministry and the government. Ultimately, Livnat decided that, rather than hand over the additional cultural budget to the municipality, the ministry would pay the cultural institutions directly. Arts and culture officials were relieved. As Tal-Gan said at the opening press conference, funds transmitted through the municipality were often paid late and erratically. Municipal officials confided that the municipal coffers were so low that the municipal treasury was keeping the money in its accounts, in order to buy time and gain interest, although official spokespersons denied this. But the festival organizers were not happy working with the municipality. "In December, I received a payment from the municipality for a performance held in June. You can't run a festival that way," said Tal-Gan. Although the financial situation of the municipality is greatly improved, the funds from the "Jerusalem Regulation" are still transferred through the ministry. Thus, both Paz-Pines from the Culture, Sports and Science Ministry, and Amedi from the municipality, seek to claim credit for the municipality's contribution. Finally, it seems that in Jerusalem, no festival is complete without its share of kulturekampf. Keen observers were quick to note that while the festival brochure, which is labelled "Israel Festival, Jerusalem," includes letters and salutations from most of the officials connected with the festival, there is no such letter from Lupolianski, the ostensible host. Previous mayors Teddy Kollek and Ehud Olmert always posted their letters of greetings and congratulations. In previous years, when Lupolianski did endorse the festival, he was denounced by haredi officials. But municipal officials denied that the mayor was, in any way, attempting to pander to his constituency. Said Gidi Schmerling, Municipal Spokesman, told IJ, "The mayor is a man of deeds and not a ribbon-cutter lover. Mayor Lupolianski should be judged according to his activities and deeds for the benefit of the city and by the budgets he has allocated to the unprecedented scope of cultural events he initiated this year in the city." Regarding the letter in the brochure, Schmerling said, "The mayors congratulatory note to the festival simply arrived too late and due to his trip to Paris to meet with Jewish communities there, he could not attend this week's cultural events." In fact, Amedi increasingly represents the municipality at artistic and cultural events, as he did at the press conference this week. Next year, Tal-Gan promised, "we won't wait for the mayor and we'll ask for a letter from Deputy Mayor Yigal Amedi, who is both secular and in charge of culture at the municipality." But whatever the budgetary, political, diplomatic, or cultural issues behind the scenes, Tal-Gan and Halperin promise that the festival, expanded, cheaper, and more accessible than ever before, "will be a true celebration for Jerusalem and all of Israel." The Israel Festival, May 23 to June 15. For further information and tickets, visit: