Screening Jewishness

Why are 'Israeli' and 'Jewish' films judged in different categories at the film festival?

nadias friends 298.88 (photo credit: Courtesy Photo)
nadias friends 298.88
(photo credit: Courtesy Photo)
hose who followed the awards ceremony at the conclusion of the 23rd Jerusalem Film Festival last week might find themselves wondering why some films win prizes in the Jewish Experience category, while others take home the Wolgin Awards for Israeli films. Aren't Israeli movies Jewish? And what makes a film worthy of an award in the Jewish Experience category - its quality as a movie or its Jewish content? The answers to these questions are partly connected to the history and nature of the film festival itself. Every time I have interviewed Jerusalem Cinematheque and Jerusalem Film Festival founder and director Lia van Leer, she always mentions that in addition to bringing a world-class film festival to the nation's capital, she wants the festival to be a showcase for the best of current Israeli cinema. This is why the most highly publicized awards and the ones that carry the highest cash prizes are the Wolgins, which are supported by Jack Wolgin and go exclusively to movies made by Israeli filmmakers. There is also a separate category of Israeli awards, the Anat Pirchi Awards, which are given to the best television productions made here. In spite of the awards and attention given to the Israeli films at the festival, the bulk of the 200-plus films shown are from around the world, although there is no competition for the foreign films, except the In the Spirit of Freedom Award, which can go to either an Israeli or foreign film. It is named in memory of van Leer's late husband, Wim, and honors filmmakers whose work shows a commitment to human rights. This year it went to a Bosnian feature film, Grbavica, with an honorable mention to an Iranian film, Caf Transit, and in the documentary category, to No More Tears Sister, a look at a Sri Lankan rebel, with a special mention for October's Cry, an Israeli film about the commission that investigated the deaths of 13 Israeli Arabs in 2000. This leaves the Jewish Experience category. Van Leer, whose family perished during the Holocaust, knew that any film festival here should highlight Judaism in some way. This year, two new Jewish Experience Awards were given, both endowed by Leon and Michaela Constantiner: the LIA Award, in honor of Lia van Leer, for films dealing with Jewish heritage, and Yad Vashem Chairman's Award for Artistic Achievement in Holocaust Related Films. The latter award makes sense given that, in many years, the bulk of the documentaries in the Jewish Experience Category focus on the Holocaust. In general, there is a tremendous buzz among critics and industry professionals at the festival about which films will win the Wolgins, and much less gossip about the Jewish Experience category. Often, when the awards are announced, there will be discussion of which films really deserved the Wolgins, but the only time I can recall a hint of controversy over the Jewish Experience was last year, when the Spanish/Argentine comedy Only Human beat the German Go for Zucker: An Unorthodox Comedy. Zucker, the story of a Jewish gambler who receives a visit from his estranged Orthodox brother, which dominated the Lolas, the German Oscars, was billed as the "first German Jewish comedy in 60 years," and was a huge box-office hit in Europe. In addition, its director, Dani Levy, attended the festival and made himself available for interviews. However, one of the judges told me after the voting that the jury simply didn't find it that funny and felt that Only Human was a much stronger film. (Unlike just about everything else in Israel, where rules are bent casually, judges for the Jerusalem Film Festival Awards honor their vow not to discuss the competition until after the awards are announced with amazing scrupulousness.) So, while Zucker is in many ways an important film in Jewish history, the judges preferred a movie that was not a landmark but that they felt was a better film. What films won this year in this category? The LIA Award went to El Cantor, a French film about a Jewish family confronting its secrets. The Yad Vashem Award went to Nina's Journey, a movie by a Swedish director that combines a documentary and drama as the filmmaker examines her mother's memories of the Holocaust. One usually jaded Israeli critic told me the film brought tears to his eyes. This year, a few documentaries by Israelis concerned with Israeli subjects did turn up in the Jewish Experience rather than the Wolgin Category, such as Nadia's Friends, the story of a lifelong friendship between an Arab and a Jew, which won an honorable mention for the LIA Award. This is a new trend and is due at least partly to the fact that a whopping 160 Israeli documentaries were submitted for the Wolgin Awards this year. Van Leer had hoped to limit the nominees for this category to nine but eventually took 14, and then allowed a handful to be entered for the Jewish Experience. Fair enough. But why wouldn't a movie such as Ushpizin, the 2004 drama about haredi life in Jerusalem, be part of the Jewish Experience category (it was nominated for the Wolgin Award)? The important point here is that the drama takes place in Jerusalem and not Brooklyn, which makes Ushpizin an Israeli film. If all Israeli films with what is considered explicitly "Jewish" content - the Holocaust or religious experience - were relegated to the Jewish Experience category, then what would remain would be films mainly on two subjects: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and alienated young people in Tel Aviv. There's nothing wrong with either topic, but the category would lack the richness and variety it has today. The other important factor is that Ushpizin has an all-Israeli cast and was made by Israeli filmmakers. The key word here is Israeli, not Jewish, because directors whose films are nominated for the Wolgins are sometimes Muslim or Christian, although the majority of the films are by Jewish directors, as was this year's feature film winner, Dead End, a look at the story behind a reality TV show. But many of the films nominated for Wolgins, both features and documentaries, are not about Jews. This year, the two documentaries that split the Wolgin Award - 9 Star Hotel, a look at Palestinian workers building Modi'in, and Bil'in, the story of a village divided by the security fence - were both directed by Jews but focus on Palestinians. An enormous number of Wolgin-nominated films represent a collaboration between Israelis from all kinds of religions and backgrounds. For example, this year's Wolgin entry in the feature films competition, Forgiveness, featured a Jewish director, Udi Aloni, and a cast of mixed Jewish, Muslim and Christian Israelis. Distinguished Israeli Arab actor, Makram J. Khoury, a Palestinian Christian, plays a Jewish doctor, while his daughter Clara portrays a Palestinian young woman living in New York. In addition, the film deals with the Holocaust (two characters are concentration camp survivors), the Deir Yassin massacre and Israeli policy on the West Bank. Is it an Israeli film, or a Jewish one? There are no easy answers, but in the context of the film festival and Lia van Leer's vision, it was a Wolgin nominee.