Movies in the making

This year’s Ma’aleh film-school graduate screening promises to impress.

Nurith and Emmanuel Cohn (photo credit: Courtesy)
Nurith and Emmanuel Cohn
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Ma’aleh School of Television, Film & the Arts, Jerusalem, has been churning out highly creative and thought-provoking visual works of art for more than a quarter of a century. For some years now, it has also been sharing the results of its graduates’ labors with the general public at annual screening events at the Jerusalem Cinematheque. This year’s alumni big-screen batch will kick off on Thursday at 5 p.m.
Ma’aleh sets out its stall as “the only film school in the world devoted to exploring the intersection of Judaism and modern life.” School director Omri Levy notes that the credo takes in a broad range of poignant issues and intent.
“The new movies [by Ma’aleh graduates] convey the contemporary voices of the Israeli home and street that want to be heard here and now in the winter of 2015. That starts with acceptance of those different from you in society through searching for spirituality and God in daily life, and [consideration of] the violence that is raging in our streets and is threatening to invade our homes,” he says.
But, Armageddon-sounding caution notwithstanding, all is not lost, it seems, and Levy lauds the efforts of Ma’aleh’s budding filmmakers to get their word out there.
“All the movies are the result of the great enthusiasm of these talented students who want, and insist, that their voices be heard in a society which, at times, seems to be losing its patience and sensitivity,” he explains.
Emmanuel and Nurith Cohn certainly have plenty of patience, and they have displayed consummate sensitivity in creating The Little Dictator, which was more than two years in the making. Considering the subject matter, the latter attribute was a must. The storyline of the film, which is directed by Nurith, with brother Emmanuel as the scriptwriter and also in the starring role, is based on the character of a somewhat less than charismatic professor who specializes in the leaders of totalitarian regimes.
His students have a hard time with his soporific delivery, and even back home there is no respite for the timorous teacher, where his wife has him firmly under her thumb.
The title of the film is something of a giveaway, and the spirit – and even appearance – of the German Nazi leader also alluded to in Charlie Chaplin’s similarly entitled iconic film, is definitely in the mix.
“It’s a provocative film,” declares Emmanuel.
“It’s not the kind of film that you just walk out of and then go off to have a nice meal,” Nurith concurs. “We want people to leave the film with food for thought.”
It’s safe to say that anyone in the Cinematheque audience will come away from the screening with something to mull over. Naturally, anything with a weighty Holocaust inference is bound to attract attention, and the fact that there is more than a modicum of humor in the film – largely of the darker variety – may even raise a few eyebrows. But Nurith has clearly kept a delicate hand on the directorial tiller throughout. Emmanuel also manages the demanding lead role and the wide swathe of sensibilities he is requited to convey with aplomb.
Mind you, the Cohn siblings do have a DNA head start on most. Their father is celebrated Hollywood producer Arthur Cohn, now 87 years old, who has several Oscars, BAFTAs and a star on Hollywood Boulevard on his bulging resume. Even so, his son and daughter initially opted for other avenues of creative and intellectual expression. Nurith studied voice and got into choir conducting, while Emmanuel steeped himself in Jewish philosophy.
Still, blood proved to be thicker than gray matter or any other pursuit the Cohn offspring followed and, judging by The Little Dictator, they ended up in the right artistic area.
The idea for the movie was, notes Emmanuel, conceived in an unlikely place.
“The film was actually born in the bathroom when I was playing with my facial hair,” he says, trying not to give too much of the plot away.
The film offers high drama, high emotion and some hijinks – even if they do generally tend to feed off darker sentiments. So, with the Holocaust front and center in much of the film, presumably the Cohn siblings had to keep their sensitivity gauges on most of the time.
“Let me say, from the start, that we never intended to make fun of the Holocaust,” states Nurith. “Far from it. We don’t know how people will react to the film, and we are wary of that, but [at previous screenings] people have actually been quite moved.
There were some people who were hesitant to get on board for that reason.”
All this might sound a bit off-putting for some, but The Little Dictator is, in fact, a well-crafted work that should delight, entertain and stimulate audiences in equal amounts.
There is more drama and not a little tension on offer in another feature film in the lineup. Hai Afik’s The French Revolution tells the story of how a young couple’s domestic set-up is rudely disturbed by some ill-bred neighbors. The predicament in which the couple find themselves raises all sorts of questions about fear and ethics and the couple’s relationship.
On the documentary side of the Ma’aleh screening evening program, Shira Meisher’s Hanna Is Beautiful is both highly emotive and thoughtprovoking.
The eponymous woman is a mentally challenged 37-year-old who does her utmost to lead an independent life and to maintain a cheerful outlook on life, but she has to pick her way through a minefield of bureaucracy and a seemingly uncaring establishment. Elsewhere on the nonfiction side of the program, Tehila Raanan’s short offering Wall, Crevice, Tear takes a lyrical look at the women’s section of the Western Wall praying area and at the constant interfaith battle of wills there.
Religion also features front and center in Alon Rabinovich’s drama Muktzeh (Outcast) in which a Russian oleh is drawn into the world of religious devotion, only to be summarily slung out.
Judging by this year’s Ma’aleh alumni offerings, Israeli cinematic creative juices are in full flow.
For more information: modules/films/film.aspx?showid=15768