As Israel turns 60 this year, many celebrations and events have been taking place around the world and New York is no exception. One such birthday celebration came in the form of a major retrospective covering the past 10 years of Israeli filmmaking, co-produced by the Film Society of Lincoln Center together with the JCC, the Jewish Museum, and the Office of Cultural Affairs of the Consulate General of Israel.
Curated by Richard Peña, program director at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, this retrospective saluted Israel with a series of films, that gave a comprehensive overview of the past years of production and at the same time offered the NY audience a balanced and critical view of the state of affairs in Israel.
In the past several years, films from Israel have been extremely successful with critics and audiences around the world, playing at major festivals and garnering some of the most prestigious awards. For example, last year’s Berlinale competition entry BEAUFORD by Joseph Cedar won the Silver Bear for best director. The film was subsequently picked up by KINO INTERNATIONAL for US distribution and went on to be nominated for an Academy Award in the best foreign film category.
ISREAL AT 60 opened with a special pre-release screening of LEMON TREE attended by director Eran Riklis. While introducing his film Riklis acknowledged the possible controversies that it may raise. He stated that he was extremely proud to come from a country that not only supports its filmmakers’ right to produce controversial films, but regards these films as an essential element of its ongoing debate about the situation in the Middle East. Riklis very much hopes that his film LEMON TREE is a modest and humble contribution to this ongoing debate.
LEMON TREE is a simple yet extremely powerful film about Salma, a Palestinian woman (played by the captivating Hiam Abbas), who is forced by the Israeli Secret Service to abandon her lemon grove under the claim that it poses a potential terrorist threat to her new neighbor, the Israeli minister of defense. With the help of a Palestinian lawyer (charismatic Ali Suliman of PARADISE NOW) the two fight tirelessly to overturn this verdict, taking the case all the way to the Israeli Supreme Court.
After winning this year’s Berlinale Audience Award, LEMON TREE has been picked up by IFC PICTURES with a planned theatrical release in early 2009. It is certainly a release to look forward to.
LEMON TREE marks the fourth Israeli film in six years to win the prestigious Audience Award in Berlin. Other winners were Nir Bergman’s debut BROKEN WINGS in 2003 and the documentary PAPER DOLLS by Tomer Heymann in 2006.
The fourth film, LIVE AND BECOME, by filmmaker Radu Mihaileanu, won the same award in 2005, and was among the films in the ISRAEL AT 60 retrospective. The film tells the bittersweet story of young Shlomo, whose mother has him assume a Jewish identity so that he can escape his hopeless situation in Ethiopia and start a better life in Israel. The film follows Shlomo’s coming of age, his struggle to come to terms with his own identity in a new society, and his urge to return home.
These films echo Richard Pena’s opening remarks that recent Israeli filmmaking has been strong, powerful, and engaging. Fresh from Cannes, Pena confirmed that this style will continue through the next year with films such as WALTZ WITH BASHIR by Ari Folman. Folman’s work, an animated documentary film about the first Lebanese war, presents the war through the eyes of Israeli soldiers. The film recently premiered in competition at Cannes and proved to be a favorite with critics and audiences. In the wake of such a positive reception, WALTZ WITH BASHIR has been picked up by Sony Pictures Classics for a theatrical release later in the year.
Following are a few more films in this very strong retrospective:
OR, by Keren Yedaya was the 2004 Cannes Camera D’Or winner. It is an emotionally strong and gripping portrait of Or, who in a parent/child role reversal is compelled to look after her mother, an aging prostitute. This film has an urgency and a realistic feel that makes every minute of it worth watching.
CLOSE TO HOME, by filmmakers Vidi Vardit Bilu and Dalia Hager, tells the story of two women soldiers stationed in Jerusalem who check the identity of Arab looking citizens to ensure they are registered and not potential terrorist threats. Mirit and Smadra (well cast Naama Schendar and Smadar Sayar) are forced to patrol the center of Jerusalem together. Though their opposite personalities clash and the two struggle with each other, they slowly come to like and depend upon one another.The film captures both the everday life of female soldiers and their coming-of-age, which is anything but ordinary.
THIRST by Tawik Abu Wael is noteworthy for several reasons, among them the fact that it is a Palestinian-Israeli co-production. In slow and controlled images, Wael illustrates the life of a Palestinian family living in the isolation of an abandoned military compound. Ruled by family tradition and the restrictions of severe patriarchy, the wife and children suffer immensely. However, when the father passes away and the opportunity for change finally emerges, this family stubbornly continues their difficult way of life. Beautifully portrayed by non-actors, THIRST is a disturbing family portrait that shows how deep some traditions can run, and how seemingly impossible it can be to change them.
DISENGAGEMENT is Amos Gitai’s latest feature film. Starring French actress Juliette Binoche and Israeli actor Liron Levo, it is the story of Uli and Ana, two siblings returning to Israel during the 2006 clearing of settlements in the Gaza strip. Uli (Liron Levo) plays a police officer who coordinates the disengagement and Ana (Juliette Binoche) travels with him to reconnect with her daughter who lives in one of the settlements being cleared. By telling a personal story set within very dramatic political events, Gitai puts a distinctly human face to a conflict that often appears abstract and impersonal.
After the screening at the Walter Read Theater, Gitai talked about the intent of his film – to explore the physical as well as emotional borders and barriers people and nations erect, and the struggle to overcome them. With his own sense of humor, Gitai shared his personal view of the Middle East conflict. He sardonically believes that this ongoing conflict is another example of a good Palestinian-Israeli co-production, one that strives to be in the news all the time. Whenever another piece of breaking worldnews takes attention away from them, both parties are disappointed.
Apart from the strong features, the retrospective also included some powerful documentary films.
No. 17 by David Ofek is about the filmmaker’s quest to give a name and a face to an unidentified victim of a suicide attack. At first, victim Nr 17 does not seem to have any identity, but as the film progresses, we not only learn Nr 17’s identity, but also the research, work and administration that continues long after the news teams have left the scene of the crime.
CHECKPOINT, by documentary filmmaker Yoav Shami, critically observes the Israeli soldiers on patrol at different checkpoints and their daily interactions with the Palestinians they encounter. CHECKPOINT is a film that makes us realize again and again how multilayered and rife with tension this everlasting conflict is.
PURITY: BREAKING THE CODES OF SILENCEE is a documentary by Anat Zuria.
The filmmaker gives us intimate insight into Tharat Hamisphaha, the practices that regulate the lives and sexualities of Jewish orthodox women. Zuria juxtaposes the views of women with different experiences and attitudes towards these strictly codified practices with sensitivity and ultimately leaves it up to the audience to draw their own conclusions. The filmmaker should be highly congratulated for making the women in the film feel comfortable enough to open up and share their stories. Such openness provides the audience with an understanding of a rarely discussed topic.
THE INNER TOUR by Ra’anan Alexandrowicz, KADDIM WIND by David Benchetrit,
LATE MARRIAGE by Dover Koshashvili, USHPIZIN by Giddi Dar, THREE MOTHERS by Dina Zvi-Riklis, CAMPFIRE by Joseph Cedar, AVENGE BUT ONE OF MY TWO EYES by Avi Mograbi completed this thought-provoking, high quality film series.
On Tuesday, June 3rd, as part of the ISRAEL AT 60 series, the Jewish Museum offered a free Panel Discussion on the topic BUT IS IT JEWISH – CONTEMPLATING CONTEMPORARY ISRAELI CINEMA. Moderated by film critic Leslie Camhi, the panel included film critic and writer David D’Arcy, screenwriter Noah Stollman and Columbia University professor Uri S. Cohen.
One of the questions posed to the panel was why such a strong national cinema exists in Israel right now. Critic and writer David D’arcy, who is also a programmer for the Haifa International Film Festival, stated that one reason for the strong production slate is the availability of funds. Beginning in 2000, there was a significant increase in funding for the Israeli Film Fund and now approx. US $10 Mio (million?) is allocated annually to support Israeli films. With relatively low production costs, between US$ 1-2 (million?) per film, these funds can go a long way. In addition, there are good co-production opportunities for Israeli projects; France and Germany are the leaders in entering co-production deals, but even Japan invested in the highly popular and successful feature SWEET MUD by Dror Shaul.
Screenwriter Noah Stollman (SOMEONE TO RUN WITH amongst others) added that there are over 10 very good film schools in Israel, like the Sam Spiegel Film School and the orthodox Ma’ale School of Television, Film, and Art. Furthermore, Israel has a richness and complexity of cultures that offers an abundance of material for good stories. Perhaps because of this cultural wealth, many talented Israeli filmmakers actually stay in Israel to make films. All of these factors lead to personal, local films with a universal relevance and appeal. Some of these latest productions can be seen at upcoming Jewish Film Festivals around the country.