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Screen Doors

Israel, a nascent cinematic empire, produces great films. But the 28th annual Jerusalem Film Festival, the industry’s most prominent showcase, is still plagued by informality and inattention

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Paula Galinelli Hertzog in Paula Markovitch’s The Prize, the winner of an In the Spirit of Freedom Award at the Jerusalem Film Festival. (Urban Distribution Int.)

What can you say about a country that has 15 film schools and only four medical schools? Does it suggest Israel’s abiding love for cinematic distraction over the concerns of life and limb—or does it suggest something simpler and more reflexive, a preference for proliferation for its own sake, not all that different from the overwhelming variety of yogurts that are available in Israeli supermarkets? Perhaps the smaller the land, the more important the illusion of choice.

And what can you say about a country that has steadfastly refused to learn the rudiments of PR, both for political and cultural purposes? That invites journalists over, expenses paid, for a much-touted cultural event and then pretty much leaves them to their own devices once they arrive? That insists, say, on misspelling my last name as Mirkin rather than Merkin despite many emails over many months attesting to the correct spelling? Is it a form of arrogance or a kind of autism?

And finally, what can you say about a country that doesn’t recognize the uses of formality, that overlooks all semblance of hierarchy in the name of “protectzia,” or favoritism. You know someone who knows someone who knows someone, and therefore you are entitled to be first in line—or, as is more likely, to push yourself to the front of the line. Rules are there to be fudged, schedules exist to be superseded.

Quel balagan: What a mess. And yet it’s our balagan, inspiring equal amounts affection and irritation. Sure, it would be nice if someone would think to put on a tie once in a while at an award ceremony, or if people would quietly take their seats when a screening is about to begin instead of clogging up the entryway, chatting as if they were in a cafeteria. It would be nice, but it wouldn’t be Israel, land of milk and honey and high-tech start-ups and generous government funding for movie-making. During the last year alone, according to the annual catalog of Israeli films, the country produced 89 feature films and documentaries.

I’ve been thinking about Israel and movies because I’ve just returned from being a judge at the 28th Jerusalem Film Festival. The festival, which took place at the Cinematheque, ran for nine days, from July 7 to 16. I was asked to serve on a jury that gave In the Freedom of Spirit Awards to both a feature film and a documentary; the entries included homegrown products as well as international fare. Attending the festival with me was my friend, the critic Richard Schickel, who had never been to Israel before.

Although I’ve never been to Cannes—the only film festival I’d attended prior to this one was a documentary festival in Newport—I feel confident in saying that the Jerusalem Film Festival is nothing like Cannes: no red carpet, no glamorous stars, no five-star accommodations, no daily allotments of spending money. The slightly cut-rate approach began with the flights to Israel, which were economy. I intervened with the authorities on behalf of Richard, who is 78 and was flying from Los Angeles, and succeeded in getting them to bend and fly him business-class. I had no such luck when it came to my own ticket.

These might sound petty to mention—much less point out—but it’s precisely these details that set the tone for an event like a film festival. After all, Sundance would not be Sundance without the presence of Hollywood magnetism in the snow-capped hamlet of Park City, Utah—such festivals generate prestige with an after-party or two that makes those invited to the soirees feel special.

In Jerusalem, some of our screenings started as early as 8:15 a.m., and others were as late as 10 p.m. On some days I saw three films one on top of the other, and on other days I had a single screening. In between, I went up and down the steps that led to the Cinematheque and somewhere along the way developed dysentery—a disease I thought had gone out with Lawrence of Arabia—which very much weakened my stamina for watching the slew of earnest but uninspired documentaries on tap. I also tried to socialize with the Israelis attending the festival, but, alas, they were a particularly inbred group—provincial in their sophistication and disinclined to take an interest in the strangers in their midst.

It is misleading, however, to suggest that the films I saw lacked the artistic credibility of those premiered at more established festivals, simply because of the organizational mishaps I encountered. In fact, I found it all the more insightful into the Israeli psyche that a festival with barely any pomp and circumstance still managed to screen a plethora of excellent films. It was a festival for film fanatics who truly appreciate quality cinema and care little about the perks and happenings outside the low-lit theaters. Which might also explain why my two fellow judges were friendly and interesting to talk to (about movies as well as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and life in New York). One of them, Yael Perlov, is an editor and producer of feature and documentary films who teaches film editing at Tel Aviv University. The other, Gidi Orsher, is the film critic for Israel Army radio and a lecturer in film. Yael and I tended to see eye-to-eye on most of the selections, while Gidi brought a different, slightly more jaded angle to our viewings.

The movies we saw were a mixture of Israeli and European entries. Some of the American and Canadian offerings included Errol Morris’ Tabloid, which tells the story of one Joyce McKinney, a 1970s beauty queen with a genius IQ who became obsessed with an overweight Mormon; Joseph Dorman’s documentary about Sholom Aleichem, Laughing in the Darkness; and Beginners, with Christopher Plummer and Ewan McGregor. There were several films I wished I could have seen but didn’t manage to get to, such as The Redemption of General Butt Naked, Gillian Wearing’s Self Made (Wearing is one of the young British artists who broke onto the art scene in the 1980s alongside Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin), Sebastian Silva’s Old Cats (he made the marvelous The Maid of last year), and a Norwegian film called Happy Happy. The best Israeli movie at the festival was The Flat (HaDirah), a deeply personal and surprisingly impious meditation on family secrets with a Holocaust twist, made by the talented Arnon Goldfinger. There was also a feature film called Policeman (HaShoter), which, while not totally coherent, had enormous energy.

All three of us judges agreed on which entry we thought worthy of the feature award, which was a truly remarkable debut film made by a young Argentinian woman, Paula Markovitch. Called The Prize, it tells the story of a mother and her 7-year old daughter who have fled the Argentinian military junta for a remote coastal region sometime in the 1970s. The film’s power as a political comment works allegorically and sometimes too confusingly; its real strength is as a close-up, a transporting portrait of a mother and daughter at bay, seeking relief in each other’s company. The acting is haunting, and the movie—which moves at a deliberately slow, almost trance-like pace—stayed with me for days.

We awarded the prize for best documentary to A Bitter Taste of Freedom, a lucid investigation of the life and circumstances surrounding the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, the Russian investigative journalist and civil rights activist who was shot dead outside her Moscow home in 2006 at the age of 48. Two other documentaries that caught our attention were The Green Wave, an animated film about the freedom movement that started up in the wake of the Iranian elections of June 2009, and Concrete, a stark portrait of the thoughts and feelings of a group of soldiers who took part in Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2009.

Finally, there were three films that I caught that are definitely worth seeing if they should come this way. One is Amnesty, an almost wordless Albanian film about a love affair that springs up during a monthly conjugal visit between a man and a woman arriving to visit their respectively imprisoned spouses; another is The Arbor, a British film by Clio Barnard that follows the lives of the three children of Andrea Dunbar, a young playwright who came from the projects of Bradford and wrote about the drugs, sex, exploitation, and violence that she saw there. Dunbar died in 1990 at the age of 29, and the film takes up the grim circumstances in which her children—particularly her oldest, biracial daughter, Lorraine—grew up. Last but not least is Code Blue, a Dutch film that follows a nurse for terminally ill patients as her life spirals downwards into isolation and violence. It is grim but captivating at its core.

Israeli enthusiasm for movies, including more “arty” movies, is inspiring to see. The screenings were mostly full, and there was a perceptible excitement in the air. “Israel has everything in place to become the next great film culture,” Schickel told me. “They have the money, the ambition, the schools, and the willingness.” Now if only they would learn to take the time to put on a tie, and maybe even spell my name correctly.

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I only wish I could have walked down those steps to the Cinemateque-with the fantastic view of the Old City Walls and surroundings-multiple times. I was able to buy tickets to one movie, as most sold out before the second day of the festival. The writer’s comments seem of a piece with her other published kvetches about her poor self. Instead of worrying about how her name was spelled in English ( a consistent problem in Isreal, I admit, but so laughable compared to other issues), she should have moved herself to get to the Jerusalem Theater and see the splendid movie Footnote or to the fabulous exhibits at the Israel Museum.

Merkin, or is it Murkin (as in murky) has analyzed herself publicly so many times, she has exhausted the material.So now she’s shifted over to analyzing the Israeli psyche of which the wearing of a tie seems to be a critical element. A tie? In this heat? I don’t see ties at the opening of MOMA mid-winter exhibitions.The quick cut and thrust comment may work at Manhattan cocktail parties but the absurd comparison of the number of hospitals and film schools in Israel is just that – absurd. Come back, Daphne, when you’re ready to really comment on Israeli life.

Allan Leicht says:

I would add two ingredients to Ms. Merkin’s fine article to complete the recipe for Israel becoming a movie capital: Russian Jews and climate identical to Southern California, sea meets desert with minimum rainfall. Those elements made Hollywood. The Negev could be the next great spaghetti western location.

ho hum, poor you. An all expense paid gig to be a guest in a culture that is out of your comfort zone. Ever hear of a “laid-back” culture? Ever hear of a culture that doesn’t, you’ll excuse the expression, genuflect in front of every celeb or VIP in its midst? Israelis are a tough breed, but a fairly cultured one. Conductors the world over love working in front of Israeli audiences- they know the music. This is also a culture that still reads- you should see what the annual book fairs look like. So many film schools? It probably means there is so much that we think needs saying, but better. OK, Israelis aren’t so good at cocktail party, but dig a little deeper if you come back. There is much good.

By the way, you are right about the access to the Cinemateque building- surprising oversight that the recent renovation didn’t include a street level elevator.

daphne merkin needs to stop kvetching, no ties! quel horror! nobody in israel wears a tie, even chief rabbi amar, he is rather glamours in robes and turban, pauvre daphne relegated to economy. cultural criticism isn’t intended to be a free first class vacation, next time pay for your own upgrade.

I think the others have said it well, but who cares about ties and Gerkins (or is it Merkins)? It’s the movies that count.

babawawa says:

I realize that this post is about a film festival, but I just want to comment on Israeli movies. For the most part, they are powerful and frank, a bit overwhelming, but always very moving. I recently saw “Or”, “Eyes Wide Open”, “For My Father” and “Lebanon” and was very impressed by the quality and depth of the subject matter. They are completely unlike most American films in their grittiness and the open portrayal of sexuality. It’s not for everyone, and although I cringe while I watch, it’s always worth it.

Ian Wilson says:

This message is for the author of this great piece. Recently in the U.K the TV station More4 showed The Redemption of General Butt Naked. This station has a good reputation for highlighting the very best in documentaries. I am not sure if you can view this outside of the U.K, however, your report suggested you would like to see this docu so why not give it a go.
All the best.

Rachamim! It makes your heart bleed to hear of such human and civil rights violations. And surely, the Israeli tax payer has nothing else to do with their money than get Merkin a first class ticket. Petty indeed, as she says herself. I will forward this article to the organizers of the festival in the hope that they will never again want to associate in any way with this whiner. Next she’ll want them to pay for those shrinks she writes so long-windedly about.

I was a “guest” of the film festival too, and I have to agree that while it was great on content, it was, unfortunately, weak on organisation. After 28 years, the organisers should be capable of doing better.

Shalom Freedman says:

This was an interesting piece. Let me defend the kvetcher a bit. As someone who has lived in Israel for close to four decades I can attest to the legitimacy of the kind of complaint she makes. What she is really talking about is the whole subject of ‘Derech Eretz’ real consideration of the other, not only in the big things, but in the small things. Taking time and care to actually enable the ‘other’ to feel that their reality is recognized. The -rushing ahead first to the goal mentality- precludes this. On the other hand the other well- known cliche is also, or perhaps was more in the past, true. Should the ‘other person’ stumble the Israelis will be ready to involve themselves more quickly than others, in giving help.
One more point in defense of our people. Israel is as we all know the most threatened country in the world. Stresses and pressures are our daily bread. The summer heat does not help, but in our more air- conditioned world that I suppose is no excuse. There is so much beauty, and goodness in Israel, so many people who do remarkable things for others it is difficult to understand why this part of it, the Derech Eretz part of it, cannot be gotten hold of in a better way. But perhaps that is part of it also i.e. In rushing ahead to help A we may often step on the toes of B on the way.

Caroline says:

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Great article. I was there and saw every Israeli film. The festival was a bit toned down this year, with less fanfare, and it is always the definition of Balagan.
The Israeli films were not as good as past years, but I felt the documentaries were even better.
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Screen Doors

Israel, a nascent cinematic empire, produces great films. But the 28th annual Jerusalem Film Festival, the industry’s most prominent showcase, is still plagued by informality and inattention

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