Saturday, May 28, 2011



Cats in love... by moonlight

At the opening of the 2011 Israel Film Festival (IFF) in New York, a Cultural Representative from Israel spoke eloquently of the ability of the films in the Israel Film Festival to provide to the world a picture of every-day, vibrant, real life in Israel, and to help erase the inaccurate cliches and negative images with which people have viewed Israel and its people. 

Unfortunately, based on the selection of films, I would say this edition of the IFF has done the opposite.  It has reinforced old ideas about Israel, is mired in the past, and has not at all presented an attractive or interesting picture of a modern Israel.

Of fifteen feature films, at least ten dealt with war, the holocaust, the Israeli army, the formation of Israel, or the history of the Jews. (The others were two romances, one horror film, one comedy, and one working-class gritty drama.)

The worst offender that I saw was the Opening Night film, INTIMATE GRAMMAR, which reinforces every negative image one might have of an unhappy, dysfunctional Israeli population living in the past.  Although based on a celebrated story by celebrated Israeli author, David Grossman, described as a "sensitive" study of growing up, I found the film very insensitive.  Here in the US, recently, there has been a lot of attention focused on the problem of peer bullying; as filmed, directed, and acted, this movie is about parental (and spousal) bullying. Indeed the mother/wife is a horrible harridan, exhibiting a virulence rarely displayed in film.  Ironically, (and metaphorically), although one of the cliches the Cultural Representative railed against was the idea that inside Israeli homes it is empty, in this film, in a desperate attempt to find love secretly (by establishing a "cover story" under which they could meet), the husband is hired by his neighbor to demolish the inside of her house, leaving the inside an empty rubble.

Of two contemporary "romance" films, I saw only one, (variously called 2 AM, 2 NIGHT or TONIGHT, and it was boring, colorless, unimaginative, and shot with less production quality than some home movies on YouTube. (By contrast, making the same joke as 2AM, on The Good Wife, the other night, the two leading characters finally decide to get together. From a season of shows, we know both characters very well.  They both want it. Badly. But... First, the hotel has no rooms, and they have to arrange for a $7,000+ a night room; then the elevator makes every stop up to the top floor; then the room key does not work; then they finally get in. This sequence takes about 10 minutes.  In 2 AM, two characters sort of decide to get together.  Neither seems to want it very much. They can't find a parking place. They drive around looking for a parking place.  They have nothing much to talk about. We learn very little about them.  And the film takes 83 minutes.)

An interesting documentary, LAND OF GENESIS, does have some beautiful nature footage, but lacks an informative narrative, and pales visually and intellectually compared to recent nature documentaries like March of the Penguins, or even Disney's nature movies from long ago, or the TV series on the meerkats.

BROTHERS pits two brothers -- who represent the Orthodox religious view of Israel and the opposing secular view -- against each other.  The film gives both viewpoints a reasonably fair hearing, until it veers at the end into a very one-sided conclusion.   Many dubiously credible plot developments occur throughout the film, especially toward the end. This film seems to be determined by the points it wishes to make, rather than by the needs of a story. While not very credible as a story, the issues it confronts are interesting as a not-completely-one-sided though heavily-weighted polemic.

ZION AND HIS BROTHER -- This quite brutal and disturbing film seems to suggest that persistent heat and near poverty are driving all its characters to nastiness -- or outright evil. Not one of the characters in this film is anyone I wanted to spend 90 minutes with.  I would hate to know them in life.  The film is well acted, well written and well made.  The characters are offensive people, their behavior, evil.

GEI ONI -- This very nice looking film gives a fictional description of early settlers to Israel.  It describes a very, very hard life.  Here, the back-story is not the holocaust but the Russian pogroms around the turn of the 1900's.  The principal actors are good, but many other scenes seem staged and feel quite artificial. (My own grandparents all made it across Europe from Russia to the US to escape those same persecutions.)  I found it interesting that the film includes dialog in Hebrew, Yiddish, English, Russian (and possibly some other East European languages, and Arabic and Turkish), suggesting the cosmopolitan up-bringing of these impoverished newcomers to a hostile land.

INFILTRATION -- This weird film about an army training camp for (mentally and physically challenged) recruits , contains behavior and events that simply made no sense to me at all.  I could not relate.  Now, possibly, it is my ignorance of Hebrew, army training camps, the Israeli army, or challenged recruits that prevented me from understanding, but frankly scene after scene described events and behavior that I did not recognize as recognizably Human or dramatically plausible.

LENIN IN OCTOBER  -- This amusing, simple TV film, cleverly describing a clear agenda, was well made and enjoyable.  It describes some earlier time in Israel when there were still Leninist communist romantics.  (It also describes a chef who has no success in Israel, but who could -- judging from the descriptions of his recipes -- have brought "new-Israeli" cuisine to the US and become a celebrity chef here.)

THE MATCHMAKER is a sophisticated and well-acted film about holocaust survivors on the days before the six-day war. (Reportedly, the producers asked for full reviews to be held until the film's commercial release...  OK.)

STRANGERS NO MORE -- This year's Oscar winning documentary short subject was made by American filmmakers in Israel. It's about a year in the life of an Israeli school which caters to immigrant/refugee school children.  It is a beautiful, inspirational film.  Because it is a short, it gets away with being totally one sided, with the teachers all "angels" and the students all triumphing over horrible events that brought them to Israel as refugees.  The students are from diverse nationalities, religions and races, and speak diverse languages.  They help each other, they try hard, and they are learning, succeeding, and thriving.  They are happy. (Note: The film barely touches on a problem that many of the students have: they are in Israel on temporary visas, and there is not a clear policy at this point that would allow them to stay, no matter how much they want to stay.) STRANGERS NO MORE was by far the most successful film I saw at this year's Israel Film Festival, and the one that came closest to realizing the stated objectives of the Israeli Cultural Representative.

While I did not see every film in the festival, my take is that the Israeli film industry -- as represented in the Israel Film Festival -- needs more resources to improve the production value of its films, needs to leave the past behind as a major theme, needs to leave behind the cliches of the wife/mother as harridan, the Jewish man as nebish, the Jewish woman as slightly aggressive before the fact, but frigid when time comes for physical love, needs to move into the present and the future, and needs to fulfill the vision of the Cultural Representative: to demonstrate the modern life of a modern Israel, intellectually vibrant, technologically advanced...  and it needs to make these films with more attention to the skills of story telling and with significant production values.

Perhaps the most successful event at the festival was the Opening Night Reception at which party-goers had the opportunity to mingle and talk, with good food and drink, and meet the incredible talents of actor Liev Schreiber,  director/choreographer Stanley Donen (Singing in the Rain & many more of Hollywood's finest classic musicals), and eminent Israeli producer/director Micha Shagrir.

The documentaries STRANGERS NO MORE and PRECIOUS LIFE (which was just shown on TV in the US) received Audience "doc" Awards. THE MATCHMAKER won the Panavision Audience Choice Award for best feature, and the box office for this festival was the highest in the history of the Israel Film Festival.





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