Three siblings, their lives and relationships falling prey to tragedies both shared and separate. A man trying to save his grandmother’s shop — and an irreplaceable repository of modern Israeli history. A teenager grieving for her dead sister — while dealing with being pressured to marry the sister’s husband. The thumbnail synopses of, respectively, The World Is Funny; Life in Stills; and Fill the Void are perfect examples of why Nurit Yaron says that all of the films in this year’s Israeli Film Festival deal with relationships in their central themes.
Yaron should know: She is the chairwoman of the festival, which will take place March 2-17 in different venues across the Delaware Valley. Working together with Mindy Chriqui, who has been involved with the festival every year since she helped found it in 1997, and the festival’s 15-person selection committee, Yaron has orchestrated this year’s selection of seven films and three shorts.
To hear her tell it, there could have easily been more films shown, but time and space considerations prevented it. “This year’s films are stronger than last year’s,” she says, quickly adding that she has found herself saying something similar each of the eight years she has been involved with the festival. “Mindy and I say to each other at the end of each festival, ‘Oh, there is no way we can top this year.’ And then every year, we do.”
Chriqui says that the reason they feel that way has nothing to do with them, and everything to do with Israeli cinema. “You can’t compare what it was like when I started to what it’s like today — the quantity and the quality.” And she’s not just talking about the feature films and documentaries that make Israel a perennial contender at Oscars time, including two films in this year’s best documentary feature category, 5 Broken Cameras and The Gatekeepers. “The TV industry produces excellent made-for-TV movies, and it produces series like Homeland and In Treatment, which get picked up by American companies” — Homeland by Showtime, and In Treatment by HBO.
While neither of those documentaries will be playing as part of the festival, the festival’s opening film, The World Is Funny, has been making headlines of its own for some time. Nominated for more Ophir Awards (15) than any film in Israel’s history, it was also Israel’s highest-grossing film of 2012. It was directed by one of the country’s most acclaimed filmmakers, Shemi Zarhin (Aviva in Love), who will be in attendance and speaking to the audience after each showing.
The film is set in Zarhin’s hometown of Tiberias, a locale that he uses with the same frequency that Martin Scorcese uses New York City. Zarhin is quick to say that the Tiberias of The World Is Funny “doesn’t show its real side — it’s only from my imagination. It’s like going home, but to the home I know from my dreams.”
Zarhin’s is not the only award-winning film to be shown at the festival; every selection has been recognized by competitions around the world. The other film to be shown during opening weekend, By Summer’s End, won the Jury Special Mention at the Rehovot International Women’s Film Festival. Directed by Noa Aharoni, the movie deals with a mother’s struggle to get her 7-year-old daughter to learn to read before the start of school so that she is not left back a grade.
The second weekend of the festival features Life in Stills, directed by Tamar Tal, and winner of Best Documentary from both the Israeli Film Academy and Doc Tel Aviv; and Out in the Dark. This film, which won Best Picture at the 2012 Haifa International Film festival, focuses on the relationship between two men, an Israeli lawyer and a Palestinian student, and the myriad of issues that their affair brings to the surface. It is the first film from director Michael Mayer.
The fifth selection, A Bottle in the Gaza Sea, also examines Israeli-Palestinian relations through a pen-pal relationship that develops between a 17-year-old Israeli girl and a 20-year-old Palestinian man. Thierry Binisti’s film won Best Film at France’s Festival of Young Filmmakers at Saint Jean de Luz.
The festival’s final weekend opens with another documentary, Arnon Goldfinger’s The Flat, for which he was named Best Documentary Director at the 2011 Jerusalem Film festival. The film, which follows Goldfinger’s quest to understand the friendship between his grandparents — who fled Nazi Germany just before the beginning of World War II — and an SS officer and his wife, also won Best Documentary at the 2011 Ophir Awards.
The final selection, Fill the Void, features a performance by 18-year-old Hadas Yaron that won her the Venice Film Festival’s Volpi Cup for Best Actress — the first time that any Israeli has won an acting award at the festival. Directed by Rama Burstein, the film is an unsparing look at the life of a Chasidic teenager who is pressured to call off her engagement so that she can marry the husband of her sister, who died in childbirth.
By any measure, the films for this year’s festival are excellent examples of contemporary Israeli cinema. But why is there a need for an Israeli Film Festival in Philadelphia when there is already a Jewish Film Festival?
Chriqui says that the impetus came from the Israeli Consulate. “I was working for the Jewish Film Festival when the consulate came to me,” she recalls. “They said that they were interested in doing an Israeli festival. They felt that the Jewish one was pretty top heavy with Holocaust themes and things like that, and they really wanted to diverge.”
Philadelphia is not alone in having both an Israeli and a Jewish film festival. According to Isaac Zablocki, director of the Israel Film Center in New York, there are numerous other cities in the United States that feature both types, including New York. He says that “there is a need, especially since the renaissance in Israeli films in the last 10 years. They have become relatively disconnected from American audiences.” Zablocki goes on to bolster the need for these events by citing how Israeli films are much more successful in Europe than they are here.” His theory for why this is the case is twofold.
First, he says, culturally speaking, “Europeans are more open to foreign films — Americans can find subtitles to be too much effort." Secondly, he says that the very way Israeli films are made runs counter to the American process. Israeli filmmakers “are not looking to make the money back for their investors. They are made with governmental funds,” which are often co-productions with European companies. “This means they are made in the European style, because you must have a European on the team to get the funds.” This method of financing productions, Zablocki explains, leads to films that are more focused on artistic freedom than box office returns.
And speaking of free: High school and college students can see any selection without charge, including the short films from Tel Aviv’s Department of Film and Television — where Zarhin is a professor — that will screen following The World Is Funny, as long as they register online.
For more information and to purchase tickets, go to www.iffphila.org