The 19th annual local gathering will bring some of Israel’s most notable cinematic productions of the previous year to screens around Philadelphia.
With less than a week to go before opening night of the Israeli Film Festival, it’s no surprise that festival chairwoman Nurit Yaron was so busy taking care of details that an interview with her took place via speakerphone in her car. But she wasn’t trying to solve last-minute distribution issues or making sure that everything is just so for the actors and directors she is bringing in for post-screening talkbacks.
The evening’s itinerary was much more prosaic, but just as important to the success and image of this, the 19th annual local gathering of some of Israel’s most notable cinematic productions of the previous year. She and her longtime collaborator, Mindy Chriqui, were going to Holy Land Grill in the Northeast to finalize the Moroccan-influenced menu for the “meet the director” reception following the March 15 screening of Orange People at Bryn Mawr Film Institute.
After getting in a plug for the movie — a drama about three generations of women in a Moroccan Jewish family, each struggling to frame her own identity within both Israel and their community — as well as for the reception and the restaurant, Yaron begins enthusing about the other 10 films featured during the three weeks of the festival.
Opening the festival is the dark comedy about euthanizing septuagenarians, The Farewell Party. Nominated for 13 Ophir Awards (Israel’s Oscars) in 2014, including Best Picture, the film’s cast is a veritable Who’s Who of elder Israeli actors. They are led by Ze’ev Revah as Yehezkel, the inventor of an assisted suicide machine that would make Dr. Kevorkian proud, and Levana Finkelstein as Yehezkel’s wife, Levana. (She will appear after screenings of the film, on March 7 and 8 at International House.)
“It’s not your typically funny” film, Yaron says. “The way they deal with it is poignant and with humor.” Indeed, the directors, Tal Granit and Sharon Maymon, treat the fraught issue of end-of-life decisions with sensitivity, relying on the actors to convey the gravity and finality of impending death through nuance rather than talking points.
For those looking for positions on the controversial issue of euthanasia, the Consulate General of Israel to the Mid-Atlantic has arranged for the co-sponsors of the Death With Dignity legislation currently making its way through Harrisburg to appear for post-screening discussions as well. State Rep. Mark Rozzi (D-Berks) will be in attendance on March 7, as will State Sen. Daylin Leach (D-District 17) on March 8.
As in previous years, documentaries are well represented, including a double feature of documentaries from Israel’s Channel 10. While the station has been in the news itself of late due to its ongoing financial straits — caused in no small part, proponents aver, by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to prevent government assistance to the station as payback for its critical coverage of him and his wife — it has had a strong news division, including a documentary division led by Tzipi Baider, who will talk about A War Story and Seed of Life, which will be shown at International House on March 22.
A War Story is a welcome, if harrowing, tonic to the weeks of “did he or didn’t he” coverage of Brian Williams’ and Bill O’Reilly’s war reporting. The film is a stripped-down snapshot of the channel’s production teams covering last year’s Gaza war.
Field reporters getting covered in dust clouds kicked up by speeding tanks, running off-camera when mortar shells land within a few yards of their shot, agonizing over how to report on a casualty who was also a friend — even the sign-off quote from a newscast’s anchor, “May it be a quiet day” — provide viewers with an entirely new perspective on both the war and those who report on it.
Baider will also discuss the other Channel 10 film to be shown, Seed of Life, which is about a mother’s efforts to give her dead son a child through extraordinary reproductive efforts.
The festival’s other documentary double feature, on March 19 at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy, also has a reproductive focus. In addition to The Polgar Variant, the story of three Jewish sisters raised in 1970s communist Budapest to be chess masters, there will be a screening of Sacred Sperm, a rare look into the Chasidic community by one of their own, the director/narrator Ori Gruder.
Gruder’s initial inquiries on how to talk to his 10-year-old son about sex was the catalyst for this exploration of masturbation among those who take seriously the biblical prohibition against spilling seed, either through premature withdrawal during sex or masturbation. There will no doubt be some in the crowd who might need to suppress a smile as they remember the Monty Python ditty, “Every Sperm Is Sacred,” but this fascinating first-person account that sheds light on practices requiring haredi boys to urinate without touching their penises — or even looking at them in general — should enthrall the audience.
Learning how to deal with teenage urges is also a theme of the festival’s closing night film at the Ritz East on March 29, A Borrowed Identity.
The film, the latest by acclaimed director Eran Riklis (The Syrian Bride, Lemon Tree and The Human Resources Manager), has had a bit of an identity issue itself. Since it was first released last year under its original title, Dancing Arabs, it has been called My Son, My First Son and the United States-friendly A Borrowed Identity.
“It’s a sign of the times — and quite a sad one,” Riklis says. “Just the word ‘Arabs’ makes the world nervous. They don’t get it and, if they do get it, they’re worried that the Arabs might be offended or that it might classify the film as political and no one would come see it.”
And that would be a shame, because the film, about an Israeli Arab boy growing up and attending an exclusive Jewish boarding school in Jerusalem in the late 1980s and early 1990s, is an affecting piece of filmmaking. Through the protagonist Eyad’s (played with a winning blend of longing, unease and pride by Tawfeek Barhom) quest to be accepted by and take his rightful place in Israeli society, Riklis’ film lays bare the universal truth of the outsider’s conundrum of how and if to compromise identity, whether to pass as a member of the majority if possible, and how deep to bury the past in order to move forward.
Despite the existential questions raised, there is a surprising amount of humor in the film, especially in the beginning, which makes the shift in tone as Eyad deals with his limitations in status as a young adult all the more jarring. This is by design, Riklis says. “A major part of my work was to give the film a certain tone — to start it laughing, then with a smile, then on the edge of tragedy. I thought that using comedy in the first part of the film breaks down barriers. It draws the audience in and then, once they are drawn in and they love the characters, there is no way out!”
For the Tel Aviv-based Riklis, who will be part of a talkback after the screening, this will be a sort of homecoming. He taught a course called “From Ari to Ari” — encompassing Paul Newman’s Ari Ben Canaan in Exodus to Waltz With Bashir” — at the University of Pennsylvania last fall. “This was a class I wouldn’t have minded taking myself,” he says with a laugh. “I was teaching, but I was learning as well — it was such a joy to rediscover these Israeli films!”
For those looking to discover what the Ophirs considered to be the two best films of 2014, though, they will have to go outside the official auspices of the festival. Zero Motivation and Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amselam, which dominated the awards, are both being shown in Philadelphia at the same time, but are not part of the festival.
That doesn’t mean that Yaron and her team aren’t supporting the films, though. She is working with Landmark Theatres on a cross-promotion where the chain provides support for the festival, including use of the Ritz East, and the festival will support the two films.
“We are helping one another,” she says. “It’s in our best interest to promote these films; even though they’re not part of our festival, it wouldn’t be right if we didn’t acknowledge them in some sense.”
IF YOU GO
Israeli Film Festival
March 7 to 29