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The 24th Israel Film Festival

The saga of early Israeli cinema is the saga of selfless heroes building a nation, both onscreen and off. Glimpse these mythical creatures in A History of Israeli Cinema, a look back at the country’s 70 plus years of moviemaking. Raphaël Nadjari’s two-part documentary will have its American premiere at the Israel Film Festival (December 5-13 in New York), which has overlapped with 24 of those years.
As if to underscore how far the national film culture has come from since its birth, 2009 IFF opens with the sumo wrestling comedy, A Matter of Size. Directors Sharon Maymon and Erez Tadmor show Israel’s New Man as a fatso unable to sacrifice a snack, much less his life. The film is slated for an American remake. Today’s anti-heros sell Sabra power like their patriotic forebears could only hope to.
“Israeli film is on the go,” says IFF Founder/Executive Director Meir Fenigstein. “These days Israeli filmmakers believe their film will be in competition in Cannes or Berlin. They deserve to dream, because that’s where the Israeli film industry is now.”
In recent years, such films as Walk on Water (2004), The Band's Visit (2007), Beaufort (2007) and Waltz with Bashir (2008) have won critical international acclaim, with Beaufort and Waltz with Bashir garnering nominations for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.
Fenigstein partly credits this breakthrough to the infusion of state and private funding for cinema, nearly a decade in the works. New voices have since found an in, opening the Israeli screen to diversity and innovation. With so much at stake, film advocates geared up for a major battle last July, when the Knesset slashed the industry’s budget proposal of NIS 67 million (roughly $18 million) per year to NIS 25 million. Those shekels sustain the annual production of 14 - 18 feature films and some 120 hours of documentaries, with outlays of $500,000 - $1,000,000 per film and roughly $150,000 per hour of documentary.
This year’s IFF showcases the varied complexion of Israeli filmmaking via 28 features, documentaries and shorts. Kirot, by Danny Lerner, ventures into genre territory with the story of a sex worker who becomes a hit woman in hopes of returning to her native Ukraine. Shmuel Beru’s Zrubavel also investigates crime, but from the perspective of Ethiopian immigrants seeking to blend in with Israeli culture.
Several of the films invoke Arab-Israeli affairs, whether in the political or romantic sense. Seven Minutes in Heaven reconstructs the bus explosion and subsequent events that injured director/writer Omri Givon’s protagonist and ultimately killed her boyfriend. MidEastern variations on Romeo and Juliet surface in two selections: Jaffa, by Keren Yedaya, shoots cupid’s arrow at the daughter of an Israeli car repair shop owner and a Palestinian mechanic; and in Dror Zahavi’s For My Father, a Palestinian botches his suicide mission and falls for a Tel Aviv beauty raised in an Orthodox Jewish home.
Bruriah takes a different angle on an Orthodox daughter. Avraham Kushnir’s nonfiction debut is a modern drama inspired by the 2nd-century legend of Bruriah, a sage whose rabbi husband sent a student to seduce her as proof that "women are lightheaded.” American director Paul Schrader also unearths a dark tale from the past for Adam Resurrected, in this case a 1968 novel by Yoram Kaniuk about a charismatic patient of an Israeli asylum for Holocaust survivors. Rounding out the fiction slate are Seven Days, Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz’s melodrama of Jewish mourning, and Mrs. Moscowitz & the Cats, a sentimental education among retirees, from Jorge Gurvich.
Itself past 60, Israel continues to evolve apace. Its changing social landscape crops up in several documentaries, like David Ofek’s Tale of Nicolai, about Romanian workers who run afoul of Israeli law, and Ilan Aboody’s The "Shakshuka" System, which probes Israeli wealth and power through the lens of the elite Ofer family.
Few come to the IFF for an escape from reality, but rather to check in with that reality, from proliferating points of view. Ideally, a work’s impact “stays with them for ten minutes,” as Fenigstein recalls former Festival honoree Miloš Forman couching his goal as a filmmaker.
This year’s honorees are actor Elliott Gould (Lifetime Achievement Award), who emceed Opening Night Awards at the 4th Annual IFF; writer/director Paul Schrader (Achievement in Film Award); and Don Krim (Visionary Award), president of Kino International distribution company, whose Israeli titles include Renen Schorr’s Late Summer Blues, Amos Gitai’s Kadosh and Kippur, Cannes Camera d’Or winner Or, Joseph Cedar’s In the Time of Favor and Beaufort as well as this year’s submission from Israel to the Academy Awards, Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani’s Ajami. Opening night honors and Festival screenings will take place at the SVA Theatre, at 23rd Street and 8th Avenue. (IFF program and ticketing information is available at
Presented by IsraFest Foundation, Inc., in association with the Consulate General of Israel in New York, IFF seeks to promote cultural interchange through American-Israeli encounters and the medium of Israeli cinema. In keeping with its mission, the Festival will bring in 15 special guests to attend the 2009 festivities and conduct post-screening discussions. And ever-attuned to tomorrow’s talent, it will showcase student productions, this year from seven Israeli film schools.
In the near future, the IFF faces its Silver Anniversary. “What do you do with a milestone like that?” Fenigstein wonders. “Maybe someone from the audience has a good idea.”
Inviting community input, itself, would seem a good idea. As Israeli cinema continues its ascent, forcing the IFF to compete with more powerful siblings like Cannes, Berlin, Venice, Sundance and now TriBeca, the Festival -- like Israel -- may be ripe for some soul searching.
“It used to be that I was the only kid on the block,” says Fenigstein, “but we have to adjust to the situation.”

By Laura Blum


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