The Movie Reel Spins as Rockets Soar in the Sky: On the Ground at the Jerusalem Film Festival

By  · Published on July 18th, 2014

For the last week, I’ve been sitting in a darkened room watching movies with 200 of my newest friends while people were dying in air strikes only a few dozen miles away.

It’s silly, shameful really to think of it in those terms. But even recognizing how frivolous it is, there was still a lot more going on in those darkened rooms than mere escapist entertainment. The directors of the Jerusalem Film Festival made sure of that, creating a line up that – aside from its currently explosive context – allowed for moral challenges and thoughts to simmer inside the theater and out.

The Israeli film experience differs greatly from the Hollywood experience. Far from candy colored cultural exportation, budget and facility restraints push the Israeli film community to use the visual medium mostly for pure expression, a way of contemplating the issues that face not only Israel, but the whole of the Middle East and also much of the world. And isn’t that one of the best reasons to pursue art in the first place? Art exists in large capacity – and certainly this experience demonstrates that cinema is one of Israel’s emerging art markets – to help a culture work through its problems.

I saw quite a few films at the Jerusalem Film Festival, though sadly only a fraction of what was playing. For the most part, I focused on the Israeli films, partly because it seems counterproductive to spend my time sweating to get to movies that are already scheduled to be released On Demand in less than a month. I wanted to experience as much Jerusalem as I could, and that was more than simply finding the best falafel in the city (which I did as well, but that came after the movies).

As a whole, the Israeli cinema presented here is fiercely and passionately issue-driven, and it comes with a definitive home-grown perspective. The Holocaust, religion, old values battling new ones, and, of course, the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians are all popular, recurring themes.

In fact, it is this last subject that is most pervasive. There’s an obvious sense to that, and it was charged with immediacy the two times I heard sirens warning of rocket attacks blare, sending Jerusalemites rushing to find shelter. The locals and officials spoke with pride of their Iron Dome defense system, and with good reason as it was put to the test last week, but that doesn’t make the threat any less real, and deadly weapons aren’t traveling one way in this fight.

There’s no escapism in most of the films I saw because as I left the warm open air of the city and descended into the Jerusalem Cinematheque, the conflict on the streets was waiting for me on the screen. And that’s a good thing. Without this modern version of oral history to work through the problems of today, how else can the Israelis assure that future generations know that the issues facing their nation were not easy ones, or that the decisions made were not without consequence?

Arrival to a New City

After landing without incident in Tel Aviv early in the week, I found myself in a very westernized city. Jerusalem is a progressive city with both young people and old folks, but it is also a religious city that follows the old ways, though it does not outwardly condemn those who do not follow them. It is also a cosmopolitan city, which Arabs and Palestinians call their homes as well as Israelis and Jewish immigrants from other countries. Warm in the days with nights filled with cool breezes and clear skies, Jerusalem is a warm and inviting city to visit. A place we hear about in ancient stories now thoroughly wrapped in the arms of the 21st century.

At many points along the way, from our introduction to the good folks at the Jerusalem Press Club to Mayor Nir Barkat at the festival’s opening reception, there was a frankness about the conflict that loomed around us that was both comforting and unnerving. They acknowledged the current threat, and we were given plenty of instructions on where to go if and when the sirens sounded. However, the message was clear: even with rockets in the sky, the show would go on.

Progressive Film Schools

A good portion of this trip involved touring different aspects of Israeli culture and what is currently being done for the Israeli film scene. We met with Rene Schorr, the founder of the Sam Spiegel Film & Television School, which fosters the development of short films for filmmakers to hone their skills. This organization launched the Jerusalem International Film Lab in 2011 to help develop the production of feature-length films, and as part of the festival, they held their annual pitching event that featured filmmakers from more than a dozen countries.

What took me aback at this event was not just the quality of the pitches – which ranged from domestic dramas and family histories to fantasy tales and traditional folklore – but also the prevalence of women in the productions. Back in the U.S., our ongoing (and growing) discussion of the glass ceiling in Hollywood notes an embarrassingly low number of female directors at the helm of major motion pictures. Sadly that trend doesn’t seem to be changing. Not so in the Jerusalem International Film Lab, where easily two-thirds of the participants were women with powerful, compelling stories.

Later in the week, we also toured the Ma’aleh Film School at the Hansen Hospital, which focuses on developing filmmakers with a more religious background tackling issues of faith and humanity. As with the city as a whole, the film school takes matters of religion and faith seriously.

Poetry and Dogs: Israeli Docs

Of course, there were films to be seen as well outside the laboratory scene. I got to see Life of Poetry: The Story of Avraham Halfi, a 53-minute retrospective of the Israeli poet and actor. Here was a movie that showed a small pitfall in the Israeli film experience. While Avraham Halfi is well known in Israel, he is virtually unheard of outside of this country. It’s a competently made film and very watchable even without the cultural background, but it is made strictly for the Israeli audience and has little or no relevance outside of the country.

More accessible was Tal Michael’s documentary Pitbulls: Flesh & Blood, a look at former police officer Yuval’s tragic struggle to rescue pitbulls and other so-called “killer dogs” from dogfighting rings and euthanasia. Israel has some extremely strong laws governing the keeping and breeding of pitbulls, which only seems to increase criminal interest. Yuval’s story is heartbreaking and tragic, and it’s difficult to watch. It’s not just the people in this area that can suffer, but the animals as well, and this documentary brought these events to light with violent, enraging, and tragic clarity. Dog lovers can get behind this film but might turn away or find themselves in tears at several points; it is a very potent film and relevant to a disease that spreads in many places other than Israel. (On a lighter note, two of Yuval’s dogs joined him at the screening, which made for a nice diversion, and they were easily far better behaved than some festival attendees I encountered throughout the week.)

Religion and Tradition Challenged in Film

The heart of the Israeli film experience on display this week was the theme of challenging old beliefs and practices. At the epicenter of this was Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem from Shlomi and Ronit Elkabetz. Similar to Iran’s A Separation, Gett takes an unflinching look at the process of divorce in arabanicale court. Filmed almost entirely in a single room, Gett (which means “divorce” in Hebrew) shows how the process is only done with the permission of the husband. Even though their relationship has grown toxic, Elisha Amsalem will not grant his wife a divorce, and we are dragged along with them through this grueling five-year process. Gett screened at Cannes this year and features the incredibly popular theme of the modern world clashing with the conservative traditions of the Jewish religion. Watching this in an audience comprising mostly Israelis augmented the experience as laughs and murmurs from the crowd pointed me toward day-to-day connections with the story I wouldn’t have made on my own.

Another film that deals with the clash between the old and the new, which also shines a light on the lesser-known Ethiopian immigrants in Israel, is Bazi Gete’s Red Leaves. This film follows a widower who sells his apartment and decides to live the rest of his days alternating between the homes of his children. Of course, his hard-lined conservative cultural and religious beliefs are challenged when he is faced with modern-thinking grandchildren, a defiant daughter-in-law, and his other son’s deteriorating relationship with his wife. Director Gete, who comes from an Ethiopian immigrant family, identified the core theme of this film to be about immigration, and how every struggle that our main character goes through – whether we agree with him or not (and trust me, there are plenty of times when you wouldn’t agree with him, to the point of rage and condemnation with your cheeks running hot) – is a form of migrating toward becoming a new person again.

Visits to The Old City and the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum

Breaking from the dark cool of the theater, the Jerusalem Press Club arranged a visit to the Old City in the middle of the trip. We visited on Shabbat, so there were certain areas that were off-limits (like the Dome of the Rock, which only Muslims can visit on Saturday), and others with limited access (like the Wailing Wall, which we could not take pictures of). However, at the heart of the Old City is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which contains the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Even if you’re not a religious person, it’s an eye-opening visit, channeling through the church in dense crowds, shoulder-to-shoulder. The open air design of the church itself remains cool in the heat of the day, where you find yourself in an explosion of cultures swimming in fervor and passion.

In this sense, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a microcosm of not just the Old City itself, but Jerusalem and Israel as a whole. Six separate sects control the church: the Roman Catholics, the Greek Orthodox, the Armenians, the Syrians, the Ethiopians and the Copts. Similarly, the Old City is home to Jews and Muslims alike, along with a range of Christian followers.

The path through the Old City is not an easy one, especially for an out-of-shape fat guy like myself. The winding corridors that take you through the markets are filled with unusual sounds and smells – from the pleasant aroma of honeyed perfumes and earthy incense to the sharp and sometimes acrid odors deep in the lower meat market runs. Not for the claustrophobic, the market in the Old City is where the excitement happens, with shopkeeper’s voices calling to one another, responding energetically to the sound of potential customers and potential suckers. Sounds echo and focus in the narrow walls, to the point of being deafening when a random motor vehicle occasionally rolls up the tiny ramps on the stairs, leaving you choking on exhaust fumes for a moment before returning to the sometimes beautiful and sometimes biting smells of the surrounding booths.

Still, you can’t help but look down and realize that these are the streets of the holy books. Indeed, there is a section of the Old City labyrinth where the original stone from Biblical times has been uncovered where you can literally walk in the footsteps of history.

And the stairs… let’s not forget the stairs, which are everywhere in the Old City and outside of it. Jerusalem is a land of hills, so be sure to do your cardio before visiting, or you’ll wind up wheezing and sweating like a certain fat guy we all know.

Later, we visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum, which was heartbreaking, devastating, emotionally revealing and often painful to complete. It was also an important companion to the movies that brought us here. In 2005, the Visual Center was opened, which offers a comprehensive information center and viewing opportunities for Holocaust-related cinema. The viewing library includes digitized version of many films and excerpts, ranging from Hollywood feature films to home-spun documentaries. There are even propaganda films and Nazi-related content to show a total view of the tragic page in human history.

The Quest for the Best Falafel in the City

Of course, a trip to a foreign land is not complete without sampling the local cuisine, so with the help of our contact Hagay, I went on a quest to find the best falafel in the city. Yes, this meant more walking, and a lot of it. However, it’s hard to deny the official snack of Jerusalem. Along the way, I managed to also find what Hagay said was the best hummus in town (Hummus Ben Sira). Coming from the naive Midwest, I had always viewed hummus as a dressing, but it’s a full meal at Hummus Ben Sira: a great bowl of it, garnished with meat, chick peas, onions and cauliflower. Mine came with a side of tomatoes, onions and pickles, as well as some hot sauce and pitas so fluffy you could bounce a shekel off of them.

The hummus also came with three falafel, which I ate out of politeness, but was still determined to find the end to my quest. So, with my belly mostly full, my feet aching, I continued the arduous walk north.

Like any ancient city, Jerusalem was not built on a grid, so many of the roads do not run parallel. Even with Hagay’s detailed directions, I found myself lost in the Russian area of town. English had disappeared from the signs, leaving only Hebrew and Cyrillic characters. It was only a miracle that I managed to find the falafel place, and as I walked up to the window, the proprietor immediately thrust a falafel at me. I eagerly took it and popped it in my mouth, and I soon realized what Hagay was talking about. Warm from having just come from the fryer, the crispy snack seemed to melt in my mouth with a hint of additional spices I hadn’t tasted in the three I sampled before. Though I was still full from my hummus experience, I ordered a small bag with tahini sauce and pickles. (Have I mentioned the pickles before? Israeli pickles are little works of vinegar art.)

After scarfing down the bag of the best falafel in Jerusalem, I decided to head back to the Cinematheque. Of course, I was almost painfully full and had no sense of direction, so I hailed a cab and paid the “fat American who ate too much and doesn’t know his way around” tax.

Getting Into Shorts

Rounding out the Israeli films, I honed in on the shorts programs. I have a great love for short films because they are the red-headed stepchild of filmmaking. They’re a neglected art, but a wonderful way to sample a group of filmmakers, and they often have some of the more innovative structures around. The slate of shorts I watched over several days included many of the same themes (as if you’re surprised by now) – military dramas, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and religious clashes in the modern age. I also saw several films that examined the younger generation, including a young woman rediscovering her father in a nursing home in The Visit, a girl losing her virginity in Close Your Eyes, and a coming-of-age drama of a female soldier in Lookout. Like the pitches I heard earlier in the week, these shorts evenly focused on the stories of women in society as much as the men, a sign of progressive cinema that felt refreshing in a city this old.

My favorite short was Guy Nattiv and Eriz Tadmor’s Dear God, a feel-good romance about a man working at the Wailing Wall who anonymously answers a woman’s prayers. After days of immersion in stories of conflict both fictional and documented, it was nice to see something light-hearted.

Not to be left out of the shorts discussion was a slate of experimental films that were associated with the Ma’aleh Film School. Like some people, when I hear “experimental film,” I think of obscure mosaics of light and sound that can often be an incomprehensible mess. However, many of these experimental films were more focused, lacking a traditional narrative but having something definitive to say. In particular interest to me were Mili Pecherer’s clever and humorous 2pac its olrait which follows an investigator tracking down a mysterious message that involves the late Tupac Shakur; and Dana Gillerman’s Pornographic Collage which daringly examines pornography by showing multiple women a scene (off camera) and has them describe what they see to reveal their own biases, turn ons, triggers and values.

The Beginning in the Middle

Finally, as the festival reached its peak, we were given a chance to see the opening night selection that was postponed for security reasons. Eran Riklis’ Dancing Arabs struck right at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian tension as if prescribed and ordered up by every headline.

The film tells the story of a young Arab man whose is sent to a prestigious Jewish boarding school. There, he struggles with his Arab identity and clashes with the Jewish culture. Sometimes humorous and often pained, Dancing Arabs reveals the impact of Jewish and Arab racism from both sides and from the ground up. It presents a world where the two groups can coexist only with specific boundaries in place, and it saddles the younger generation with the older generation’s baggage which is unfortunate, if not entirely understandable.

Final Thoughts

After spending my first time in the Middle East in Jerusalem, particularly with my hand held by the Jerusalem Press Club, there’s an important distinction to make here. By the nature of the event, my experience at the Jerusalem Film Festival does not reflect the Palestinian viewpoint, and a few air sirens and trips to bomb shelters is nothing compared to the current war zone blossoming in the Gaza Strip.

To keep things in perspective, the Israeli filmmakers involved in the festival released a statement this week, saying: “We, the undersigned, Israeli directors whose films participate in the Jerusalem Film Festival, believe that in these violent days, it is impossible to talk only about cinema while ignoring the killing and horrifying events around us.”

Watching these films which largely acted as mirrors for the hope and misery happening outside the theater was a forceful experience that shoved me out of my comfort zone. I am not here to take a side in a political conflict that has been ongoing for decades. From my tiny vantage point in a cushioned chair with a film reel spinning, all I can say is that film is strong here, and there are many voices out there to be heard – Israeli, Palestinian, all of us – and that a movie theater can be much more than a place of escape.

The Jerusalem Film Festival is being held at the Jerusalem Cinematheque through July 20th. All photos by Kevin Carr.