Over the last 30 years, efforts have been made to showcase Israeli cinema in a variety of venues.
As the art houses that were prevalent across America slowly disappeared and commercial theaters remained reluctant to exhibit subtitled movies, it became harder and harder to see Israeli movies here. In the rare case when an Israeli film found its way to a movie house in New York, usually it was there and gone a week later.
With that truth in mind, an enterprising Meir Fenigstein, the drummer from the legendary Israeli band Kaveret, started the Israel Film Festival in New York. The festival began in the 1980s and over the years it has expanded to Los Angeles, Miami, and Chicago. But the festival, which had been an annual occurrence in New York, eventually lost steam and started fading.
The JCC in Manhattan picked up the slack and initiated its own festival. Now in its fourth year, the JCC Israel Film Center Festival is taking place on New York’s Upper West Side through Thursday.
The Israel film industry has taken an upturn these last 15 years, as more and more film schools were established, and as the Israel government realized that investing in moviemaking was good for Israel. After all, how do people learn about a country? The press often provides a dismal or disconcerting view of Israel, but movies provide a different perspective on an introspective country. Increasingly, there is recognition that cinema can be seen as an important medium for providing insight into a society’s social and political history. To be sure, the films that are produced often raise difficult societal issues, but through cinema we get a broader understanding of a vibrant and democratic Israel.
We may question the need for an Israel film festival, when Israeli movies are today more readily available online or on demand. But the chance to delve into the subject of a film with the writer, director, or actor present, talking about their work, allows a better comprehension of the often complex nature of Israel and is an opportunity not to be missed.
Also, is it not true that seeing a movie with an audience is so much more a meaningful experience than seeing it alone at home?
This year’s festival opened with a screening of the winner of the Ophir award, Israel’s academy award for best motion picture. The film, called “Baba Joon” and set in the 1980s, is about a Persian Jewish family, and conflict between the elder generation that wishes to hold onto tradition and the next two generations, who want to open to their new home, Israel. The debut film by director Yuval Delshad, largely in Farsi, “Baba Joon” sheds light on what is an important issue today in — the lost traditions and customs within Israel’s many ethnic communities.
“Dawn,” the morality novel about British Mandate Palestine written by Elie Wiesel and published in 1961, was adapted for film by Billy MacKinnon and directed by Romed Wyder. It will have its New York premier at the festival. Other narrative feature films being screened at the festival include Elad Keidan’s “Afterthought,” about two men literally and figuratively going in opposite directions on Haifa’s Mt. Carmel stairway; Lee Gilat’s “Encirclements,” about a Mizrahi bar mitzvah boy’s real coming of age; “Fire Birds” directed by Amir Wolf, which tackles some of the psychological issues of Holocaust survivors within a thriller setting; and Shemi Zarhin’s “The Kind Words,” which looks at family relations and a mysterious past unearthed after the death of a matriarch. Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz’s “Shiva” also will be screened, as a tribute to the late director/actress Ronit Elkabetz.
All in all, 11 narrative films and two documentaries will be screened. In addition, episodes from two new television series, one of which was created by Hagai Levy, also will be shown; Levy, the creator of “Homeland,” will be in attendance.
The Israel Film Center Festival runs through June 9 at JCC in Manhattan and select locations throughout Westchester County. Don’t miss this unique opportunity to see Israeli films and television and hear from some of Israel’s most talented artists.
Eric Goldman writes and lectures on Jewish and Israeli cinema. He is the founder of Ergo Media, a distributor of Jewish cinema.