No better place to see movies than in Jerusalem!
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No better place to see movies than in Jerusalem!

Eric Goldman writes and teaches about Jewish cinema. He is president of Ergo Media, a distributor of Jewish, Yiddish and Israeli film.

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Director Yaov Shamir’s new film, which is not quite finished, is a documentary called “Ten Percent: What Makes a Hero?”

Coming to Jerusalem to watch movies? As a friend said to me, “It’s like being at summer camp for Jewish movie lovers!”

The 30th annual Jerusalem Film Festival opened last Thursday with a screening of the Israeli film, “Hunting Elephants.” Thousands of people were there, at the outdoor Sultan’s Pool; the only possible distractions from the large screen were the brightly lit walls of Jerusalem and the Tower of David up above. Sasson Gabai and Moni Moshonov, two of Israel’s finest veteran actors, and British actor Patrick Stuart play three Golden Agers who attempt a bank robbery. Is Reshef Levi’s film great cinema? Not really! But what was different were the cascades of laughter in the cool Jerusalem air. I must confess that there has not been much levity in recent Israeli movies. So I sat back, watched three master actors work their magic, and had fun.

The festival runs for 10 days and includes films from around the world. You could see some of them at New York’s fine Jewish film festival in January, but to be able to chose among four simultaneous screenings, have a chance to go out on the balcony, order a “café hafooch” and look out on the magnificent walls of the City of David? That can only be done in Jerusalem. Otto Preminger had it right in “Exodus,” when he had Paul Newman and Eva Marie-Saint sit at the King David Hotel overlooking the Old City. So I sat with my wife on the Cinematheque balcony, smelled the crisp Jerusalem air, and chatted about the last movie, while eavesdropping on the film conversations of the people around us.

Rumors abounded about financial constraints, cutbacks in the number of screenings, and fewer notable film actors and directors coming to Jerusalem this year, but none of that seemed to matter once the festival began. The Cinematheque’s new director, Alesia Weston, whose enthusiasm and dynamism propelled the good feelings that permeated the halls, helmed the festival. Cinephilia took hold, as audiences, young and old, from all parts of Israel and around the world, took their seats and watched the movies that unreeled in the festival’s four screening rooms.

Of the six Israeli feature films competing for the prestigious Haggiag Family Award, I saw four. Adi Adwan’s “Arabani” makes a noble effort to delve into the world of Israel’s Druze, whose allegiance to Israel is never at question, but whose religion and societal norms always have remained a mystery. Tom Shovat’s “Youth” is a disturbing and painful portrait of two brothers. Maya Dreifuss’s “She Coming Home” focuses on 33-year-old Maya, played to perfection by Tali Sharon, as she returns to her parents’ apartment seeking some clarity in her life. A surprise favorite was Eli Cohen’s “Hora ’79,” the story of the reunion of a legendary folk-dance group that broke up after tragic circumstances. Now, 35 years later, the Karmiel Dance Festival wants to pay them tribute. This is clearly a low-budget film and periodically slips into soap opera mode, but Cohen’s amazing directing talent and the zest of a group of mostly unprofessional actors who are folk-dancing enthusiasts makes it worth seeing.

As for the films about the Jewish experience screened at the Festival, a few deserve attention. Diana Groó’s “Regina” tells the story of Regina Jonas, who was ordained as a rabbi in 1930s Germany and murdered in Auschwitz. Incredibly, the filmmaker, who had only one photograph of Regina, creates a powerful film about determination, strength of will, and an absolutely unique woman. “The Zig Zag Kid,” a Dutch film drawn from the novel by David Grossman and directed by Vincent Bal, is a nicely constructed, sweet crowd-pleaser about a Jewish boy who wants to be like his police-detective dad. Wladyslaw Pasikowski’s Polish-made “Aftermath” is the bold story of two Polish Catholic brothers who begin to investigate the mass murder of a Jewish community in the early years of the Second World War. Constructed as a thriller, the film rekindles concerns about present-day anti-Semitism in Poland. Janet Tobias’s “No Place on Earth” is an extremely well-made and powerful docudrama about how 38 Ukrainian Jews managed to survive the war in a cave. Tobias does a great job, moving from reenactments and testimony to show how one “cave explorer” stumbled upon this compelling story. Goran Paskaljevic’s “When Day Breaks” about an aging Serbian musician who learns late in his life that he was born a Jew, was a personal favorite of mine.

A highlights of the festival were a competition where filmmakers from all over the world pitched their next project, with the two best receiving grants. Another was the presence of renowned Iranian film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, with his latest film, “The Gardener.” Of course, there were films from around the world, and I found Gauri Shinde’s Indian film “English, Vinglish” full of energy.

So if you like Israeli and Jewish cinema, as the television ad said, “Come to Israel and be with friends!”

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