Rockets fall, but the show must go on!
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Rockets fall, but the show must go on!

The 31st annual Jerusalem Film Festival

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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“Dancing Arabs” is based on a novel by Sayed Kashua, right, and directed by Eran Riklis, inset.

The moment I heard the siren go off outside the seminar room in Tel Aviv, I knew that my visit to Israel would be altered dramatically.

Etgar Keret, the writer and film director, changed his prepared talk and started instead by reading one of his short stories, “Pastrami,” about how in the midst of a rocket attack, he and his wife pulled off to the side of the road and comforted their frightened child by playing a game. By doing this, he reassured all of us. Later that afternoon I learned that that there had been red alerts all across the country, including Jerusalem, and I understood that my plans for the next week were now in flux.

I was to attend the opening of the 31st annual Jerusalem Film Festival at Sultan’s Pool last Thursday, preceded and followed by a variety of fun receptions that make Oscar parties pale in comparison – well, maybe I am exaggerating a bit! The annual festival opening is an event to which I always look forward, with hundreds in attendance at this incredible open-air film screening, just below the walls of the Old City. I still remember one of the special moments of past festival openings, when in the Coen brothers’ film, “The Big Lebowski,” Walter (John Goodman) tells the Dude (Jeff Bridges) that he is “Shomer f…ing Shabbos.” It is one of the great Jewish cinematic moments of all time, and the audience that year reacted with an outburst of joy and laughter as they heard this implausible one-liner as they sat in Jerusalem. I anticipated another such special moment, with the premiere of Eran Riklis’ “Dancing Arabs,” scheduled for July 10.

Just a few days earlier, in Haaretz, Sayed Kashua, one of Israel’s most respected Arab-Israeli columnists and writers, the author of “Dancing Arabs,” reacted to the growing tension in the country in the wake of the murders of the four teenagers. There was a great deal of unrest on the streets, and the Old City of Jerusalem was closed to visitors. The writer, whose television series, “Arab Labor,” is very popular, and who is highly regarded in the Israeli literary world, shared his frustration – he writes in Hebrew in a society where he feels like an outsider. Mr. Kashua is going to be spending a year teaching in Illinois; in his column, he wrote: “It’s the 11th hour. I have to get out of here. Maybe I’ll never come back. The attempt at life together with Jews has failed.”

Most Israelis felt betrayed, for had not Mr. Kashua been accepted, even revered in Israel? But Mr. Kashua repeated what his father told him as he left for his first day at a Jewish boarding school in Jerusalem: “Remember that for them you will always, but always, be an Arab. Understand?”

When I read the article, I looked forward to the screening of “Dancing Arabs,” and the dialogue with the film’s creators that was to follow. “Dancing Arabs” is based on Mr. Kashua’s 2002 novel of the same name, and it is highly autobiographical. The film was directed by Eran Riklis, one of Israel’s foremost film directors, who has been struggling onscreen with Arab-Israeli issues since 1991, when his film “Gmar Gavia” (Final Cup), about Israeli soldiers captured by Palestinians during the 1982 war in Lebanon, gained a great deal of attention. Mr. Riklis has not shied away from questions of Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with films like “The Syrian Bride” (2004), “Lemon Tree” (2008), and last year’s “Zaytoun.”

But the red alert sirens continued to blast and opening night was canceled. I never did get to see the film.

This year was to be a new beginning for the Jerusalem Film Festival, Israel’s premiere international film festival. Each July filmmakers from across the world come to Jerusalem to screen their work, give master classes to film students, and tour the country. It is a Jewish film lover’s summer camp. But unfortunately, in the last few years many film artists have joined the international boycott of Israel. They have refused invitations, leaving the festival with fewer film personalities and less press attention. By last year, the boycott, a shortage of funding, and Israeli filmmakers’ growing tendency to premiere their films elsewhere made the festival’s future precarious.

But this year was to be different. There was a growing sense that this festival was too important a cultural event to fail. New management moved in, extensive funding became available, and aggressive marketing was set into motion.

But as the saying goes, “men trakht, Got lakht” – man plans and God laughs. Sayed Kashua left for Illinois on Wednesday. “Dancing Arabs” is set to have a few screenings at the festival. A smaller indoor screening was scheduled for yesterday; with Mr. Riklis in attendance. Both Sayed and I already will have left for the United States. When I asked Eran Riklis about the circumstances surrounding Mr. Kashua’s departure, he told me that he felt “a mixture of sadness and growing awareness.” Mr. Riklis had worked hard and long with the writer to create a film of which they both would be proud. It was the first time they worked together and though Mr. Kashua had a few novels and a television series under his belt, he had never written a screenplay. There is hope that the film, about an Arab Israeli who lives in two worlds but never feels quite comfortable in either, somehow will help keep the dialogue alive. But for now, while rockets fall within Israel and tempers continue to flare, the film’s post-festival theatrical release has been postponed.

During the last few weeks, I felt the incredible resolve of the Israeli people. Despite an aborted grand opening and several guests cancelling their visits, the Jerusalem Film Festival continues – indoors only – through Sunday. Pulitzer Prize-winner David Mamet arrived in Jerusalem and read sections from his new novella. Popular film director Spike Jonze will discuss his work after his “Being John Malkovich” is shown, and the festival will honor producer Micha Shagrir, actor Makram Khoury, and the late director Assi Dayan. As usual, there will be competitions for best Israeli feature narrative, documentary film, and film tackling the Jewish experience. In honor of the 50th anniversary of its release, a new restored print of Ephraim Kishon’s classic “Sallah” will be premiered.

This year, filmgoers in Jerusalem and across the country were not deterred from their annual visit to Jerusalem’s Cinematheque and the Jerusalem Film Festival. As you enter the movie theater, you immediately take note of the exit signs and the location of the nearest bomb shelter.

But the show goes on!

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