‘See, enjoy, and be educated’ at the Israel Film Festival
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‘See, enjoy, and be educated’ at the Israel 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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From top, scenes from “Gei Oni,” “Brothers,” “Precious Life,” “Strangers No More,” “Revolution 101,” and “Avanti Popolo.”

As we celebrate Israel’s 63rd birthday, we marvel at the creation of a Jewish state in our lifetime and how its very existence has affected our lives as Jews here in America. The great Zionist philosophers of a century ago imagined a state that could affect Jewish life around the world, as it clearly has in such areas as religion and culture. Yet, while Israeli music and culture dominated American Jewish life for decades, Israeli cinema here was relegated to replays of such comedies as Ephraim Kishon’s “Sallah” and “The Big Dig: The Blaumilch Canal.” Serious students of cinema paid little attention to the efforts of the dozen or so creative talents who used the motion picture to tell the dramatic story of a new state’s emergence. The only place it seemed that one could see an Israeli film was at a 16mm screening in the basement of your synagogue.

For years, I had to schedule trips to Israel just to be able to screen the newest Israeli films. Watching a film in Israel was always a challenge, and I would come equipped with a baseball cap to keep the garinim, the seeds, off my hair, and I never sat in an aisle seat, so that the various soda bottles that came rolling down the aisle would miss me. But that all began to change about a quarter of a century ago, as a new crop of films began to be produced. The government created funds to encourage and support Israeli moviemaking, enabling quality production. At about the same time, film schools were created, both within the universities and as separate entities, allowing young Israelis wanting to study film to pursue their education and training without leaving the country for New York, Paris, London, or Los Angeles. The quality of filmmaking soared, and many of the dozen or so veterans became teachers of the new generation.

About this time, Meir Fenigstein, the drummer in the Israeli rock band Kaveret (Poogy), was in New York, and he saw the need to bring first-run Israeli films to the United States. Few Israeli films made it to theaters, and Fenigstein saw it as his mission to allow more Israeli films to be shown here. He has since been showcasing Israeli movies, now for a 25th time, in New York City. The Israel Film Festival, which he founded, is taking place at the AMC Loews Theater on Broadway at 84th Street.

One of the pioneers in the Israeli film industry, Micha Shagrir, is being honored at this festival and several of his feature narratives and documentaries are being showcased. Shagrir is the film documentarian who followed the path of Ethiopians Jews across the deserts of Africa to Israel. He has produced numerous features, mentored countless filmmakers, and helped found the Sam Spiegel Film School in Jerusalem. One of the more interesting programs in which he is participating will focus on 100 years of Jerusalem filmmaking. Another, “When Israel Went Out,” looks at the exodus of Ethiopian Jewry. Other feature films and documentaries by Shagrir, including the award-winning 1986 “Avanti Popolo,” are also being shown.

Of the films that drew my attention, Igaal Nidaam’s “Brothers” has two Argentinean brothers who had not seen each other for years meet when one of them, a distinguished attorney from New York, comes to Israel to defend a yeshiva before the Supreme Court. The yeshiva-educated attorney is there to defend the right of Torah students not to join the army, a position with which his non-religious kibbutznik brother takes issue. The film raises important questions as it studies the division between these two brothers on the topic of religion, seen not only though the two men but through Israeli society as a whole.

Nir Bergman’s “Intimate Grammar,” based on David Grossman’s novel, is a hard-hitting look at 1960s Israel that focuses on a child of a Holocaust survivor who needs to be different. It is an examination of the inner and outward journey of this troubled youth at a pivotal time in Israel’s history. Avi Nesher’s “The Matchmaker” tackles the same period in his story of a young man who gets a job with a survivor of the Shoah who brokers marriages but seems to have other businesses on the side. Set in 1968, this is a beautiful coming-of-age film about an Israeli youth who encounters a world beyond what he knows.

Veteran director Dan Wolman takes a sensitive look in “Gei Oni” at a group of new immigrants who escaped the terror in Russia to come to Israel over a century ago. Wolman weaves the story of hard pioneering with the history of a new land. Doron Tsabari’s “Revolution 101″ is a fascinating docudrama that uses the story of his life as a successful yet struggling filmmaker to look at Israeli society as a whole and how change can or cannot happen. Tsabari, in this well-crafted film, brings us into his life as he takes on bureaucracy, ready to fight to the bitter end.

A film that challenges classic film narrative style by new director Adam Sanderson is also worth noting. Teaming up with Muli Segev, TV director of the hit series “Eretz Nehederet,” they created “This is Sodom,” a zany comedy set in the time of Abraham and Lot. The fact that the actors, known to just about every Israeli, were unknown to me did not interfere with this cinematic phenomenon that reintroduces a lost film form last seen in “Hagashash Hahiver” comedy. Through its incredible wit, we watch as the impending destruction of the city of Sodom approaches. This is one of those films that you’ll either adore or detest. I was most amused.

In a more serious vein, Yair Elazar explores the legacy of his father, David “Dado” Elazar, who was Israel Defense Forces chief of staff during Israel’s 1973 Yom Kippur War. In the aftermath of the great victory that concluded a war that could have caused Israel’s destruction, leaders of the government resigned and Elazar was found by a state commission of inquiry to be fully responsible for the IDF’s lack of preparedness for the attack by the Egyptian and Syrian armies. The young Elazar explores the conclusion of the commission and the man most responsible for Israel’s ultimate victory. Much as Nathaniel Kahn had used cinema in his 2003 “My Architect” to come to grips with his relationship with his father Louis Kahn, Yair Elazar does the same in this worthy effort.

The Israel Film Festival ends on May 19. There is still time to see, enjoy, and be educated by many of the films. For more information, go to www.israelifilmfestival.com.

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