What movie boycott? The Israelis are coming

The 13th UK Jewish Film Festival opens next month with a strong line-up of features from Israel, but few home-grown offerings.


By Nick Johnstone, October 15, 2009
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Dana Ivgy and Moni Moshonov in the gritty Jaffa.

Dana Ivgy and Moni Moshonov in the gritty Jaffa.

Israeli films have been showered with international praise over in the past 18 months. Jellyfish, The Band’s Visit, Waltz With Bashir, Beaufort all won prizes or huge acclaim, and most recently, Samuel Maoz’s Lebanon won the Golden Lion Prize at the Venice Film festival. So anyone surveying the jam-packed, barmitzvah-themed 13th UK Jewish Film Festival programme, will be casting bets on which of the 15 feature-length and short Israeli films are destined for the big time.

“The Israeli film industry is now very strong,” says festival director, Judy Ironside. “Their feature films and documentaries are world-class and winning prizes at international film festivals. This is very good news as we aim to bring new Israeli films of high quality to our audiences.“

Top of the pile at this year’s festival is Keren Yedaya’s gritty Jaffa, the long awaited follow-up to her critically acclaimed 2004 debut film, Or, which also starred Ronit Elkabetz and her younger, husky-voiced protégé, Dana Ivgy. Behind its charged resituating of the Romeo and Juliet tragedy lurks a poignant meditation on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“Jaffa is a very powerful film,” says Ironside. “It has an iconic story which is entertaining and memorable.” Elkabetz will be talking about the film at the festival’s screening — an “honour” is how Ironside describes her presence.

Another solid bet for awards is Tatia Rosenthal’s Israeli-Australian-produced $9.99, an inventive stop- motion animated feature, based on various Etgar Keret surreal slacker short stories, which Keret himself adapted for the big screen.

“Waltz with Bashir drew attention to the potential of the stop-motion animated feature film, and encouraged new audiences to watch this cinematic art-form which might previously have been reluctant,” says Ironside. “$9.99 has a very commercial style, with Wallace and Gromit-style figures and a surreal humour. It is a real winner, I think.”

The comedy A Matter of Size,  about four portly Israelis who take up sumo wrestling

The comedy A Matter of Size, about four portly Israelis who take up sumo wrestling

Heading the list of impressive Israeli documentaries are Yun Suh’s City of Borders, a fascinating film telling the story of Shushan, Jerusalem’s only gay bar; and Yariv Mozer’s My First War, a controversial field diary of the Second Lebanon War, shot guerilla-style by the Tel Aviv Film school graduate who actually fought in the 2006 conflict. “There are many films about conflict in the Middle East and about the first and second war in Lebanon,” says Ironside. “My First War is a very personal video diary. It gives an extraordinary insight into life in the ranks of the IDF.”

The festival include plenty of films that Ken Loach would not attempt to boycott. There are several offerings this year either from France or co-produced with France, the best being Wedding Song, an outstanding Franco-Tunisian coming-of-age drama from Karin Albou. Her moving 2005 arthouse hit, La Petite Jerusalem, took audience inside the Orthodox Jewish community of Parisian suburb of Sarcelles.

“Wedding Song is a wonderful film made with sensitivity and enormous artistry,” says Ironside. “It is a unique story about two young women — one Muslim and one Jewish — who share a strong friendship that is threatened by prejudice and the circumstances of their lives.”

Also excellent are André Téchiné’s The Girl on The Train (which features yet another turn from Ronit Elkabetz); Graham Guit’s drama-comedy Hello Goodbye about a well to do Parisian couple (Gérard Depardieu, Fanny Ardant) who move to Israel in the throes of a mid-life crisis; and Marco Carmel’s Father’s Footsteps, a lovely film depicting Jewish North African immigrant life in France, through the eyes of a family trying to set up home in Paris’s Belleville neighbourhood, in 1968. And in the documentary genre, the must-see is Yves Jeuland’s 185-minute long Being Jewish In France, a historical portrait of the country’s community.

“It appears that there is a rising interest in Jewish life, history and heritage in the French film industry,” says Ironside. “It’s very welcome — the films should be very appealing to UK audiences.”

As ever, the British contribution is small, with only four films in the programme: Minkie Spiro’s batmitzvah-themed short film, I Am Ruthie Segal, Hear Me Roar; Christopher Thomas Allen’s documentary Schlimazeltov!, which explores the theme of mazel or “luck” among Jewish Londoners; Lucy Kaye’s Together Alone, a documentary about the last, now very elderly, Jewish residents of London’s East End; and Claudia Solti’s That’s For Me, a feature-length mockumentary, tracing the aspirations of a fictional north London wannabe celebrity.

“We always search for UK films but as our audience must realise there are often very few films with Jewish themes available to the festival, sadly,” says Ironside.

“This year we are premiering That’s for Me and Together Alone and highlighting the launch of ‘Oy Britannia’ at the BFI where we will screen two old films — Loyalties and Citizen 63.

“Since it is our barmitzvah year, we are also showcasing the most famous ever British-Jewish film, The Barmitzvah Boy, written by the late Jack Rosenthal, and this will be introduced by [his widow] Maureen Lipman — of course. Who else?”

Inevitably, though, most attention will be directed toward the two big hitters from the US — the Coen Brothers’ darkly funny, and very Jewish, A Serious Man, and Paul Schrader’s Holocaust survival drama Adam Resurrected, starring Jeff Goldblum. Both are guaranteed to sell out fast.

Five must-sees

Father’s Footsteps
Gad Elmaleh and Yael Abecassis shine in this drama about a North African Jewish family trying to settle in 1968 Paris

Jaffa
Keren Yedaya’s earthy Jaffa-based drama explores love across the Israeli-Palestinian divide

A Serious Man
The Coen Brothers’ scintillating latest, pronounced “more Jewish than matzo balls” by the LA Times, is set in 1967 Minnesota and revolves around the misadventures of a hapless Jewish physics professor.

Refusenik
Laura Bialis’s excellent American-made documentary chronicles what happened to Russian Jews when the Soviet government refused to permit them to emigrate to Israel during the Cold War

Wedding Song
Set in Tunis in 1942, Karin Albou’s stunning coming-of-age drama tracks the friendship between two teenage girls, one Jewish, the other Muslim, under Nazi occupation

The UK Jewish Film Festival screens at various venues across London from November 7 to 19. For more information, visit www.ukjewishfilmfestival.org.uk/

    Last updated: 1:41pm, November 4 2009