‘We’re a four- film- buff family. We watch films from Kazakhstan, from France, from Italy, as well as British and American films,” explains Odelia Haroush. She is one of the co-founders of SERET, the first-ever London Israeli Film & Television Festival, which opens next week.
Considering the tremendous impact that TV programmes such as Homeland/Hatufim and BeTipul (In Treatment) have made in the UK as well as overseas, it seems an opportune time to be launching such a festival, although the founders could not have anticipated such a favourable climate when the idea was first conceived last year.
But Israel’s cinema has commanded a significant international presence for several years. Long gone are the days when Israeli films were virtually unknown outside of the country, banished by award-gathering successes such as Footnote, Strangers No More, Ajami and Lebanon. But that list is far from exhaustive. It is not surprising that Judy Ironside, the founder and executive director of UK Jewish Film, has described the Israeli film industry as “world class”.
Haroush, an Israeli who has lived in London for over 10 years, has taken a moment away from dealing with the long list of tasks involved in organising a film festival. Drinking coffee in the calm of her living room, she says that Israeli film and TV has been “amazing” in the past five years and attributes the strength of the country’s creative talent to “what’s going on in Israel; the political and cultural atmosphere, its social diversity. In such a small country, there’s so much and I think a lot of these issues come out in its drama”.
Haroush is hoping that, as well as supporters from the Jewish and Israeli community, the festival will attract anyone interested in film. However, she is aware that there are some people who will question the need for an Israeli film festival, considering that UK Jewish Film Festival, now in its 16th year, has such a strong presence.
Her view is that there is room for both. The UKJF concentrates on the Jewish angle, and, she says, “our aim is to focus just on the Israeli; more national”.
She and her colleagues conducted research that showed there are other countries that manage to host both types of film festivals, also only a few months apart from the other.
“I’m not just talking about the United States,” she says. “You have one in Paris for example, and in Amsterdam. In Israel, there are so many good films — features as well as documentaries and shorts.
“There are hundreds of films made every year so the UK Jewish Film Festival can take some, we can take some, and we can share some.”
SERET (the word means “movie” in Hebrew) will be showing over a dozen films in cinemas across central and north London. Although a small, five-day festival, it offers an eclectic mix of relatively recent features and documentaries — from coming-of-age drama The Fifth Heaven, set in 1944 Palestine in a girl’s orphanage, and The Queen Has No Crown, an intimate 2011 documentary about family and loss, to 2 Night (2010), which sees two strangers embarking on a journey together to find the seemingly impossible — a parking place. There will also be an opportunity to hear from some of the directors and actors with Q&A sessions following selected screenings.
Seizing the zeitgeist, SERET has also chosen to screen (subtitled) episodes from two awarding winning television series: Ramzor (Traffic Light), a sitcom which has been adapted by the Fox broadcasting company, and the first episode of Pilpelim Tsehubim (Yellow Peppers), a drama which has been bought by US studio, Lions Gate.
Tel Aviv University Trust is also showcasing four short films made by students from its Film and Television School, an institution whose graduates include many of Israel’s well-known writers and directors — Hagai Levy (In Treatment), Ari Folman (Waltz with Bashir), and Gideon Raff (Hatufim/Homeland) are all alumni.
Conversation inevitably turns to the boycott of Israel. Haroush had been Ahava’s UK marketing manager and manager of the beauty firm’s shop in Covent Garden before it closed last autumn, and she says that it was not until then that she had direct experience of the boycott movement.
There were regular anti-Israel demonstrations outside the shop and the landlord chose not renew the lease when it was due for renewal.
“I tried to talk to the protesters and tried to understand,” says Ha-roush. “We sat around a table once or twice and we asked why they were doing it.
“These people have a view and you cannot change it. But what was very, very difficult for me to see was that some of the boycotters were Jewish; a group of Jews against Israeli products — that I couldn’t understand. After I closed the shop, I felt like I was in mourning. I was very sorry. I’m a person who meets challenges head on — I don’t shy away. Just the opposite.”
This is fortunate as she admits that there have been numerous challenges facing the three founders of SERET. None of them had any previous experience of organising a film festival: Anat Koren is publisher and editor of ALondon, a magazine for Israelis living in the UK, and Patty Hochmann, who is based in Israel, is director of a film department at Cinematyp Ltd studios. As a member of the Israeli Film Academy she has been instrumental in helping select the films.
But the overwhelming challenge was raising the necessary funds. The current economic situation meant, says Haroush, that “pockets are not very open. At one point we had films, we had venues but we didn’t have money. We’re still chasing but we’re now in a position that we know the festival is going to happen.’
Not only is the festival going ahead, but they have organised an industry day. TV and film professionals from the UK and Israel will participate in a project-sharing workshop which is, according to Haroush, the first of its kind. “The dialogue between Israel and the UK is extremely important to us. This is one of the reasons we did this. We thought it could be a great opportunity for people from here to see what people from Israel are doing and vice versa. We’re very, very excited about it.”
Haroush says she hopes the festival will be an annual event. “We’ve already started thinking about next year. I know so much now, it’ll be much easier.”