An Israeli mermaid, Benjamin Netanyahu and a successful porn star all have something in common — they featured on the silver screen at the 35th Jerusalem Film Festival which ended this week.
Thousands of cinemagoers attended the festival’s opening night for a gala screening of the world premiere of debut Israeli feature, The Unorthodox held at a striking outdoor venue, Sultan’s Pool — an ancient water basin located just beyond the Old City walls.
The film, written and directed by Eliran Malka, best known for the award-winning Israeli TV series, Shababnikim, is a comic drama based on the establishment of Israel’s Sephardi political party, Shas. Set in the early 1980s, it stars Shuli Rand (Ushpizin) as Yaakov Cohen, a printer with no political experience who creates a Strictly Orthodox, Sephardi group when his daughter is expelled from school for ethnic reasons and he decides to fight back.
The 11-day festival featured 180 films from 60 different countries, offering a rich and diverse programme. Workshops, industry events and the film festival’s first official mobile cinema, JFF on the Go, also took screens out to nine Jerusalem neighbourhoods.
The Israeli film industry may have serious concerns about its future, due to the Ministry of Culture and Sport’s proposed restrictions to its Film Law, which would result in greater government influence over the type of films made in Israel, but, political issues aside, the Jerusalem Film Festival was a golden opportunity to see some of the best of contemporary Israeli cinema.
The Haggiag Award for Best Feature Film and the Anat Pirchi Award for Best Debut Film were, unusually, divided equally between two films: Red Cow (Tsivia Barkai-Yacov) and The Dive (Yona Rozenkier). Both films address the particularism and complexities of Israeli society with exceptionally powerful performances by their respective protagonists.
Red Cow centres on 17-year-old Benni, an only child who lives with her fundamentalist father in a Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem. As her father becomes more and more obsessed with a red heifer that he believes will bring the redemption, Benni drifts further away and into the arms of Yael, a young new woman in her life.
In contrast, themes of masculinity, community and conflict are explored in The Dive. Before going to war, three brothers reunite for one weekend to bury their father in their native kibbutz on the border with Lebanon.
As war rages all around them, the two older brothers prepare the youngest for his first war. The deserted kibbutz and its surroundings become the brothers’ surreal playground and the training becomes more violent until finally, after a tragic turn of events, it spins out of control.
The best Israeli documentary went to the Heymann brothers (Who’s Gonna Love Me Now? and Mr Gaga) for Jonathan Agassi Saved My Life. Jonathan Agassi is one of the one of the world’s most successful gay porn stars and the film is a rare and intimate look at the world of porn and escorting, as well as a unique mother-and-son relationship.
Other documentaries of interest were King Bibi (Dan Shadur), which documents the remarkable and controversial rise to power of Benjamin Netanyahu; The Price of Everything, an exploration into the rarefied world of contemporary art, and Black Honey, The Life and Poetry of Avraham Sutskever (Uri Barbash) which tells the story of the great Yiddish poet who saved manuscripts from the Nazis, survived the Second World War due to Stalin’s special rescue plane and testified in Yiddish — the only person to do so — at the Nuremberg Trials.
The premiere of the highly accomplished, tightly scripted Israeli feature Working Woman by veteran filmmaker, Michal Aviad, (Dimona Twist, Invisible) concluded with rapturous applause. Its story about workplace sexual harassment carries particular poignancy and relevance in light of the #MeToo movement.
The rumour of a mermaid sighting brings unexpected attention to the gloomy town of Kiryat Yam in Israeli feature, Virgins (Keren Ben Rafael). A rebellious adolescent, her mother and her dreamy cousin will do anything to grasp at the opportunity and change their lives.
Fortunately, UK audiences will get the opportunity to watch some of these films at this year’s UK Jewish Film Festival, which runs November 8-22 .