The film festival with a focus on family


UK audiences will have the opportunity to watch some of the latest and best in contemporary Israeli cinema and TV when SERET International, the Israeli Film & TV Festival, opens in London on Sunday. Now in its fifth year, the eight-day festival will showcase a diverse selection of more than 20 features, shorts, documentaries and TV series -including many UK premieres - at screenings held in London, Manchester and Leeds.

Israeli cinema and TV continues to influence and innovate. This year, for the first time in the Cannes Film Festival's 69-year history, Israel had its own national pavilion, demonstrating its industry's growing global presence and critical and commercial success.

Further evidence of this came in the recent announcement that the comedy, Zero Motivation - one of the country's most successful films in the past couple of years about women soldiers on a remote IDF base - will be adapted into a TV series for American audiences by BBC America. It follows other international television adaptations from original Israeli formats, such as the BBC's The A Word (Yellow Peppers).

During its relatively short existence, SERET, too, has developed within the UK and beyond. In 2015, SERET International launched in Amsterdam and Santiago and, later this year, they will expand to Berlin and Zurich.

"The industry has become more outward-looking, creating great cinema and TV that reflects themes which resonate however and wherever you live, rather than limiting itself to the conflict which so often colours perception of the country," say SERET's co-founders, Odelia Haroush, Anat Koren and Patty Hochmann, in a joint statement.

With that in mind, the universal theme of family is at the heart of many of the films in this year's programme. These include the festival's opening gala film - and UK premiere - of Shemi Zarhin's The Kind Words, which looks at family dynamics and the consequences of a secret past, as three siblings embark on a journey to search for their biological father. It tackles issues of identity, loss and love, amid traces of comedy.

The film was nominated for 12 Ophirs (Israel's Academy Awards) last year and features some of the country's most renowned actors: Sasson Gabbai (Gett, The Band's Visit), Rotem Zissman-Cohen (Hunting Elephants), Roy Assaf (God's Neighbours), Asaf Ben-Shimon (The Farewell Party) and Tsahi Halevi (Bethlehem). Zarhin's previous films include The World is Funny, Aviva My Love and Bonjour Monsieur Shlomi.

Complex father-son relations and tensions are explored in another UK premiere, the award- winning debut, Baba Joon. This semi-autobiographical film, made by director Yuval Delshad, is the first Israeli feature with dialogue largely in Farsi. Set in the 1980s, in Israel's southern periphery, it explores multi-generational familial expectations within an Iranian immigrant family where traditional values clash with modern attitudes and aspirations.

The family theme continues with the search for romantic freedom against the odds in Wedding Doll; the consequences of a concealed identity in AKA Nadia and in the children's film, Abulele, where a 10-year-old boy meets an ancient, friendly, invisible monster. All three are debut films.

Issues of faith between a father, who is a shochet, and his son are addressed in Tikkun. A young, obsessively devoted, strictly orthodox scholar is overwhelmed by a sudden awakening of his body and undergoes a spiritual crisis after a near-death experience.

Slow paced, enigmatic and visually stylish in high-contrast black-and-white, the film won a series of awards at last year's Jerusalem Film Festival including best feature, best actor for lead Khalifa Natour and best cinematography.

Inspired by a true story, Kapo in Jerusalem explores the Israeli attitude towards Kapos (Jewish concentration camp prisoners, assigned by the Nazis to supervise other inmates), focusing on one particular individual. Although a feature, it uses a documentary "talking heads" style to tell its narrative. Directed by Uri Barbash - known for his Oscar nominated prison drama, Beyond the Walls (1984) - Kapo in Jerusalem provides another powerful approach to Holocaust film-making.

Effective story-telling is not confined to features. There are also a number of stand-out documentaries. Oriented follows the lives of three gay Palestinian men exploring their national and sexual identity in Tel Aviv.

As the film travels from Tel Aviv to Arab villages in northern Israel, to Berlin and Amman, it examines what it means to grow up managing the burden of living with multi-faceted identities.

The short film, Women in Sink explores identity and co-existence from a different perspective - from behind a wash-basin in a Christian-Arab-owned hair salon in Haifa, a place frequented by both Jewish and Arab women. While she washes women's hair, director Iris Zaki speaks candidly to her clientele about politics, life and friendship.

Also screening is Tomer Heymann's Mr Gaga, which focuses on the renowned choreographer and artistic director of the Batsheva Dance Company, Ohad Naharin, aka Mr Gaga. Eight years in the making, it uses intimate rehearsal footage, unseen archive materials and stunning dance sequences.

With the rising number of horror films now being made in Israel, SERET has included the coming-of-age horror thriller, Freak Out and Demon (Dybbuk), a modern version of the Jewish folk tale about the dybbuk, made by a Polish-Israeli co-production.

As it has done in the past, the festival will also be showing episodes from two TV series. This year's screenings are the gripping spy thriller, False Flag - which has been sold worldwide - and new comedy drama, Plan B.

Israeli films can give, "a better understanding of the cultural richness, complexity and diversity of Israeli society," explains Anat Koren. Audiences will have the added benefit of hearing from some of the film-makers themselves, as both new and established directors, including Shemi Zarhin, Erez Tadmor (Wounded Land), Nitzan Gilady (Wedding Doll) and Dorit Hakim (Moon in the 12th House) will be participating in Q&As after their films.

Koren is keen to point out that the films in this year's programme are not political. Only one (Wounded Land), she says, "describes a situation." It is about a chain of events following a terror attack.

"These are high-standard, quality films, which have won many prizes and been screened in many countries. There are films that inform and films that are philosophical and make you think. We hope that British audiences come out with the feeling of an enriched experience."

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