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Watching Movies During Wartime: A Report From Jerusalem

Watching Movies During Wartime: A Report From Jerusalem

“Welcome to Jerusalem,” the driver said. “There is your first rocket.”

My colleagues — two other New York-area critics, attending the Jerusalem Film Festival at the invitation of the Jerusalem Press Club — and I thought he was joking, until he rolled down the window. Indeed, there was the sound of an air raid siren mixing in with the car radio’s “Spinning Wheel” by Blood Sweat & Tears. The lyrics “what goes up, must come down” took on a new resonance.

I craned my neck and saw contrails in the sky. I saw smoke from of a Hamas-launched rocket from Gaza shot down by Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system. 

The opening night gala for “Dancing Arabs,” the newest film by Eran Riklas (“The Syrian Bride,” “The Human Resources Manager,” “Lemon Tree,” “Zaytoun”) had been postponed. It wasn’t because of the film’s content, which is based on Sayed Kashua’s tragicomic novel about a young Arab Israeli who tries to fit in to Jewish society, to the chagrin of his politically radical family. It was the location: the Sultan’s Pool, an outdoor venue that was once a reservoir built by Herod the Great prior to the birth of Christ. Festival organizers opted for a smaller reception at the Jerusalem Cinematheque.

The Jerusalem Cinematheque is a remarkable theater. Situated directly across from the walls to the Old City (near the fabled Jaffa Gate), it has four state-of-the-art rooms with a slate of repertory and arthouse titles changing daily, plus a restaurant, two outdoor bar areas, the Israeli film archives dating back to the times of the British Mandate period, a massive library of books in every language and endless stacks featuring clips of criticism, organized by title.

While eating watermelon slices with the mayor at the reception, we were told what to do in Jerusalem during an air raid siren. The instructions are basically this: go inside, find an inner room with no windows (stairwells are recommended) and wait 10 minutes after the sirens stop. If you really can’t make it inside, find one of the city’s large thousand-year-old walls and stand against it. Those walls have seen all this before.

If a siren goes off during a movie, stay put.

Israel’s Cinematic Future

The Sam Spiegel School of Film and Television is the primary backer of the Jerusalem International Film Lab, the third such lab in existence after Sundance and Torino. The lab finances some of the 12 scripts they have already awarded development money.

Directors and producers pitch their films with a bit of a dog-and-pony-show for an international panel of judges, including Ritesh Batra, writer-director of the Indian drama “The Lunchbox,” and Talya Lavie, Israeli director and writer of “Zero Motivation.” Other filmmakers came from France, Armenia, Iceland, and Kyrgyzstan.

Impressive projects included Montenegrin filmmaker Ivan Marinovic’s “Black Pin,” a dry comedy about changing times in the Balkan region, and Lavie’s “The Current Love of My Life,” based on a Sholom Aleichem short story updated to New York City’s Israeli expat community.

Before the session, there was more instruction about what to do in an air raid (in this case, remain seated). However, the air went out of the room a bit when Yair Stern, representing the Israeli Lottery Fund (one of the underwriters) explained the difference between “us” and the other side by saying “we have culture.” Perhaps some of his sentiment was lost in translation, but it was the first time politics invaded the event.

That evening saw the Israeli premiere of “Gett, The Trial of Viviane Ansalem,” a fascinating, funny, and frustrating portrayal of judicial stalemate. In Israel, a woman is unable to divorce until the man “allows” it. Usually this is a technicality, and a Rabbinical court can even order a man to do so when there are no grounds. But what about when there are no grounds other than a woman wants out and the man says no? With no adultery or abuse on either side, the rabbis’ hands are somewhat tied – and therein lies Viviane Ansalem’s hellish experience.

The film, set almost entirely in one room with impressive use of closeups and innovative editing, stars Ronit Elkabetz and is co-directed by her and her brother Shlomi Elkabetz. After the premiere, Ronit Elkabetz took to the stage and, with tears in her eyes, addressed the current political situation and prayed for peace.

Sirens Versus Films

Day three began with a tour of the Old City. A guide (and a “medic,” who carried with a large bag) led us through the Jaffa Gate. We saw the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Western Wall, a bit of the Via Dolorosa and the Shuk, an outdoor marketplace.

In the Shuk, a restaurant owner heard that we were an international group of journalists. He probably thought we were covering the war, not movies. He angrily voiced his opinion about the U.S. and U.K support of Israel. Oddly, he did not seem to be angry at our Israeli guide or Mr. Dromer of the Jerusalem Press Club (a former IDF Colonel.) He was furious at those of us from the U.S. and the U.K. and demanded (for reasons I can only theorize) to know if anyone was from Germany. There were indeed some German nationals (as well as Serbians, Russians, Turks, and others), but before he could get an answer he really blew his top, then heatedly barred us from his restaurant. 

A few hours later, I was having a drink with three other writers in a courtyard behind the YMCA. (This YMCA is different those the U.S. It’s one of the city’s most beautiful buildings.) That’s when we heard the air raid siren. We were closer to a condominium complex than the YMCA, and I made the split-second decision to head to the apartments. (They looked new, so I figured — correctly — that they were fortified.)

Also in the courtyard was a Moroccan family, a woman with her elderly mother and her two children. As I ran to take cover, the woman started screaming, “La sirène! La sirène!” Her panic increased when the door we ran to was locked. Luckily, the next door was open, and inside was a fortified room with Israelis looking either nonplussed or bored, depending on your interpretation.

Now is the time to let you know that critic Nick Pinkerton is a champion and mensch. The frightened Moroccan mother shouted at her son to leave his scooter behind. Clearly he was upset about this, but did what his mother said. Pinkerton ran back and grabbed it.

These shenanigans slightly delayed the screening of the Golan-Globus documentary “The Go-Go Boys,” which I did not see. Instead I attended the premiere of “Red Leaves,” a film by Bazi Gete, something of a “Tokyo Story” set among Israel’s Ethiopian-Jewish community. 

I wanted to see another Israeli film called “Suicide,” but I got caught in a Twitter hole, reading updates about Hamas rockets aimed at Tel Aviv, threats to Ben Gurion airport, and the likelihood of a ground invasion into Gaza. Behind the Cinematheque, a large band — with a female lead singer and women guitar, bass and trumpet players — mixed Middle Eastern styles with jazz/rock to create a furious groove. After a few minutes I put down my phone, went up front, and began to dance.

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Ali Rabie

"However, the air went out of the room a bit when Yair Stern, representing the Israeli Lottery Fund (one of the underwriters) explained the difference between "us" and the other side by saying "we have culture.""

Jesus, this is a punch to the gut haha. I dunno, seems like this particular gentleman has a little too much culture of the racist type.

And Eran Riklas is awesome. I wasn't aware of how much Israeli/Non-Israeli Arab collaborations there is until this year. Paradise Now and Omar, The Syrian Bride and The Lemon Tree, The Attack… lotta great stuff coming out over there. Wish I could attend the Jerusalem Film Fest someday.

Freddie deBoer

This was one of the most pathetic pieces of written commentary I've read in some time. The Palestinians live under abject subjugation, in the clutches of a racist state that has subjected them to illegal occupation for over sixty years. Israel kills VASTLY more Palestinians than the reverse, and in the current hostilities, not a single Israeli has been killed, while hundreds of innocent Palestinians have been killed. Israel is a brutal occupier, one that has been censured and condemned by essentially the entire international community, save its American protector. This is an ignorant, irresponsible article written by someone without the slightest grasp of the historical or contemporary reality of this conflict, and Indiewire should be ashamed.

Ai Rui Kai

I was a bit disappointed with the author's article. The author paints a picture of a Jerusalem without any Palestinians. I did not see the word Palestine or Palestinian in this piece. The article speaks about an Israeli cultural event and does not mention that many artists, academics and others around the world are supporting the cultural boycott of Israel because of Israel's apartheid policies towards the Palestinian people. HE talked about the sirens but he did not speak about the nearly 200 Palestinians who have been killed in the last two weeks since the bodies of the 3 Israeli teenagers were found. He seemed appalled when the gentleman from the Israeli Lottery Fund brought up what he called "politics." Although I certainly do not agree with the gentleman from the Israeli Lottery Fund, the Jerusalem Film Festival is a political event just as taking a stand for human rights can be political…..Just as those who worked against the apartheid policies of South Africa took a human rights and a political stance.


No matter the authors biases or background, I would expect at least a mention of the horrific conditions in the Palestinian territory. That this writer can sit comfortably in a theater with a group of people watching films that definitely deserve to be seen and are provoking the same questions of ethics that he ought to, it's willful blindness and ridiculous. This isn't the WWII "keep calm and carry on" this is something vastly more insidious and cowardly.


Drivel and tripe come to mind. As does the word asinine. And I am being nice.


Unsurprisingly the writer of this article is Jewish and writes for the 'Jewish Times' section of the Israeli online news website, 'The Times of Israel'. Great one sided bias you have here Indiewire.


This article is so messed up. Not once did the terrorist apologist article writer who wrote this garbage decide to include the fact that not a single Israeli has died in the Hamas terrorist 'airstrikes', and that instead Israel’s week-long bombing against the Palestinians in Gaza has killed at least 175 people, mostly civilians– and injured at least 1,200. This includes women and children evoking the same violence we saw against the innocent Syrians in Syria with Assad's attacks.

Israel in its supposed attempt to combat terrorism is pursuing that goal by engaging in terrorism. HAMAS is not much better, but neither is Israel who is deliberately killing hundreds of innocents who are trapped in Gaza. Israel has advised the people in Gaza to evacuate, but the fact is that Gaza is surrounded by Israeli border walls like a giant prison, and the only way to evacuate is with Israeli permission. Permission that the Palestinians are not getting.

Now while this writer refuses to admit any of those facts, he instead uses deceptive pro-Israeli propaganda by making it seem like Israeli's are under an extreme threat of violence and that they are justified in this indiscriminate terrorism, yet he accidentally destroys this illusion when he states, "Luckily, the next door was open, and inside was a fortified room with Israelis looking either nonplussed or bored, depending on your interpretation." Why? This is because these sirens are merely meant to trick visitors into believing this deceptive lie that the Israeli's are acting under reasonable measures to quell the terrorism used by HAMAS. The Israeli citizens know that there is no real threat, and so they sit unfazed by the alarms.

Instead of revealing these facts to the public, this idiot writes an article that reinforces the deceptive lie that the Israeli's have used to justify their attack on innocent civilians, and the article writer has the audacity to end the article with, "After a few minutes I put down my phone, went up front, and began to dance." Reminds me of 1984, how Winston gives into the Governments propaganda and is entirely content with it. Indiewire should be ashamed of this article.


Dance, dance otherwise we are lost :)

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