FESTIVAL: Cultural Portraits Amid Political Upheaval -- A Report from the Jerusalem Film Festival
by Noah Cowan
(indieWIRE: 08.05.02) -- Most of my friends and family thought going to Israel this month was really stupid. With the peace process practically destroyed and violence from the region constantly in the news, I wondered whether a flack jacket should maybe replace the tuxedo in my festival travel bag. I chose to go because I was invited by Lia van Leer, the Jerusalem Film Festival's founder and the creator of the Jerusalem Cinematheque, a proud and essential symbol of progressive politics in the midst of the hatred and intolerance characteristic of this so-called Holy City. Protests by the city's orthodox community are constant and she is outspoken in her defense of Jerusalem as a true international city, one that must be as culturally rich as it is meant to be spiritually. She was in despair in February that the Festival would end up hosting no foreign guests because of the current political situation, so I hoped my presence on her main jury would support this vital cultural island in a difficult time.
As it turned out, my noble gesture wasn't necessary nor was the situation dangerous in any real way, even with the Israeli government electing to send a powerful missile into Gaza shortly after my arrival, killing almost a dozen kids. Dozens of foreign filmmakers and film industry types made the trip, if in fewer numbers than in past years. A prominent American delegation came early on to participate in a panel on how to build a strong national cinema. The panel was chaired by Anthony Bregman (a partner in the late Good Machine and a founder of This Is That with Ted Hope and Ann Carey) and included this writer, film scholar Godfrey Cheshire, and Sundance Documentary Fund head Diane Weyerman.
The panel was the first sign of a certain anguish we encountered within the Israeli film community. Long a haven for left-wing intellectuals, the film world is psychically split, paralyzed by the speed and horror of political events around it but emboldened by the surprise international success of Dover Kosashvili's "Late Marriage." Filmmakers seem to be divided into two groups, corresponding neatly to the two Israels of today. In and around Tel Aviv, representing about half the country's population, Israel is a rollicking good-time Mediterranean culture: hedonistic and sophisticated with pretty much only -- only! -- the familiar social, racial, and ethnic tensions of a Southern European city. Most feature filmmakers want to make movies about this society, especially after "Late Marriage" showed there was an international audience for such stories. This is the national cinema they want to build now, as opposed to the national cinema they believe the world expects to see.
In Jerusalem and its environs -- fundamentalist Jewish settlements, Palestinian refugee camps, hardcore military checkpoints and the creepy desert austerity of its white sandstone architecture -- one finds religious strife and the epicenter of the world's current political despair. Feature filmmakers have more or less chosen to ignore this world, except for one feature at this year's Festival, an overly determined and sloppy updating of an old Palestinian legend about traitors who sold children to the Turks. This film was by Ali Nasser, a Palestinian living in Israel, in the relatively peaceful northern city of Nazareth.
Much better was "Broken Wings," a beautifully scripted and elegantly modulated family weepie without a trace of politics by first-timer Nir Bergman. While unlikely to follow in "Late Marriage"'s impressive path, a solid international life surely awaits this lovely film and, especially, its talented maker. The film won the main jury's two most significant prizes.
Of the documentaries on offer only one dealt with the current conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. "Close, Closure, Closed" by distinguished documentarian Ram Loevy never really transcends reportage -- the film chronicles the recent history of Gaza through the eyes of a Palestinian urban family and a leftist kibbutznik immediately outside the Strip -- and most explicitly conveys the emotional exhaustion and resigned sadness of the old guard documentary film world. This film, for all its importance, is politically impotent because one can sense the filmmaker has no confidence in the power of his material, that he is merely bearing witness, hoping that its evidence will assist a generation in the future. This is sadly characteristic of those trying to make films about "Jerusalem" Israel.
More interesting was "My Terrorist," an often rambling but bracingly honest first-person documentary by Yuli Cohen-Gerstel. She was a stewardess who was the victim of a 1979 terrorist attack in London on an El Al bus by the Popular Front For The Liberation of Palestine. She survived but several colleagues were killed. The film chronicles her attempts, 20 years later, to have her attacker freed from prison. No Patty Hearst, Cohen-Gerstel acts out of principle -- her attacker is genuinely sorry for his actions and has served enough time, according to her investigations -- and takes plenty of heat for it in Israel. Her emotions around the case careen from passionate hope to total despondency, particularly following September 11. But throughout her incredible courage is an example to us all.
My favorite documentary on offer, however, had nothing at all to do with the region's politics. "Mike Brant, Laisse Moi t'Aimer" chronicles dreamy matinee idol Mike Brant's rise from working class Haifa to the ultra-glamorous pop world of1970s Paris, where he shared the stage with Dalida, SylvieVartan and countless other magic personalities, while barely speaking any French! His probable suicide in 1975 came after his pop stardom and his exploitation at the hands of scurrilous managers had exhausted him completely. The filmmakers artfully weave in more serious issues of identity, what it means to be the child of a Holocaust survivor and the amazing openness of the Middle East to Israelis at the time -- Brant had his first successes in Teheran -- without ever losing sight of the music, Brant's greatest contribution to our world.
However, the jury chose to award the best documentary to one of the most problematic films I have seen in ages. There is no doubt that David Benchetrit is an exceptional filmmaker. His command of editing, his ability to elicit the perfect sound bites from his subjects, and the polemical strength of his arguments are unquestionable. But, convinced of the utter correctness of his political program, Benchetrit allows his skills to be used for nefarious ends. "Kaddim Winds: Moroccan Chronicle" is a landmark four-hour film detailing the brutality visited by the state of Israel on its immigrants from Morocco and the rest of the Maghreb and their continuing oppression by the leaders of the state, most of whom come from a European background. The evidence is overwhelmingly stacked up over the first two hours of the program, culminating in shocking archival footage of Shimon Peres -- Mr. Peace to the rest of the world -- calling an election eve crowd of Moroccan Jews "barbarians" and "disgusting Arabs."
Then Benchetrit moves into analytical mode for hour three and most of hour four. But the analysis for future action is provided by some pretty rank demagogues, one of whom even calls for the replacement of the Supreme Court by "normal people" and another who claims that the best thing that could happen for his community for it to be excluded from politics. "Because only then can a violent confrontation happen with their oppressors!" Benchetrit gives them their say without comment. In hour four, he grudgingly admits that matters have improved and sneeringly acknowledges an apology to his community by Ehud Barak, Israel's last prime minister. The film was a sour if telling accent to this remarkable event and country, brimming with so much talent and overwhelmed with so much despair and animosity.
[Noah Cowan is a co-founder of Cowboy Pictures, a former programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival, and a contributing editor at Filmmaker magazine.]