On July 6, as the 23rd edition of the Jerusalem Film Festival commenced, the Israeli military was destroying Gaza's infrastructure to avenge the kidnapping of a soldier by Hamas militants -- Soldiers are sacred in Israel, not to mention the blow to the national ego. By the time the fest ended on July 15, they were fighting on two fronts, bombing Lebanon's roads, bridges, and airports in retaliation for the abduction of two more soldiers. Hezbollah was sending Qassam missiles to Haifa and Safed. Yet all this time, screenings were jam-packed, outdoor parties plentiful, elegant dinners ongoing. The holy city bore little evidence of war. Sure, drama-queen Jeff Goldblum, in Israel for the first time, glibly called for the release of Gilad Shalit from Gaza at the opening ceremony, prompting feature jury member Debra Winger, who had at least lived in the country, to sarcastically intimate to the assembled that he was a goody-two-shoes.
Despite CNN's reports that all Israelis back the military's incursions, most of the artistic and intellectual elite who converged upon Jerusalem for the event balked at what they perceived as Israeli overreaction. Fittingly, a significant number of Israeli documentaries -- the nation's cinematic strong suit -- challenged the government on a number of issues, particularly its treatment of Palestinians. I don't think it was accidental that these were the best docs screened. As a documentary juror, I saw all 14 in competition. While the feature jury struggled to find a film they liked -- they ended up giving the best film prize to Dror Sabo's "Dead End," yet another twist on reality shows, and best screenwriting to Shemi Zarhin's "Aviva My Love," the story of a hotel cook who is also a gifted writer - we debated several accomplished works. We also judged student shorts. The winner was Shimon Shai's "Road Marks," a smartly executed study of father-son hatred and reconciliation.
Under the circumstances, a speech about peaceful coexistence delivered by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert the first weekend at a soiree in his well-secured home rang hollow. That he sat next to achievement award honoree Roman Polanski begged a number of questions. Israeli jurors declined to attend, but we foreigners went as a favor to festival head Lia van Leer, a short, 82-year-old woman with more stamina than any of us. Some paid dearly. Seated at the same table, Fortissimo Film's Michael Werner and I forgot the eleventh commandment: Thou shalt choose steak over undercooked sea bream. Lo, we were smitten by food poisoning.
The best docs provided some balance to the military's excessive response to the kidnappings and shelling. Is a Jewish life worth more than an Arab one? In the end, we gave a split first prize to two exceptional films about the no win-no win rut in which West Bank Palestinians find themselves: Shai Carmeli Pollak's "Bil'in Habibti" and Ido Haar's "9 Star Hotel." Second prize went to David Ofek's "A Hebrew Lesson," a delightful if thought-provoking look at the problems of several immigrant students in an oulpan, or intensive Hebrew class, traditionally a means of adapting newcomers to the values of the Jewish state.
Bil'in is a Palestinian small village slated to be sliced in half by the 28-foot-high wall that the Israelis are constructing as a means to keep out suicide bombers. To accommodate the settlers, it weaves around the West Bank with little regard for the Palestinians who live there. I was taken by Ha'aretz reporters to the West Bank and went up to the wall in the more urban Arab village of Abu Dis. It cuts right through the town, without regard to the family and business ties that keep a community going. The structure is horrifying, higher and more intimidating than the Berlin wall. Bil'in, however, has become a focal point for Israeli and international activists, who, with the residents, hold nonviolent protests every Friday. Pollak simultaneously shoots and participates in the gatherings. He begins the film with an old man crying over the felling of his beloved olive trees and, in a tightly constructed narrative, builds toward a collective response. The Israeli soldiers are repressive. At the premiere, the villagers made a surprise appearance on stage at the Begin Center after the film. It was especially moving because they had been denied access for two months before a decision reversal the day before.
The so-called Separation Fence is a hovering absence in "9 Star Hotel." Haar gained the trust of young Palestinian men paid by contractors to help construct the new Israeli town of Modi'in but simultaneously hunted by the immigration police. They camp in the nearby hills to avoid detection, creating a vibrant community. Haar humanizes these marginalized men. They laugh, they talk about their regrets, they help one another. They know that their time is limited: The wall separating them from Modi'in will be completed in a couple of months. We frequently see them eluding the authorities by running across highways and over the hills, not unlike many docs depicting the plight of workers from Mexico and Central America at the U.S. border and beyond.
Though it won no prizes, Shimon Dotan's controversial "Hothouse" is an extraordinary, brilliantly shot and edited look at life for some of the nearly 10,000 Palestinains incarcerated in Israeli prisons, men's and women's. Dotan engages us by playing with our empathy. Many of those he interviews are failed suicide bombers, or people who planned the bombers' missions. In a particiularly horrifying moment, one woman is gleeful when she learns that the bomber she sent killed eight children, not three. Yet we get to know these prisoners as real people motivated by outrage, however misplaced. Many of the inmates have earned advanced degrees in jail from Israeli universities. Coupled with the hierarchies within cells, in which members of particular movements are grouped together, we see a system of thought and communication emerge that resembles fledgling democracy. If and when these erudite prisoners are released, positive changes are bound to emerge.
Fine docs outside the main competition also addressed the Palestinian issue. Eli Cohen's "Jerusalem, the Eastern Wall," a segment of the series "Fence, Wall, Border," astutely traces the history of barriers in the area and the egregious process of building the current one. October's "Cry," by Julie Gal, tracks the legal obstacles faced by the families of some of the 13 young Arab-Israeli men killed by Israeli soldiers in October 2000 during riots precipitated by Ariel Sharon's provocative visit to a Muslim holy site in Jerusalem's Old City. One victim was a bright veteran of the inclusive program Seeds of Peace, whose sophisticated parents had fought for rapprochment between Jews and Arabs. The Israeli government issued no indictments in the case.
To its credit, the festival highlights injustice not only in Israel and the Occupied Territories but internationally as well. The Wim van Leer In the Spirit of Freedom prize was awarded to Jasmila Zbanic's Bosnian feature "Grbavica," about a Muslim woman whose daughter is the product of her confinement in a Serbian rape camp, and to Canadian director Helene Klodawsky's doc "No More Tears Sister," the story of a feminist Tamil writer/doctor in Sri Lanka who shifted her position to work against the armed struggle and was killed for it. The Yad Vashem Award for artistic achievement in Holocaust-related films went to Swedish filmmaker Lena Einhorn for "Nina's Journey," a documentary in which her mother gives testimony about her life and losses during the Nazi occupation of Poland, and how she recreated herself as a doctor in the West after the war.
Even with a huge, if amorphous, Panorama section, panels, tributes (including ones to Alan Berliner and Atom Egoyan), and a daylong session to assist partially funded film projects, the festival's most salient characteristic is its inclusion of so many films about social problems. On the edge of a war zone, in one of the world's most magical cities, that gave many a glint of hope for a better tomorrow, here, there, and everywhere.