"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.