Israeli Films: A Hard Time Finding An Own Style By Wilfried Reichart

in 21st Haifa International Film Festival

by Wilfried Reichart

The 21st International Film Festival in Haifa opened ceremoniously with a tribute to the Greek director Theo Angelopoulos, and the American actor Willem Dafoe. The streets in front of the Rappaport Art and Culture Center, where the Cinemateque of Haifa is based, are not only crowded on the opening day; during the entire Festival Week this uptown city is bustling with activity. Until deep in the night, the restaurants, the snack bars, and the cafés are completely crowded. Different musical ensembles perform at the square in front of the festival center, and the audience is captivated by the usually spirited music.

Two days before the festival opened, three Israelis were gunned down in Gush Etzion by shots fired from a car driving past. This was an act of vengeance for the killing of a Jihad boss near Yenin, 60 kms southeast of Haifa.

There is a relaxed air about the city, although no restaurant, no movie theater, no bank, no hotel, no shopping center can be entered without strict security checks. How long is it going to go on like this? Whether or not this was an issue at the meetings of Israeli and Palestinian film directors was hard to tell for this guest from Germany, because only Arabic and Hebrew was spoken. Apparently, it didn’t occur to the festival coordinators to place an English interpreter on the stage. Nonetheless, the following could be made out: the Palestinians want a piece of the Israel Film Fund. They did the math: we make up 20 percent of the population, so we are entitled to 20 percent of the funds.

Of course, it doesn’t work this way, but after all they did speak to each other.

The film that cuts right to the chase of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Paradise Now, by Hany Abu-Assad, was awaited with excitement. Two friends, who lead an unhappy life in a small town in the occupied West Bank, wait to be selected for a suicide bombing. When the day comes and they head for Tel Aviv wearing black suits with white shirts and ties, one of them begins to have second thoughts about the mission. The other muddles through, until he finds himself sitting on a bus in Tel Aviv with dynamite strapped to his body. The film does not show an explosion; it merely ends with a white screen.

How is the Israeli public going to react to this film? Are they going to protest (as did a group of anti-fascists a month ago, when the film was shown at the Cinenova in Cologne, and who labeled it anti-Semitic)? This is the question going through the minds of the foreign guests sitting in the parquet. The local spectators are relaxed, there’s friendly applause, and flowers for the director and the leading actors.

In the competition for Israeli films, the precarious political and social situation is only a marginal issue. In the film Frozen Days, by Danny Lerner, a female vagabond is accompanied through the streets and nightclubs of Tel Aviv. She lives in empty apartments and communicates mainly by Internet. She regularly visits a friend in the hospital, a victim of a suicide bombing, who is in a coma and wrapped in bandages like a mummy. But then the film, which offers enthralling black and white images, leaves a realistic level and withdraws to an aloof search for identity.

Comrade, by Eyal Shiray, shows a boy searching for his sister in the house of an old communist, who lives in the memory of the Spanish Civil War. The boy then discovers a large arsenal, which was set up by the old man (played by Moshe Dayan’s son, Assi, a popular director and actor in Israel), who planned to use force of arms to keep his old house from getting torn down.

In Out of Sight, Daniel Syrkin presents a case of incest which a blind girl brings to light. The Bellydancer, by Marek Rosenbaum, begins as a comedy about crooks and ends as a drama of a man who falls into a state of religious madness.

The Israeli film industry, financed mainly by the Israel Film Fund, which oversees a budget of approximately $ 6 million and produces about 10 films a year, has a hard time finding its own style. This is partly a result of the fact that this country does not have its own film tradition. In whose footsteps should they follow? Those of the makers of the Yiddish movies made in the twenties and thirties? That was more or less filmed folk theater. This was also represented at the festival by four films by Edgar G. Ulmer, made in America between 1937 and 1940 and restored by the National Center for Jewish Film at Brandeis University. This is naive mass entertainment, shot in a few days by the “King of B-movies“ on a low budget at a time when these kinds of movies were being destroyed in Germany. The movies have names like The Singing Blacksmith and Green Fields and show light-hearted, amusing stories about love and jealousy against the backdrop of the shtetl.

The film festival in Haifa is very much a festival for audiences. The movie theaters are packed. The audience is delighted to see significant movies from international festivals (Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Toronto, Sundance) and series consisting of films by Theo Angelopoulos, Robert Guediguian, and Stanley Kubrick.

As a guest from America, Willem Dafoe breezed through receptions, press conferences, and the dinner with the mayor of Haifa with a smile frozen on his face. He also played the leading role in a film by his new flame, Giada Colagrande (Before It Had a Name), in which he made a futile effort to make the strained plot of a confrontation in an isolated house seem believable.