There is no country other than the United States which has as elaborate and extensive a screening support structure for Jewish and Israeli films. Several years ago I noted in an article about the New York Jewish film festival that there are more than fifty Jewish film festivals in the United States. According to jewishfilm.com there are now close to seventy Jewish film festivals in this country as well as at least four festivals devoted to Israeli films and two to Sephardic ones. In addition, there are numerous Jewish and Israeli support organizations encompassing funding, information centers, and film archives covering Jewish films. Jewishfilm.com provides an additional listing of more than 60 domestic and foreign film festivals which show Jewish films on a regular basis. It also offers rudimentary advice to those planning to stage a Jewish film festival. It is no wonder that this growing film festival market impairs theatrical distribution of Jewish and Israeli films in the United States; the captive audience for these films can see them in any town with a notable Jewish population. This has created a situation where film festivals have to serve as exhibitors and arrange fee based screenings at commercial venues and distributors rent the films to the festivals. Any demanding feature shown at a large festival has little chance of theatrical distribution in that city; the target audience has been preemptied by the festival.
In international festivals, which I review on a regular basis, there are a growing number of awards winning Israeli features such as BEAUFORT, WALTZ WITH BASHIR, LEBANON, LEMON TREE to name but a few recent ones. These films have established a firm presence for Israeli films on the international circuit. They are frequently produced with foreign support, specifically from ARTE, German film foundations, and the European Union. As Marek Rozenbaum, the president of the Israeli producers association quipped last year; ARTE provides more funding to Israeli films than all of the Israeli broadcasters together.
The principal first run exposure for Israeli films in the United States has been the Israel Film Festival, which has shown nearly 800 Israeli productions since 1982 to an estimated audience of one million spectators. The first edition of the festival in 1982 featured six films screened in Los Angeles; in 2011 the well funded festival carried more than 30 titles presented in Los Angeles, Miami and New York. The Israel Film Festival has established itself as the largest and most important showcase for Israeli productions. In New York it grossed this year more than $100,000 in ticket sales.
Films presented at the festival provide insights into the everyday life in modern Israel, coping mechanisms and the internal and external problems faced by the country. The three lead films of 2011 are representative of the festival’s concerns. INTIMATE GRAMMAR by Nir Bergman offers a superb analysis of the interior landscape of a dysfunctional family. This is exemplified by the refusal of the sole son, a bright and sensitive boy, to adapt and to grow, thus delaying puberty. His life is made miserable by his school peers, an overbearing possessive mother, and his holocaust survivor father; yet eased by his sister and a mute but beloved grandmother. Thus he escapes into an inner journey which he cannot share. The lower middle class housing development includes off beat neighbors that provide a melodramatic and frequently comic backdrop which contrasts sharply with the boy’s agony and progressive isolation.
Igaal Niddam’s BROTHERS presents an unmatched vivid portrayal of Israel’s religious and secular divide, a country which is torn by contrasting religious and political principles. The kibbutznik secular brother Dan confronts his Torah scholar brother Aaron from Brooklyn who he has not seen since childhood. Aaron has come to Jerusalem to plead in the high court the rights of Torah students not to join the army. When Aaron discovers that individuals had bought seats in the Yeshiva to avoid army service he withdraws from pleading for the school and is assassinated by two Yeshiva students disguised as Arabs; with one who is the son of the rabbi directing the school. This ending is too dramatic. What saves the film are the dialogs between Aaron and the equally articulate female public counsel who pleads the public secular position. His communication with the nephew who serves in the army, and the confrontations with Dan add to this superb introduction to Israel’s religious and secular divide. Like the other films discussed here THE MATCHMAKER by Avi Nesher is an award winning production. It presents a coming of age story of a teenager which is peopled with colorful characters with strong European overtones. Tuval is a 16 year old who works the summer as a detective’s helper for Yankele, who makes a living as a match maker. Yankele is a holocaust survivor and his reunion with Tuval’s father a long lost friend from the distant past rekindles repressed memories. Checking out potential mates Tuval is introduced to a set of implausible yet lovable characters, including dwarfs, gamblers, and survivors haunted by their holocaust experience. The sets are marvelous, acting is outstanding and we follow an original marvelously scripted story seamless supported by an appropriate score.
Claus Mueller, New York Correspondent