Jerusalem's Crown Restored


The 35th Jerusalem Film Festival concluded this Sunday after 10 days of celebrated films from around the world, including many Israeli premieres. This flagship festival is a major pipeline for Israel's blossoming film industry and is often the first stop for Israeli films before international sales. Films like The Gatekeepers, The Band's Visit, The Cakemaker and many others debuted at the Jerusalem Film Festival and went on to international praise and box office success.

The Jerusalem Film Festival is an island of progressive culture amidst a city filled with tensions and religious polarization. One literally must take a bridge to enter the Jerusalem Cinematheque, situated in a breathtaking valley beneath the old city walls, creating an isolated space between the old and the modern. The grass outside the Cinematheque becomes the main festival hangout as a breeze comes through the valley and the scorching temperature magically goes down to a cool manageable level in the late afternoon.

With the plethora of film festivals in Israel, the Jerusalem Film Festival was always considered the "Mother Ship." But in recent years, the competition has been growing fiercer and some filmmakers have tasted international success and have moved away from Jerusalem as their launch pad. Israel's political controversies further limit the festival's ability to bring in guests and present films with full artistic freedom. Most of all, the Jerusalem Film Festival, like most festivals around the world, is confronted with staying fresh in a fast changing cinematic climate. Despite the city's beauty, history, and spirituality, many Israelis find Jerusalem to be too religious and contentious for the fast-paced lifestyles of the new Bohemian Israelis and rarely make the trek to the capital.

After the 2016 passing of the defiant founder of the Jerusalem Film Festival and Cinematheque, Lia Van Leer, it was not clear how her shoes would ever be filled and what would become of the festival for future generations. But, under the fresh leadership of Noa Regev in the last couple years, the Jerusalem Film Festival has enjoyed a renewed spirit.

This year's festival programing was outstanding, and the production ran smoother than ever. Most importantly, the festive atmosphere drove audiences to engage in the cinematic experiences throughout the week. The festival not only presented films in traditional theaters, but created interactive family programs in parks and showed outdoor films throughout the city.

A notable topic that emerged from the Israeli feature film lineup were movies about the Orthodox community. One of the festival award winners was Red Cow by Tsivia Barkai-Yacov, about a young woman maturing and coming out in a family of settlers in an Arab neighborhood in East Jerusalem. Redemption by Yossi Madmoni and Boaz Yehonatan Yacov follows the story of a rock-band attempting to get back together after the lead singer became religious. And the opening night film, The Unorthodox by Eliran Malka, shown outdoors in Sultan's Pool, follows the establishment of the Shas Party - the Sephardic/Mizrahi religious social-political movement. The film is engaging, though plays soft in reference to the dramatic outcry that lead to the rise of this party.

Reflecting the political reality in Israel, the festival ran just as the government passed the "Nationality Law" giving official status of Israel as a Jewish state and further alienating its non-Jewish citizens. Like this law, the festival lacked representation of the Arab/Palestinian community in Israel. It's possible that the Minister of Culture's attack on films relating to the Palestinian narrative had an impact on the films being made, as no narratives on the topic played at the festival. One of the few films relating to Arab life in Israel was the documentary Cause of Death by Ramy Katz, which could not have been timelier. It tells the story of a Druze policeman who was killed while apprehending a terrorist and the questionable cover-up of the truth behind his death. The fact that the film was screened as the Israeli Druze community was in an uproar due to the passing of the "Nationality Law" brought further power to the story.

More on the political side, the festival presented King Bibi by Dan Shadur, which provides an in-depth look of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's rise to power, his impact on Israeli politics, and his record-breaking term of control. The film also gives some insight into Netanyahu's relationship with Donald Trump, making it all the more relevant.

In my mind, Michal Aviad's Working Woman was the timeliest film, following a woman who gets a job opportunity with a boss who makes inappropriate advances. The film, a fine example of the power of the #MeToo movement, makes its impact through great production and subtle performances, bringing to life a troubling universal reality.

Some of the Israeli films presented in the Jerusalem Film Festival will see international releases, while others will undoubtedly make the rounds at major festivals and local Jewish film festivals. During these polarizing times between the American Jewish community and the Israeli government, The Festival serves as a beacon of light and an example of how progressive and cultured Israel can be.