Seeing Israel Through Film

July 27, 2012 11:25 am 0 comments

The Old City serves as the backdrop for the Jerusalem Film Festival. Photo: Judy Lash Balint.

A majority of American Jews has never stepped foot in Israel, according to the 2012 survey of American Jewish Opinion conducted by the American Jewish Committee. So outside of news items about the latest political machinations and security threats, how does this group form impressions of Israel?

Over the past two decades, Jewish and Israeli film festivals showcasing Israel’s growing output of both feature and documentary films seem to be filling the bill.

Seventy-nine North American cities will host Jewish or Israeli Film festivals in 2012, with estimated audiences in the tens of thousands.

Directors of a number of those festivals gathered at the recently concluded Jerusalem Film Festival to determine what North American audiences will be seeing from Israel on their big screens next year.

Isaac Zablocki, Executive director of The Other Israel Film Festival and program director of the Israel Film Center of the JCC of Manhattan, watched six films a day over the 10-day stretch of the prestigious Jerusalem Film Festival that takes place every July at the Jerusalem Cinematheque.

Together with Other Israel Film Festival founder Carol Zabar, Zablocki is looking for films at the Jerusalem Festival that convey the complexity of Israeli society and help close the gaps of “cultural misunderstandings” between American Jews and Israelis. The Other Film Festival, now in its fifth year, was set up to focus on Israel’s Arab minority, but over the past two years, Zablocki explains, films dealing with “anything non-mainstream Israel” are gaining in popularity.

Israel’s diverse religious community has become the focus of a number of recent documentaries and features, but they don’t always translate well for American audiences, according to Zablocki.

Take God’s Neighbors, winner of the Anat Pirchi Feature Award at the Jerusalem Festival, for example. The film portrays the uglier side of three newly-religious Breslov Hasidim who terrorize their neighborhood in Bat Yam. “I don’t think a U.S. audience will connect,” Zablocki predicts.

Zablocki explains that the Manhattan audience for Israeli films has changed over the years. “It used to be just Zionists who came to the old Israeli films,” Zablocki says. “Now, due to the quality of Israeli film, we get a younger crowd. It used to be falafel, now it’s hummus,” he quipped. It’s the unaffiliated young Jews that every Jewish outreach organization is trying to reach that turn up to see Israeli films, Zablocki adds.

The audience for the Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema is very different from the progressive young crowd in Manhattan. “Chicago is conservative.  Jews here love to see Israel in a good light, so I have to be careful what we bring,” explains Beverly Braverman, a founding member of the Chicago Festival.

The Chicago Festival generally screens 15 or 16 films, including six features and nine documentaries plus one popular Israeli TV show. Most of the shows are sell-outs, according to Braverman.

However, when Braverman included the popular TV series, Arab Labor, (Avoda Aravit–Israeli slang for shoddy work) that pokes fun at Israeli Arabs trying to fit into Israeli society, “there was an empty auditorium.”

“The majority of our audience is people in their 50’s. Many in the older crowd have trouble with the sub-titles.”  Braverman states bluntly. The Festival does organize special screenings for groups of Jewish teens. “That’s what I care about the most,” Braverman admits.

She is perplexed by the absence of members of the large observant community in the Chicago area and disappointed by the low interest of the non-Jewish community.

Nevertheless, according to Braverman, moving the Festival to a suburban theater has meant there are more sold out films every year. “For $11 you can support Israel,” notes Braverman.

Braverman has been coming to the Jerusalem Film Festival since 2005 to select films for her audience. Like Zablocki, Braverman packs many films per day into her Jerusalem schedule. “It’s the only place to see so many great Israeli films,” she explains.

For Braverman, a lively and outgoing former trader who has made many friends over the years among Jerusalem Festival regulars, the Jerusalem festival is where she connects with distributors to negotiate deals for her low-budget independent festival and to share notes with fellow Israel film directors from around the world. “I call it film camp,” she laughs.

Tony Jassen scouts films at the Jerusalem Festival for Seattle’s Jewish Film Festival, sponsored by the local chapter of the American Jewish Committee. Jassen, a former Seattle resident now living in Jerusalem who has an MFA in scriptwriting from Tel Aviv University and a degree in film and TV production from Jerusalem’s Hadassah College, says he tries to look for films that are not “on the circuit” and that will appeal to the diverse Seattle audience. Last year, more than a third of the Seattle festival’s offerings had a Sephardic theme, reflecting the fact that Seattle is home to the third largest Sephardic community in the U.S.

“There’s no doubt the Jerusalem Film Festival is the big showcase for films and directors,” Jassen says. “Films give voice to the wide range of the Israeli experience, and that’s what it’s all about.”

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