April 22, 2004
Behind the Festival: Poogy the Producer
How do you go from being a member of one of Israel's most popular bands to being the creator of a vibrant film festival in America?
Well, the story is a long one, and if you've got some time, Meir Fenigstein will be sure to tell it to you. But on the eve of the 20th anniversary of Israel's film festival -- opening Thursday, April 29 -- Fenigstein hasn't much time to discuss the last two decades of his roller-coaster ride in creating the festival. But if you're willing to put up with numerous interruptions from "emergency calls" from overseas filmmakers and local hoi polloi and who knows whom, you might find out about the man behind the festival.
Fenigstein started the first festival in 1981 in Boston -- but really he was just helping someone screen some Israeli movies. They showed six films to 3,000 people. Two years later, the official festival began in New York, and now, 21 years later (he took a year off), the Israeli Film Festival shows 43 films to more than 45,000 people in four cities. How it went from zero to 60 is the story of one Israeli's chutzpah, perseverance and luck.
"What made me decide to start the film festival?," Fenigstein ponders the question aloud, as if he'd never really thought about it. "I'll give you a little background," he says, and then begins 53 years ago, with his birth in Tel Aviv to Holocaust survivors.
The story gets interesting when he joined the army and got to Lehakat Hanachal, the Nachal unit's entertainment troupe, which used to be a starting point for some of Israel's most famous singers, such as Chaim Topol, Arik Einstein and Yehoram Gaon. (The story of the musical group is immortalized in the 1978 film, "Halehaka" -- "The Troupe" -- which Fenigstein stars in; next week on the film's 25th anniversary, it is being released on DVD and shown in Israel as part of Independence Day festivities.) Fenigstein, a drummer who acquired the nonsensical nickname Poogy, joined up with other soon-to-be-famous musicians like Danny Sanderson and Gidi Gov to form Kaveret (Hebrew for beehive).
If you've ever been to a religious wedding, you probably have danced to one of Kaveret's most famous songs, "Yoya," whose humorous lyrics can be roughly translated as such: "I received a harsh punishment/they sentenced me to death./I sat in the electric chair/and said goodbye to my car./If only I could have at least/switched my chair./Because you know what they say,/you change your place, you change your luck."
But Poogy's luck did change. After three albums, one North American tour, one performance at the Eurovision song contest (they lost to ABBA) and almost four years together, the beehive fell apart. And life for Poogy -- now back to being Fenigstein -- was never the same.
"I was disappointed," he says, the enthusiasm fading from his voice. "Don't forget, we started when I was in the army, so I was pretty young then." Kaveret was more than just a band, it was a creative family -- they did sketches ("Poogy Tales"), radio, television -- which in a small country like Israel is a sure guarantee for widespread fame. "For every good thing, there's an end," he laments.
Shooting stars must land somewhere, and after Fenigstein dabbled in acting for some years in Israel, he found himself in Boston. It was there he met a Tel Aviv University film professor on sabbatical who asked him to bring a couple of films from Israel.
Now comes the part of the story when pluck and luck coincide: Fenigstein went to his friend, megaproducer-director Menachem Golan, to ask for the films, and someone said, "Are you going to make a festival?"
"What do you mean?" Fenigstein asked the guy, because he'd never heard of a film festival. While these days it seems that every other neighborhood is starting its own film festival, especially a niche festival like "shorts" or "Jewish" or "Irish," back in the '80s there was no festival circuit. But Fenigstein went to one of the nascent fests -- Toronto -- which today is one of the biggest, along with Sundance and Berlin. It inspired him to create one of his own.
"I didn't know what I was doing," Fenigstein says. He called it, "The First Annual Israeli Film Festival in New England," and produced an eight-page booklet (today, the booklet is over 200 pages). A week before the festival opening, he woke up, sweating, shaking -- basically having a panic attack. "I asked myself, 'Look what happened, are you willing to die for this?' And I didn't believe the answer. Yes, I was willing to do it."
Once he knew what was in his heart, there was no stopping him. Not that it was easy.
Israelis didn't understand what he was doing. They asked him, "Why do you want to take my film? Why would I want to give it to you? How are you going to promote it?"
Fenigstein hooked up with partners and took the films to New York and by the first "official" festival in 1983, he had doubled his audience to 6,000 people. In 1986, he held the one-city fest in Los Angeles, at the Nuart in Santa Monica. It was only a decade ago that the festival became permanently bi-coastal, and in the last four years, he's added Chicago and Miami to the roster.
In today's competitive film industry, the Israel Film Festival is an agent for the growing but small Israeli film and television market. In Hollywood tradition, in order to bring in the stars, he honors celebs (this year Norman Jewison and Gale Anne Hurd) and tries to bring in distributors for tachlis: to get the movies picked up in America.
Over the last 25 years, Israel and the United States have had a close relationship, but conflicts have been many in the political arena. Like much art, The Israel Film Festival provided America with a view beyond the headlines.
Yet Fenigstein didn't do it to be a publicist for his country: "It wasn't a mission for Israel. It was something that I needed to create for myself, after Poogy, to create my new spine," he recalls. "I didn't know I was going to do it 10 years later.... I didn't know that I was still going to be here 20 years later."