How do you plan an Israeli film festival to screen in American cities? Very carefully, according to Paul Fagen, program director of the 20th annual Israel Film Festival.
Although the event kicks off April 29, his work actually began late last year, when he and festival founder Meir Fenigstein launched their annual hunt for the best Israeli features, TV movies, series, documentaries and student shorts.
High on their list were movies that had received "buzz" at the Jerusalem Film Festival, that had obtained a U.S. theatrical release or that had swept the 2003 Israeli Film Academy awards, Israel's Oscars. Also considered were submissions from Israeli distributors and TV production companies. By early this year, Fagen had amassed a stack of approximately 85 videotapes.
"I'd just camp out and watch four to five movies a day," said the programmer, who also produces celebrity events for the American Film Institute. He jotted down impressions and rated submissions on a 1-10 scale.
"To be considered, a film has to rate at least a 6.5," he said.
Fagen, an intense and focused man, watches every minute of every film: "Many programmers who have voluminous submissions only watch the first 20 minutes of a movie and continue only if it interests them," he said. "I'll only turn something off if it's so dreadful it turns me off completely."
Eventually Fagen scheduled 43 entries, including 11 new features and seven classic films for a retrospective section. He selected the 11-time Israeli Oscar winner, "Nina's Tragedies," as the opening night film, a virtual no-brainer. It rated a nine on Fagen's scale.
But choosing other movies proved trickier.
"It's not just, 'Is it good,' but 'Does it translate?'" Fagen said. "A movie can't just be relevant to Israelis but to festival audiences, which are both American and Israeli."
Comedies, in particular, can be problematic, because "humor comes through much better in one's native language," he said. In a way, it helps that he does not speak Hebrew, because if subtitles don't make him laugh, they won't make other Americans laugh, either, Fagen added. "Some films are universally funny, and some aren't."
One comedy that easily passed the Fagen test was Yuval Granot's "Pretty Yardena," about a haughty dancer who returns to her small town after she fails to make it in Tel Aviv.
"She's essentially like the prom queen who has to crawl back home, because her dream didn't work out," he said. "Americans can certainly relate to that."
A pricklier problem Fagen sometimes encounters is that while he aims to showcase the best of Israeli cinema -- without any kind of censorship -- he is careful about films that present the Arab-Israeli conflict in a propagandistic or inflammatory way.
However, what seems inappropriate one year can be OK the next. An example is the TV movie, "Purim," which revolves around the repercussions of a suicide bombing on Arab and Israeli bystanders. The movie was initially submitted for the 2003 festival, which was delayed due to the Iraq War.
"Including it would have felt sensationalistic," he said. "Because there was so much going on in the news about terrorism and bombing, I shied away from putting too much of that in the festival."
When the political situation calmed down a bit, Fagen decided to include the drama in the 2004 lineup.
Like one-quarter of festival entries, "Purim" is a product of Israeli television, a fast-growing market since the advent of cable and satellite TV in the Jewish State in the 1990s.
"We began including TV in the festival about nine years ago, because the Israeli movie output is so small, only about a dozen films a year." Fagen said. "Many of the best feature directors also work in television; the product is pretty good compared to what we see in our American commercial TV."
This year's festival includes episodes of a successful Israeli dramatic series, "Jerusalem Brew," which presents religious-secular conflicts within the microcosm of one family. The show revolves around an observant household struggling to hold on to tradition (one son is a talented musician who grapples with whether he should perform on Shabbat). Other festival entries reflect societal changes, such as the decay of the kibbutz system.
While such features are made for well under a million dollars, Fagen said they don't have shoddy production values.
"In general, Israeli directors know how to work within their budgets," he said. "They're not going to go out and build a village in the middle of nowhere; they choose simple locations. They tell straightforward, human stories. And that's something everyone can relate to."