Amid the celebrities and paparazzi crowding the Cannes Film Festival last week, Katriel Schory roamed the bustling boulevard Croisette like a proud parent.
"Israeli cinema has never had such a presence here," Schory, director of the Israel Film Fund, said via the cell phone that seems attached to his ear.
Yes, Moshe Mizrahi was nominated for the top prize with his 1972 romantic drama, "I Love You, Rosa," and Amos Gitai competed five times with his edgy, political films, winning a 2000 award for "Kippur."
"But I've attended this festival for 30 years, and we have a higher profile now than ever," Schory said. "We're receiving unprecedented recognition in multiple sections of Cannes."
The evidence may not appear earth-shattering by Hollywood or Cannes standards. By the time the 12-day extravaganza ends on May 28, almost 1,500 movies from more than 90 countries will have screened in the world's largest international film festival and market. Yet, for the small but growing Israeli film industry, the progress is dramatic, Schory said. The festival will showcase 15 movies -- up from nine in 2005 -- some during the first-ever Israel film day, he added.
Two Israeli students, selected by a jury that includes American director Tim Burton, will vie against 15 peers in Cannes' student competition, perhaps the most prestigious of its kind in the world.
Meanwhile, 40-something auteur Dover Kosashvili ("Late Marriage"), was bustling to meetings with more than 60 financiers -- part of a 2006 festival program to help 18 promising directors complete new projects.
On the ground floor of the Palais des Festivals, visitors were streaming to Israel's official booth, according to Schory: "People are asking, 'What's cooking?' 'What are the new titles?' It's completely different than even several years ago, when once in a while someone used to stop by."
Schory said he is being wooed by leaders of other international film festivals, who previously ignored him.
"I used to have to beg them to take our movies," he recalls. "But this year, the Locarno people insisted that I come to their party and that they want a closer relationship with us. And just a couple hours ago, the woman who schedules the Venice festival came up to me and said she wanted to talk as soon as possible about the latest crop of Israeli films."
Schory's Israel Film Fund finances up to 70 percent of all Israeli films with his annual budget of $7 million. He has theories about why Israeli cinema is generating interest at home and abroad.
Back in the 1980s, he said, homegrown cinema revolved around the Middle East conflict, a subject too specific to generate foreign sales. Even Israelis were sick of the topic from the news. In the 1990s, filmmakers focused on what Schory calls "navel-gazing" -- movies so tediously personal they bored everyone. (Not to mention that the production values and storylines needed work, critics have said.)
In 1998, less than 1 percent of Israelis bothered to see Israeli films: "Our industry was practically dead," Schory said.
Then came a new crop of artists armed with superior technical skills they had learned at Israel's blossoming film schools or by working in the country's bourgeoning TV industry.
"These directors are focusing on intimate dramas dealing with universal, day to day problems -- family and social issues that are part of the life of every human being," Schory said.
Kosashvili's 2001 drama, "Late Marriage," about a man torn between his lover and his immigrant family, was the first such film to "pull us out of our slump," Schory recalls. It didn't hurt, either, that the Los Angeles Times called "Marriage's" hottest sex scene "the longest and most erotic, tender and passionate ever to occur in a serious film."
The drama not only drew some 300,000 Israeli viewers, compared to around 15,000 for previous films; it also earned a slot in Cannes' Un Certain Regard competition.
Also in 2001, France signed a co-production agreement with Israel that to date has generated 15 films, including Eran Riklis' searing and highly acclaimed "The Syrian Bride." Three years later, American distributors bought 9 of the 20 films produced in 2004, said Meir Fenigstein of the Israel Film Festival.
And Israeli movies sold 2.5 million tickets abroad -- 1 million of them in France -- the following year.
Many of the new directors depict unflinching critiques of Israeli society, a trend now reflected at Cannes. Yaniv Berman's 30-minute student short, "Even Kids Started Small," for example, dissects violence at public schools (see sidebar). Yuval Shafferman's "Things Behind the Sun" depicts a family paralyzed by secrets.
Kosashvili's new project, "Kishta," is another kind of domestic drama, an erotic love triangle set in the third century. Cannes officials are providing invaluable help to the director and his producers as they hustle to raise the additional $3 million they'll need to shoot the $4 million drama.
"The festival has set up meetings with bigwigs we would not have been able to get on our own," producer Edgard Tenenbaum said by cell phone between appointments. "It's also great because we don't have to fly around the world to pitch."
All this despite ongoing resentment toward Israel due to the Palestinian conflict -- especially in European nations such as France. Schory believes this is one
case where art -- and cash -- transcend politics.
"No one invests in movies for philanthropic reasons or for any special affection for the Jewish state," he said. "They invest because they've seen Israeli movies sell tickets, and they believe they can recoup their money."
Not that politics are completely absent from the festival; they never are, he adds. Schory cites a panel discussion he just attended in which a Tunisian producer grilled him about the status of Israeli Arab directors.
Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman, of the controversial suicide bombing saga, "Paradise Now," is a judge in the top competition this year.
"That won't affect us, because Israeli films aren't participating," Schory said. "But I don't think Suleiman could be objective about an Israeli film."
Even so, he adds, Jewish and Arab filmmakers are at least talking to each other, if only to lament the obstacles to co-production.
"At the end of the day, film is a universal language," Schory said.
And with that, he headed off to meetings at the end of his day.
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