January 15, 2004
Israel’s Sundance Pics Garner Praise
These are hard times and good times for Israel's movie industry. Major international films crews have all but abandoned the Jewish State as an on-site location since Brad Pitt and Robert Redford scuttled plans some three years ago to shoot "Spy Game" around Haifa and switched to Morocco instead.
The intifada has also scared off Hollywood celebrities (with very few exceptions), who used to pop up at Israeli film festivals and award ceremonies.
In their isolation, however, Israeli producers and directors have come up with a number of films that have garnered acclaim and awards at film festivals in the United States, Europe, Japan and Argentina.
There is some hope that "Nina's Tragedies" can extend the streak at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, during the Jan. 15-25 event.
Two other Israeli films will be screened at Sundance, and at least two more at the affiliated SchmoozeDance, the Jewish festival, on Jan. 16.
"Nina's Tragedies," subtitled "A Very Sad Comedy," is directed and written by Savi Gabizon ("Lovesick on Nana Street") and won 11 Israeli Academy Awards. It is Israel's entry for foreign-language film Oscar honors and is given a slim outside chance to qualify as one of the five finalists for the big prize.
With its multitude of characters and subplots, it's not an easy movie to summarize.
Basically, it revolves around the real and fantasy lives of Nadav (Aviv Elkabeth), a nerdy-looking 13-year-old, whose sexual awakening is stimulated by peeping through windows, but whose overriding obsession is on his beautiful aunt Nina (Ayelet July Zorer).
When Nina's husband Haimon (Yoram Hatav) is killed on reserve army duty, Nadav's highest hopes are fulfilled when he is asked to move in with the aunt to help out the disconsolate widow.
However, his elation is short-lived as handsome and sensitive photographer Avinoam (Alan Aboutbul) wins Nina's affection and bedspace. Nina has some additional problems, when she spots her late husband, or his doppelganger, walking stark naked down the city streets.
Meanwhile, back at Nadav's home, his fashion designer mother has kicked her increasingly religious husband out of the apartment. He joins a Chabad-like group, whose members dance in the streets to reclaim secular Jews for the faith.
There are more characters, including an adult peeping tom and his kooky Russian girlfriend, but despite it all, Nadav survives and even grows up a bit by learning about the nature of love, sexuality and family.
Both the acting and direction are well-above average, but what strikes the Diaspora viewer is the yuppyish tone and setting of the film. Just about everybody seems to live in an elegantly furnished apartment, wear stylish clothes, patronize upscale cafes and never worry about money.
Surely, Israelis are entitled to some escapist fare in these times, but it is odd how many Israeli movies fall into the same category.
As Hannah Brown writes in her Jerusalem Post review of recent Israeli movies, they "are set in a bizarre vacuum, a kind of ghost landscape, in which there are no wars, no Palestinians, no hourly news broadcasts or newspapers, no political discussions, no army service."
An exception is the excellent "Yossi & Jagger," which was honored at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. Though the film's focus is on the understated homosexual relationship between two army officers in combat, "Yossi & Jagger" astutely explore the real problems facing Israel's younger generation.
Judging by the plot summaries, at least three of the four Israeli films to be shown in Park City also deal with real life in the Jewish State.
"The Garden," which is having its world premiere at Sundance, tackles the unusual and unexplored problem of gay Palestinian teenagers, rejected by their own families, who cross the Green Line to work as male prostitutes in downtown Tel Aviv, in constant danger of deportation.
"Checkpoint," also at Sundance, centers on one of the most grating symbols of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the road checkpoints manned by Israeli soldiers to prevent terrorist infiltration.
To the Arab population, the checkpoints are constant and humiliating reminders. The film won a top award at the Amsterdam International Documentary Film Festival.
Set for the SchmoozeDance festival are "Do They Catch Children Too?" and "My Mom, the General."
The first focuses on Israel's foreign workers, mainly Asians, and the lives and fears of their children.
Apparently a bit more light-hearted is "My Mom, the General," in which director Shevi Rosenfeld records the doings of her 59-year-old mother, and grandmother of six, who decides to volunteer for reserve service on the army's front lines.
For more information about the Sundance Festival, visit www.sundance.org .