The Israel Film Festival has faced competition over the years from local Jewish-themed film festivals, as well as film festivals around the world -- the 57th Berlin International Film Festival is showing "Beaufort," a film focusing on the last Israeli soldiers to withdraw from Lebanon, and Sundance recently screened "Sweet Mud," Israel's Oscar entry for the best foreign-language film derby.
With Israeli films finding greater acceptance in the United States and abroad, as evidenced by the decision of the Cannes Film Festival to hold a first-ever Israel day on the Croisette last year, the Israel Film Festival is bringing back an event it hasn't featured in more than 15 years -- an opening-night gala dinner, which will be held this year at the Beverly Hilton on March 6. Meir Fenigstein, the festival's founder and executive director, said the last dinner to encourage Israeli and American co-productions was held in New York, but the first intifada and the first Gulf War put a crimp on those cooperative efforts. This year's dinner will serve "first as a fundraiser" and also "for networking purposes," he said.
The honorees will be Amy Pascal, co-chair of Sony Pictures Entertainment, and Gila Almagor, Israel's first lady of film.
Selecting a Tinseltown power broker like Pascal is a savvy move. In addition to her long career as head of studios like Turner, Columbia and Sony, Pascal is also an ardent Zionist, said Fenigstein, who added that the Israeli consulate contacted him to recommend her for the honor.
Ehud Danoch, Israel's consul general in Los Angeles, said that Pascal is "very dear to us" and that "we are very proud" to honor her, given "her support for Israel and being a tremendous success in entertainment."
Danoch and the Israeli government have made a concerted effort in the past few years to reach out to Hollywood. Last year, the consulate obtained more than 80 signatures from industry players like Rupert Murdoch and Sumner Redstone for a full-page ad in the L.A. Times, Variety and the Hollywood Reporter that condemned the terrorist activities of Hezbollah and Hamas. More recently, Israeli Finance Minister Avraham Hirschson met with production chiefs in town to discuss providing "economic incentives," such as tax breaks to encourage U.S. studios to film in Israel.
The upcoming Israel Film Festival represents the culmination of the consulate's developing ties with Hollywood. The opening-night dinner will be a red-carpet affair attended by well-known American actors and executives, who will get a chance to see not only Pascal but also Almagor, whose career transcends film.
Almagor is not only an award-winning stage and screen actress but also is active in humanitarian concerns and is a recipient of the Israel Award, what Fenigstein referred to as Israel's equivalent of the Nobel Prize. She stars in two of the films at the Israel Film Festival this year, "Three Mothers," a tale of Egyptian-born triplets who go on a journey of discovery about their past, and "Tied Hands," about a mother who searches for marijuana for her dying son. Almagor had a brief role in Steven Spielberg's "Munich."
This year's crop of films also includes "Storm of Emotion," a film short-listed for the foreign-language Oscar that deals with disengagement from Gaza (see story above); "Aviva My Love," which won six Ophirs, Israel's Academy Awards, including best picture (see story, Page 32); and "Little Heroes," one of several films aimed at teenagers.
At press time, Fenigstein was still in negotiations to screen the kibbutz saga, "Sweet Mud," which won the World Jury Cinema Prize for best drama at Sundance but failed to nab an Oscar nomination.
"I'm competing with distributors," he said, without having to mention that they may fear overexposure or may simply want to be very selective about where they screen a film before its release.
While he has sought "Sweet Mud," Fenigstein professes less interest in "Hot House," winner of Sundance's documentary competition, which depicts the conditions in Israeli prisons and how they can become breeding grounds for terrorists.
"It's tough.... We can show controversial films, but there is a limit to how we go," he said, pointing out that by airing "too much dirty laundry," the Israel Film Festival might jeopardize its relationship with sponsors and attendees.
He might not be screening some of the most popular and provocative Israeli films, but Fenigstein praised the current state of Israeli cinema, which he said is "burgeoning" and attracting money from many European sources, particularly European television.
"You can shoot in Germany and get money," he said, explaining that a project with a budget of $800,000 can become a $2 million film. Due to the co-productions, the Israeli film industry has improved in both quality and quantity, which is reflected in the festival's lineup. Fenigstein will open with Israeli box-office champ, "Aviva My Love," at Grauman's Chinese Theatre, the first time an Israeli film has been shown there.
Fenigstein seeks a diverse audience for the festival this year, as opposed to previous years when it primarily drew Israelis. He is targeting the Russian community with "Children of the C.C.C.P.," filmed primarily in the Russian language. He hopes to reach children with "Little Heroes" and "Love and Dance," and he is working on a plan to bring filmmakers to schools like Milken Community High School.
Fenigstein also intends to set up a panel discussion to follow "Storm of Emotion." The details are still being worked out at the 11th hour, but he is used to that.
Fenigstein wants to show "Storm" in East Los Angeles or downtown so that many non-Jews will get a chance to see it. He said that most people don't talk about the situation in Gaza any longer, and that this would be a perfect opportunity for filmgoers to observe the humane manner in which Israeli police and soldiers treat the Palestinians.
Most importantly, he wants families to come to the festival. He said that Jewish parents in the United States often send their children to Israel by themselves with the mindset, "We have our Israel; you have yours." He called this a mistake and said that if parents bring their children to the Israel Film Festival, "the bonding in the family would be incredible."
The Israel Film Festival will run from March 7 to March 22.