On the surface, it could have been any other Hollywood industry event: legendary producer Mike Medavoy and actress-director-producer Penny Marshall received awards before the festival-opening movie screening at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. Business as usual in Hollywood.
However, the film being screened, Dover Kosashvili's "Late Marriage," was Israeli, as was the film festival it was kicking off.
If the 18th annual Israel Film Festival opening night gala proved anything, it's that life -- and art -- must go on, even as the spectre of war, chaos and uncertainty hovers over the Jewish state. The political situation in Israel had grown so chaotic in the days leading up to the festival's April 10 opening in Los Angeles that Matan Vilnai, Israel's minister of culture, canceled his visit to the festival's opening night.
"I was very scared, and I almost wanted to cancel the festival," admitted Meir Fenigstein, founder and executive director of the festival, which will head to Chicago, Miami and New York after closing in Los Angeles on April 25. "By morning, I felt that the show must go on, and I chose to continue."
Fenigstein's Israel Film Festival has been a crucial endorsement of Israel's still-fledgling film industry, which basically consists of independent filmmakers working with decreasing government financial support. Support from Israeli audiences for the films is equally problematic. Of about 170 features screened each year, only 5 percent are Israeli (compare that to 67 percent American). Contributing to the financial woes is the explosive Israeli-Palestinian situation.
"We are still at the end of a wave we've had in Israeli cinema that is escapist stories," said Katriel Schory, Israeli Film Fund director.
"This period is different," said Ramat-Gan-based writer-director Danny Wolman ("Foreign Sister"). "I don't remember it ever being like this. It's so traumatic, losing people you've worked with to the suicide bombings."
Recent Israeli films have touched on the second generation of Holocaust survivors and relationships in the Israeli military. Regarding comedies, a staple of the late 1960s Israeli film industry, Schory said, "this whole genre has disappeared."
Films such as "Late Marriage" and Tzahi Grad's "Giraffes" are the latest offerings from a decade that has shown personal and more universal stories of family and relationships. "Giraffes," a seductive thriller about the destiny of three women, eschewed politics for a human drama that contained nary a reference to Middle East politics. Grad's hope is to see more such films emerge.
"If Israel has a lot of 'Giraffes,' it will be a better situation in Israel," Grad said.
However, Schory predicted that "within two years, there will be more films dealing with subject matter" reflecting the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Part of that is because of the lengthy process of making an Israeli film, which can take a year from choosing a script to approving a production.
"When there is a great trauma, when something is painful, like the Holocaust," Wolman said, "the expression of it will take time -- at least to comment on it in a deep way."
Israel's Film Law was passed two years ago to stimulate the country's film industry. The Israel Film Fund goes through scripts and chooses projects to finance. According to the law, the money comes from 8 percent of the revenue from Israel's commercial TV channel, Channel 2. About half of the money accrued -- 4 percent -- goes into financing the production and the marketing of the selected films. For this year, the $5 million allotted for Israeli filmmakers has decreased dramatically, according to Fenigstein.
"Because of war and the second intifada, revenue went down and the industry has suffered for that," Fenigstein said. Documentarian Ronit Kertsner pointed out that in times of war, not only does government money earmarked for filmmaking get siphoned into the war cause, but cameras and other film equipment become scarce because of the demand for them from foreign press stationed in the Middle East.
Despite such problems, many, such as Fenigstein, believe that the Film Law system is working. Others, such as Eli Cohen, director of "Rutenberg," are not as thrilled. "What two years ago was so promising is now stuck," he said.
Another problem over the last two years has been the wait for the arrival of a third commercial channel, which became tied up in the courts. "If you offer [TV stations] material, their slots are full," said Kertsner, who made an Israel Film Festival entry about Polish crypto-Jews called, "The Secret." She has had more success airing her film on European channels.
But the difficulty of making films in Israel may make the films better, as Cohen observed: pain translates into art. "The more problems, more catastrophes, more hardships -- it becomes food for writers," he said.
"Actually, I think in times of trouble, you do become more creative, and there'll be many more films dealing with what's going on now," Kertsner said. "We're up against a situation that we just can't run away from it. Whenever there's a bombing, I keep recording news footage because I know I'm going to use it down the line. That was my first instinct. It almost makes me feel guilty. The more I record, the more it seems happens."
The greatest challenges facing Israeli filmmaking, according to a Greek chorus of talent visiting Los Angeles for the festival, have little to do with political unrest, but with an age-old American filmmaking dilemma: financing.
"It's the same difficulty of trying to make a film in Hollywood, plus the difference is that there's not the budget to really advance in this career," said "Late Marriage" star Ronit Elkabetz, 37. The actress, who now lives in Paris, divides her career between Israeli and French projects.
"Late Marriage" was one of Israel's highest grossing films in the last two decades, attracting more than 300,000 moviegoers. With "Late Marriage," this year's festival represents a first -- debuting a film that has American distribution. "Late Marriage," courtesy of New York-based Magnolia Films, will screen locally at Laemmle Theaters starting May 17.
Elkabetz believes "Late Marriage" worked because "it's a very good story" immersed in the exotic backdrop of Israel's Georgian immigrant community.
Fenigstein is proud that his festival, which continues to grow each year, has made some headway in bringing Israel to Hollywood. Despite Israel's political situation, the festival launch attracted nearly a full house of 1,000 people. Fenigstein credits Israeli-bred Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan ("High Crimes"), the festival's chair of nine years, for raising the festival's profile in America.
"Without Arnon, we wouldn't have that kind of support," Fenigstein said. "He's interested in the festival and has brought in many people on our behalf. You know what they say in the nonprofit world -- 'People give to people, not causes.'"
For Cohen, one solution to skirting Israel's limited financial resources has been partnering. He is currently working on an Israeli-Canadian co-production, but warns of these unions, "You have to be careful not to compromise reality and authenticity." For "The Secret," Kertsner derived 60 percent of her funding from Israel's Film Fund and 40 percent from Steven Spielberg's Righteous Persons Foundation.
Despite its ongoing bumpy journey, participants and supporters of the Israeli film industry remain optimistic. Elkabetz told The Journal that no matter where her career takes her, she will always remain loyal to Israeli filmmaking and make films there.
"It's my family, it's my culture," Elkabetz said.
Cohen believes that the Israeli film community is more vibrant and sophisticated than ever, having grown over the last few decades from a handful of directors to students coming out of film school.
"It's a new generation, a better generation," Cohen said.
"In the last 10 years, they've opened film schools in Israel," Kertsner said. "In my generation, there wasn't even television."
Fenigstein, who has had faith in Israeli film industry ever since he hatched his festival idea 19 years ago while attending college in Boston, believes that the best has yet to come. In fact, Fenigstein predicted, "In 2005, Israel will win an Oscar."