Speaking at the July 10 opening ceremony of this year’s Jerusalem International Film Festival, which was moved at the last minute from the outdoor Sultan’s Pool venue to protect guests from Hamas rockets, the mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, a former high-tech entrepreneur in a power suit, declared Israel “one of the strongest brands in the world.”
An image floated unbidden into my jet-lagged mind of former mayor Teddy Kollek tooling around his beloved city in baggy shorts and an open-necked shirt. I’m willing to bet Kollek wouldn’t have stood for brands. And as a boomer who was partly raised in Israel (my British parents helped build the kibbutz Kfar Blum) and who returned to live there as an adult several times before leaving in the mid-1970s, I was appalled.
The Israel I left was a socialist democracy with more than a whiff of the Soviet about its political and social institutions. It had a maddeningly Levantine bureaucracy, an excitable street life and an intense public involvement in matters of social equality and national survival. It drove me nuts; I loved it dearly.
So I’m old school, but during the week of the festival I fell just as ambivalently in love with the new Israel, a vibrantly hyper-capitalist, pluralistic and noisily divided society bent on taking its place among Western technocracies.
Gone, mostly, is the public rudeness and obstructionism characteristic of a society improvising itself into existence under testing conditions. To my astonishment, getting through the day in Israel is downright pleasant now. Waiters and shopkeepers smile and hover; Egged bus drivers no longer take off at the precise moment you arrive at their door; officials at the dreaded Ministry of the Interior, where I had to renew my Israeli passport or oy-vavoy-li (“woe betide me”), were civil and downright helpful.
In between festival screenings, we visiting journalists — only a handful had canceled because of the matzav (situation) — were proudly squired around a former leper hospital beautifully retooled into animation, experimental and interactive labs, with state-of-the-art equipment and renowned avant-garde filmmaker Chantal Akerman currently in residence.
As a film critic with a strong interest in Israeli film, I had already registered Israel’s self-reinvention on screen. Over the past 15 years, with movies as diverse in form and substance as “The Band’s Visit,” “Walk on Water,” “Late Marriage,” “Waltz With Bashir,” “Footnote” and “Fill the Void” (to say nothing of television, where at least two American series, “In Treatment” and “Homeland,” originated in Israel), the country’s cinema has blossomed from parochial aesthetics and nationalist boosterism to win international acclaim.
Well into the 1980s, Israeli cinema, such as it was, remained formally naïve and frequently awful while often being rushed into theaters by the exuberantly pushy producers Yoram Globus and Menahem Golan. Outside of Israel, the prolific pair’s Cannon Films still enjoys a cult schlock-film following; in Israel they are beloved for having given the country any kind of cinema at all. Their buoyantly cheesy 1964 first feature, “Sallah Shabati,” a satire written and directed by the late humorist Ephraim Kishon and starring Chaim Topol as a Yemenite immigrant struggling to survive in a predominantly Ashkenazi state, was the first Israeli film to be nominated for an Oscar. It remains, for a certain demographic, a cherished nostalgia item.
“Sallah Shabati” screened at this year’s festival as a tribute to Globus and Golan, along with “The Go-Go Boys,” Hilla Medalia’s rollicking documentary about their transition from kings of Israeli comedy to B-movie success and failure in Hollywood. Once an imposing figure but now visibly frail, Golan barely made it to the podium to take a bow. His ego, however, remains undiminished: Once there, the famously brash filmmaker wound his arm around Medalia and pronounced her “the best director in the world — after me.”
The most striking development was a gratifying rise in the number of films made by women. Replacing the redoubtable Lia van Leer, who’s credited with shepherding Israeli cinema to its current global renown, the new festival director is also a woman, Noa Regev.
One of this year’s hottest tickets, directed by Ronit Elkabetz (the talented star of “The Band’s Visit”) along with her brother Shlomi Elkabetz, was “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem,” about an Orthodox woman seeking a divorce from her mulishly uncooperative husband. The Elkabetzes’ bitter critique of Israel’s religious patriarchy clearly hit a jangled nerve with the largely secular festival moviegoers. A line in the script excoriating the ultra-Orthodox tight grip on divorce and conversion in the Jewish state triggered loud applause, and the movie won the best feature award along with “Princess,” a drama about child sexual abuse.
It was perhaps inevitable after the Six-Day War that the focus of Israeli cinema was, for many years, its war with surrounding Arab nations. Today, it’s commonly said that Israeli film has moved away from a preoccupation with the occupation to a more inward-looking focus on the many domestic conflicts that have shattered the country’s political and normative consensus.
That is true in the limited sense that there aren’t many war pictures per se in narrative features. The festival had its share of worthy social-issue dramas such as “Red Leaves,” about the disintegrating family of an Ethiopian elder, and “Ben Zaken,” a formally ambitious but excruciatingly long-faced inquiry into family dysfunction in Israel’s underserved development towns.
“Should we celebrate the shift away from the focus on war and politics?” asked the young director Nadav Lapid at a panel on global cinema. Given the periodic sirens that interrupted festival screenings and sent audiences scrambling for the hallways, it was a good question.
Yet the political is increasingly personal in Israeli cinema today. I didn’t manage to see Lapid’s new film, “The Kindergarten Teacher,” about a teacher whose encouragement of a pint-sized poet in her charge crosses the line into obsession. But his formally adventurous, willfully shocking “The Policeman” (a Cannes sensation released in the United States earlier this year) imagines a scenario of domestic terror in which the terrorists are not Arabs but disaffected young Jews with the corporate rich in their gun sights. Taken together, these films plumb what Lapid clearly sees as a deepening rot in the Israeli soul, whose connection to the Middle East conflict needs no spelling out.
Lapid complained that only one festival film dealt directly with Israeli-Palestinian relations. I’m not sure whether he meant by that Eran Riklis’ highly anticipated “Dancing Arabs,” which takes the point of view of an Israeli-Arab village boy who, dispatched by his father to a Jewish boarding school in Jerusalem, acclimates reluctantly and becomes absorbed into Israeli life — up to a point.
Expertly running the audience up and down the emotional and genre registers, this likable pop drama, as Riklis said in a post-screening Q-and-A, “takes you to a difficult place.” Which is doubtless one reason that it was moved from opening night to later in the festival, and its local commercial release was delayed as of this writing.
The movie is based on two novels by Sayed Kashua, an Israeli-Arab writer and creator of the comedy series “Arab Labor,” now running on KCET in Los Angeles. The week before the festival, Kashua wrote a column in Haaretz announcing his flight from Israel to a temporary job near Chicago and his inability to deal with the conflict any more.
According to Riklis, the two fought robustly over the screenplay. That’s Israel all over, old and new, then and now. But I hope “Dancing Arabs” opens in Jerusalem and elsewhere. For all its challenging themes and some shamelessly sentimental moments, the movie offers something Israel and Palestine desperately need right now — a conciliatory spirit.