Jewish Journal

Israeli films take a lead role at Cannes

by Jane Ulman

Posted on May. 29, 2008 at 2:30 pm

Crowd at Cannes film festival.  Photo by Jane Ulman

Crowd at Cannes film festival. Photo by Jane Ulman

Against a backdrop of threatening skies, clearly not a metaphor for the future of Israel's film industry, two Israeli feature films premiered on May 15, opening day of the 61st Cannes Film Festival. And a short by Israeli student filmmaker Elad Keidan took first prize in the Cinefondation, a competition supporting new talent.

The highly anticipated "Waltz With Bashir," by established documentarian but first-time Cannes invitee Ari Folman, made its international debut as one of 22 films in the official competition, alongside features by Clint Eastwood, the Dardenne brothers and Steven Soderbergh.

Four years in the making, with 2,300 original illustrations transformed into a combination of Flash, classic and 3-D animation, the anti-war film, "Waltz," chronicles Folman's very personal experiences as a young Israeli soldier during the 1982 Lebanon War. He excavated his own traumatic but buried memories by questioning nine fellow soldiers about their recollections, specifically those recollections surrounding the massacre at the Sabra and Satila Palestinian refugee camps.

"Coming to think about it, it's all about memory, it's about lost memory, it's about repression, it's about where do our memories go when we repress them. Do they still live in us?" Folman said at a Cannes press conference following the premier.

On the same day, "Shiva," by the well-known brother and sister filmmaking team, Shlomi and Ronit Elkabetz, was selected to open the parallel and prestigious International Critics' Week festival, running May 15 through May 23.

A French-Israeli co-production, also known as "Les Sept Jours," this is the second film written and directed by the Elkabetz siblings, with the role of Vivianne acted by Ronit Elkabetz. The film follows the large, extended Ohaion family as they mourn the sudden death of Maurice -- husband, son, brother and father -- by sitting shiva according to the cloistered and regimented Moroccan tradition.

The film takes place against the backdrop of the 1991 Gulf War. In fact, hearing the familiar siren, the family dons gas masks while reciting the Mourner's Kaddish at the cemetery. Then, confined to Maurice's house for the full seven days -- with all the mourners sleeping on the floor in one room every night -- the family soon becomes consumed by internecine feuds, affairs and business failures.

Second in a trilogy, the film continues to follow the relationship of Vivianne and Eliyau, now estranged 10 years after "To Take a Wife," their first film. According to Shlomi Elkabetz, their third film is tentatively planned take place a decade later, at the end of last century. However, when asked during a Cannes press conference if the couple will be divorced, he replied, "We can't speak about that."

But both siblings did speak enthusiastically about the current strengths of the Israeli cinema in general, believing that it is moving forward in a constant direction.

"We don't need to imitate American films or European films," Ronit Elkabetz said in French, through a translator. "We are faithful to our own psyche and this will strengthen progressively."

Katriel Schory, executive director the Israel Film Fund and, among other duties, responsible for promoting Israeli films outside the country, cites "Waltz With Bashir" and "Shiva" as continued proof of Israel's formidable reputation in the international film scene. In fact, he said that a fierce battle for "Waltz With Bashir" was waged between executives of the Berlinale (Berlin International Film Festival) and Cannes.

Last year, Eran Kolirin's film, "The Band's Visit," which stars Ronit Elkabetz and which debuted in Cannes' Un Certain Regard category, won the Coup de Coeur Award and continues to sell tickets briskly worldwide. Additionally, Etgar Keret and Shira Geffen's film, "Jellyfish," premiering in the International Critics' Week festival, garnered the Camera d'Or Award.

"There is something in the stories, something in the talent and many people and many producers would like to be associated with the talent coming out of Israel," Schory said, adding that Israeli films sold about 2.9 million tickets worldwide in 2007.

But the presence of these Israeli full-length features and established filmmakers at Cannes is only half the story.

Two student films were selected to appear as part of the Cinefondation, which solicits nominations from film schools across the world, motivating and supporting the upcoming generation of filmmakers. This year 17 films were chosen from more than 1,200 submissions.

Student filmmaker Keidan traveled to Cannes for the May 21 Cinefondation premier of his 36-minute film, "Anthem," which he wrote and directed as his graduation project for Jerusalem's Sam Spiegel Film and Television School, and which is the first Israeli film to take top prize in this competition, established in 1998.

"Anthem," known as "Himnon" in Hebrew, is the story of a middle-aged character, Amnon, who goes to the store to buy milk before Shabbat falls on Jerusalem's Katamon neighborhood. Then, from this small episode, everything goes wrong, until "it ends with a Shabbat element," Keidan said, not revealing the details.

Keidan describes Amnon as an aging beatnik who lets life happen to him. "The film is an Israeli low-budget 'Big Lebowski,'" he said.

A believer in independent films, Keidan would like to create more of them, both short ones, which he compares to poetry, and eventually an independent feature. And while he is currently restricted to low-budget films, he said he is influenced by Samuel Beckett and Billy Wilder, among other filmmakers, as well as by Iranian art films.

Winning first place is a "life-changer," Keidan said. It guarantees distribution and exposure for "Anthem," as well as a showing of his first feature film at the Cannes Festival.

"I have many, many ideas," he said. "It's like having many crying babies on your shoulder and deciding which one to soothe first."

Keidan hopes that being in Cannes has helped him meet people and get his name around. Imitating his film, which he describes as serious but with humor, he said, "I hope to become the sole friend of Steven Spielberg."

"Silence," written and directed by Hadar Morag, 25, a fourth-year student at Tel Aviv University's film and television department, was also chosen to premier in the Cinefondation's competition, on May 23. Morag submitted the film to the Cannes festival herself, revealing that it was not selected for Tel Aviv University's film festival.

"Silence" -- "Shtika" in Hebrew -- is Morag's first short fiction film, running 18 minutes. And using only 18 words, it portrays the intentionally ambiguous relationship between Mashda, a 12-year-old Arabic girl from a difficult and fatherless family, and Amnon, a 45-year-old Israeli.

"There's not a lot of connection and attention in Mashda's family. The mother doesn't speak to her in the film," Morag said, explaining that the drama happens "between the shots."

Because of the recognition conferred by Cannes, Morag is committed to continuing her film career. She is working on the script for a longer documentary and considering a new fictional film, even though the idea is overwhelming since "Silence" consumed two years of her life.

"It was really hard to finish. I wasn't satisfied," she said.

She used her time in Cannes to meet as many industry people as possible. "I'm so tired, and I'm having the time of my life," she said, expressing the universal dichotomic reaction to the Cannes Film Festival.

Meanwhile, Nadav Lapid, in Cannes from May 16-23, was selected to participate in L'Atelier, created in 2005 as part of the Cinéfondation with the goal of helping 15 filmmakers find financing for production-ready creative projects.

Lapid, 33, who squeezed in meals between "pitching the project and trying to charm guests," is looking for $1.3 million to complete his estimated $1.9 million for "The Policeman." His first feature, the film tells the story of two groups -- policemen and young revolutionaries -- whose paths cross following the taking of a billionaire hostage. Lapid said he hopes to hear from potential financiers two or three weeks after the festival ends.

A graduate of the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School, Lapid directed "Mahmud Works in the Industry," which was selected for the 2004 Cannes Cinéfondation. A second film, "Road," screened at the Berlinale, and his graduation film, "Emile's Girlfriend," was chosen for the 2006 Cinéfondation. Most recently, he spent five months working in Paris on the script for "The Policeman" as part of the Cannes Film Festival's Residence Program.

Lapid has also written a novel, "Continues to Dance," published in 2001, and previously worked as a journalist.

Eschewing genre films, Lapid prefers things to be realistic and nonrealistic, absurd and concrete.

"I like to take a fantastical situation and shoot it realistically," he said, adding that "when people can classify you, you're a little bit dead."

These days, neither the prolific Lapid nor Israel's film industry are even close to dead.

But only five years ago, Israel Film Fund's Schory said he had to chase film agents, producers and distributors down the corridors of Cannes' oversize Marche du Film (Film Market) exhibition hall, begging them to see an Israeli film.

"Now they call me. They ask me, 'What's new? What's cooking?'" Schory said. "There's a dramatic change. Really a dramatic change."

Interview with director Folman in English from France 24

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