The Israel Film Festival reveals the heart of Israel to L.A.
The Israel Film Festival (IFF) will bring the real heartbeat of the Jewish state — often smothered under bellicose headlines — to Los Angeles through 28 feature and documentary films. The festival screens Oct. 23 through Nov. 6 at five different venues.
Kicking off the series is the opening-night presentation at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills of the haunting film “Next to Her,” whose co-star, Dana Ivgy, will be honored alongside producers Arnon Milchan (“Gone Girl”) and Mace Neufeld (“The Equalizer”).
Ivgy and the film’s producer, Estee Yacov-Mecklberg, will be on hand for a Q-and-A session, as part of the largest contingent of Israeli filmmakers and actors to participate in any IFF in its 28-year history.
Another special event will be the U.S. premiere of “The Go-Go Boys: The Inside Story of Cannon Films,” a documentary on Israeli producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus.
The two cousins, particularly the flamboyant Golan, cut quite a wide swath through Hollywood in the 1980s before returning to Israel. The evening event at the Writers Guild Theatre in Beverly Hills will feature a panel discussion on the life and times of Golan, who died in August of this year.
Many of the scheduled films will have their world, U.S., West Coast or Los Angeles premieres at the festival.
“Israeli cinema in on a roll,” noted Meir Fenigstein, the IFF’s founder and executive director. “The creativity, passion and depth that Israeli filmmakers are bringing to their projects have been truly amazing.”
The festival’s curtain raiser, “Next to Her,” is the emotionally intense story of Chelli, played by Liron Ben-Shlush, who also wrote the screenplay.
Chelli’s all-consuming preoccupation is to care for Gabby, her three-years-younger sister, who is mentally handicapped.
As anyone who has been in such a relationship with a family member knows, over time the experience can be immensely fulfilling and frustrating, rewarding and draining.
The two sisters play, watch television and sleep together, and Chelli sees to Gabby’s bodily needs and habits, from showering to keeping her from masturbating. When Chelli goes to work, she leaves Gabby at home, but is constantly listening for the ring of her cell phone, anticipating that Gabby is in some kind of trouble.
Into this claustrophobic world enters Zohar (Yaacov Daniel), a new substitute gym teacher at Chelli’s school. Socially inept, Zohar lives with his mother (Varda Ben Hur), whose all-enveloping “Yiddishe Mama” shtick makes for one of the film’s rare laughs.
Zohar and Chelli, two emotionally and sexually needy people, fall instantly in love, and, with Chelli taking the lead, engage in some lovemaking that is intense even by Hollywood standards.
Soon Zohar moves in with Chelli and Gabby, and the members of the ménage à trois adjust their lifestyles and emotions as best they can.
Zohar is kind-hearted, more grounded and certainly a neater housekeeper than his two female roommates. In the meantime, Gabby finds unexpected friendship in a daytime halfway house, to the barely hidden resentment of her veteran caretaker, Chelli.
As the plot appears to meander toward a happy ending, the principals face a new, life-changing crisis.
Director Asaf Korman, also Ben-Shlush’s husband in Tel Aviv’s tightly knit movie colony, draws remarkable performances from all of the members of his small cast, but Ivgy’s portrayal of the young handicapped sister will haunt viewers for a long time. Indeed, many critics have found it hard to believe that Ivgy was acting the role.
This year, the Israel Academy of Film bestowed an Ophir (Oscar’s Jewish cousin) on Ivgy as best supporting actress for her performance as Gabby.
On top of that, the 32-year old thespian won the best actress Ophir at the same award ceremony for playing a trouble-making Israeli soldier in “Zero Motivation,” which will be shown at the festival on Oct. 26 at the Laemmle Music Hall.
In a phone call from New York, Ivgy detailed the intensity and fear with which she approached the role of Gabby. One factor was that in writing the script for the film, Ben-Shlush drew on the relationship with her own, mentally handicapped sister.
“Liron (Ben-Shlush) is a very close friend, and I knew her sister, so when I took the role of Gabby I was so afraid that I would get it wrong, that I wouldn’t do justice to the part,” Ivgy said.
“I started reading about mental retardation, about the brain and medication,” she said. “Then I went to the institution where Liron’s sister was living. That was pretty intimidating at first, and the fact is that you rarely show this level of disability in a movie.”
Besides coping with the mental and emotional challenges of the role, Ivgy was in the second and third months of her pregnancy during the shooting of the film.
“I didn’t tell anyone about it,” she said, “but I tried to avoid acting in the mornings, when I often felt pretty sick.”
Ivgy had no difficulty transitioning into her role in “Next to Her” immediately after wrapping up “Zero Motivation,” in which, she said, “I play a crazy, bitchy girl soldier. I love to do different things — that’s why I am an actress.”
Another reason for her career choice is probably genetic, since she is the daughter of one of Israel’s best-loved actors, Moshe Ivgy, and his actress wife, Irit Sheleg.
As a matter of fact, “I was on stage before I was even born,” Dana Ivgy declared. “My mother was acting in a play while she was pregnant with me.”
Before heading to Los Angeles for the opening of the IFF, Ivgy is performing with an ensemble of eight fellow Israelis in the off-Broadway production of “Odd Birdz,” consisting of some 20 short comedy sketches.
The group, named Tziporela, was formed 12 years ago by its nine young founders, who were classmates in an Israeli drama school; they have performed in English all over the world, to enthusiastic applause.
Nowadays, wherever Ivgy goes, so goes her now nine-month-old son Michael. “I couldn’t live a day without him,” the doting mother said.
Among other attractions on the IFF schedule is “Life as a Rumor,” a documentary celebrating the life of the late Assi Dayan, one of Israel’s foremost film directors and actors, and son of Gen. Moshe Dayan.
“The Story of Poogy” delves into the life of IFF founder Meir Fenigstein, known in earlier days as the drummer “Poogy” in the Israeli rock band Kaveret. In the short documentary, he is contacted by an 18-year-old daughter he didn’t know he had.
“Above and Beyond” documents the deeds of a group of ex-World War II pilots, mainly from English-speaking countries, who fought as volunteers for the newly born State of Israel in 1948. Roberta Grossman directed the film and Nancy Spielberg produced.