Persian Jews break with tradition to break through in Hollywood


The generation of Iranian Jews who escaped Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution with their parents and traded a fearful existence for lives in New York and Los Angeles are now emerging in the entertainment industry.

Whether it’s producing Oscar-winning films, appearing on prime-time network television series or performing stand-up comedy, young Jews of Iranian heritage have been breaking with their community’s traditional norms and leaving their imprint on Hollywood.

Perhaps the most notable success came last year when Iranian Jewish film producer Bob Yari’s independent film, “Crash,” won the best picture Oscar and generated nearly $100 million in worldwide sales.

“I had a gut feeling that it would be something special, but you never know, so I was hoping and my hopes came to fruition,” said Yari, 45, whose four production companies have produced 26 independent films in the last four years.

Yari made his fortune in real estate development but is no novice when it comes to Hollywood. After receiving a degree in cinematography, he directed the 1989 film, “Mind Games,” for MGM. The litigation involved in the film and its lack of success drove Yari away from the industry until five years ago, when he returned as a producer.

“I’m always interested in telling stories that I think touch people and mean something to people,” he said. “One of the things that’s always attracted me to film is its power to influence people to put aside their prejudices or judging people based on their heritage or color of skin.”

Yari is not the only Iranian Jew doing well in Hollywood. Nightclub and hotel entrepreneur Sam Nazarian, 31, is financing and producing films through his L.A.-based SBE Entertainment Group. His production company, Element Films, has produced seven films in the last three years and is slated to release three more this year, according to the Internet Movie Database Web site.

Some Iranian Jewish filmmakers are trying to parlay their success to tell their own cultural narratives. Soly Haim, a L.A.-based independent producer, is seeking financing for a documentary about how Iranian Jews helped Jews flee Iraq in the middle of the 20th century.

“Documentaries are hard to get financing for because, unlike films, documentaries usually go for television broadcasts, and the revenues generated do not match the revenues generated from feature films,” said Haim, 45.

In the meantime, Haim’s production company, Screen Magic Entertainment, this summer will release the independent film, “When a Man Falls in the Forest,” starring Sharon Stone and Timothy Hutton. The film revolves around an unhappily married woman who shoplifts to relieve the suffering brought on by her boring marriage and to find excitement in a small Midwestern town.

Yari, for his part, said he’s looking to develop a feature film about the events that led to the 1979 Iranian revolution and the collapse of the late shah’s regime.

Young Iranian Jews have also achieved moderate success working behind the scenes in television. The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences customarily honors the behind-the-scenes toilers, and at last year’s technical awards ceremony, Lila Yomtoob, a sound editor on the HBO documentary, “Baghdad ER,” became the first Iranian Jew to win an Emmy.

“I wasn’t expecting it at all,” said Yomtoob, who now lives in Brooklyn. “But when I saw that I was seated in the sixth row, I had a feeling I was going to win.”

“Baghdad ER” chronicles two months in the day-to-day lives of doctors, nurses, medics, soldiers and chaplains working in the U.S. Army’s premier medical facility in Baghdad’s Green Zone.Bahar SoomekhAfter completing film school in 2000, Yomtoob worked as a freelance sound editor on a variety of film and television projects, including “Two Weeks Notice,” which starred Sandra Bullock and Hugh Grant, as well as for the HBO series, “The Wire.” Despite her recent success, she said her family did not initially approve of her career choice in Hollywood.

“I would say that my decision to get into the industry was met with skepticism,” Yomtoob said. “My parents, my family, a lot of cousins are doctors and lawyers. My father wanted the same for me, but I went ahead and did it anyway.”

The acting bug has also bitten a number of young Iranian Jews. The best-known to emerge in recent years is Bahar Soomekh, who made her film debut in “Crash” in the role of a young Iranian woman named Dorri.

“It’s really scary with acting because there is no guarantee,” said Soomekh, a 30-something L.A. resident. “It’s so different than anything else, because in the corporate world, you do something and you see your success, but with acting you could go to audition after audition, and 90 percent of the time there is rejection.”

Since “Crash,” Soomekh has landed roles in other major films, including last year’s “Mission: Impossible III” and the horror thriller “Saw III.” Last year she also played the role of Margo in the ABC television series, “Day Break.” She said she has been showered with support for her career from other Iranian Jews.

“Wherever I go, people I don’t even know grab me, hug me and tell me how proud they are and how exciting it is for them to see someone on the big screen from their community,” Soomekh said. “It’s unbelievable how many people my age in the community tell me, ‘It’s always been my dream, and I’m living vicariously through you’.”

Another Iranian Jewish actor, Jonathan Ahdout, 17, was a regular in the 2005 season on the Fox television series, “24,” playing the role of a young Iranian terrorist.

“My biggest fear is becoming typecast as the Muslim Middle Easterner, because I think society today has their sights set on the Middle East, and it’s become a much bigger part of American culture,” said Ahdout, who lives in Los Angeles. “I don’t want to necessarily fuel any type of stereotype.”

Ahdout made his acting debut four years ago in the acclaimed film, “House of Sand and Fog,” which was about an Iranian family in the United States, starring Oscar-winners Jennifer Connelly and Sir Ben Kingsley. In 2005, Ahdout also played the role of Ike opposite Forrest Whitaker in the independent film, “American Gun.”

Spectator


 

Location, location, location is the secret to many people’s success. But for Meir Fenigstein, founder of the Israel Film Festival, timing is the key. That’s why he’s moved the Los Angeles portion of his 21st annual Israel Film Festival from spring to late fall, where approximately 40 features, documentaries, television shows and student shorts will screen Dec. 1 to 11.

The first step, Fenigstein said, was moving the New York branch of the event to late October and early November, following important international festivals in cities such as Toronto, Cannes, Venice, Montreal and Manhattan.

“All these arenas compete with each other for world premieres, and we aren’t able to compete,” the energetic Fenigstein said.

Instead, Fenigstein hopes that directors accepted elsewhere will subsequently submit to his event, especially if he invites plenty of potential distributors to New York and Los Angeles screenings.

“For me, to get a film after Berlin or Cannes isn’t a downer, it’s prestigious,” he said.

With higher-profile films scheduled and publicity generated by the powerful New York press, Fenigstein hopes for greater buzz (and attendance) when the festival arrives here late this year. (Only a handful of the 2004 Los Angeles screenings sold out, compared to 30 in New York, he said.)

Because December is the month when movies screen here for Oscar consideration, Fenigstein hopes his Los Angeles opening night will annually premiere Israel’s submission to the Academy Awards.

“That could become an icon of the festival and increase our prestige,” he said. “A bigger Hollywood profile is one goal for our next 20 years.”

For information about the festival, which will also run in Miami in January and Chicago at an as yet undermined time next year, call (877) 966-5566 or visit www.israelfilmfestival.com.

 

On Stage, Off Screen


 

Jewish talent didn’t make the headlines at Sunday evening’s Academy Awards, but found some consolation in the less glamorous categories. Tom Rosenberg briefly shared the spotlight with Clint Eastwood as one of the three producers of best picture “Million Dollar Baby,” which also collected Oscars in the best director, actress and supporting actor categories.

Charlie Kaufman, the favorite, won the best original screenplay Oscar for his “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” After a “normal Jewish upbringing” on Long Island, Kaufman has become one of the hottest Hollywood writers for scripts that tend to blur the line between fantasy and reality.

In the documentary feature category, often dominated by Holocaust-themed entries in the past, the winner was “Born Into Brothels,” about the children of Calcutta prostitutes. Sharing the award were director Zana Briski, whose Iraqi Jewish mother now lives in Israel, reports Jewhoo.com, and her Jewish co-producer Ross Kauffman.

African American comedian Chris Rock, the evening’s host, turned down his normally edgy nightclub routine for the occasion, but pricked up some ears in a bit about “The Passion of the Christ,” when he observed that “A lot of Jewish people were offended [by the film], they were mad about it.”

But as a follow-up, Rock commented, “I can relate to that. I had to deal with a movie called ‘Soul Plane'” — a lame comedy about a one-plane airline run by blacks and panned for its black stereotypes.

Mel Gibson’s “The Passion,” hardly a Hollywood favorite, was nominated for its cinematography, makeup and original score, but failed to win a single Oscar.

Sidney Lumet, director of such memorable films as “Twelve Angry Men,” “Network” and the Jewish-themed “The Pawnbroker” and “Bye Bye Braverman” accepted a lifetime achievement award. The son of Yiddish actors Baruch Lumet and Eugenia Wermus, Lumet, 80, made his stage debut as a 5-year-old at New York’s Yiddish Art Theatre.

Jewish hopes for an acting award rode on the best supporting actress category. Among the five finalists were Natalie Portman for “Closer” and Sophie Okonedo for “Hotel Rwanda.”

Portman, born in Jerusalem and equally fluent in English and Hebrew, has just completed a semester at the Hebrew University and is now before the cameras in the Israeli film “Free Zone” by Amos Gitai. (This week she was involved in a brouhaha in Israel when she kissed costar Aki Avni in front of the Western Wall. She later apologized.)

Okonedo, a well-known British actress, is the daughter of a Jewish mother and a Nigerian father.

Cate Blanchett, who portrayed Katherine Hepburn in “The Aviator,” trumped both women.

 

Israeli Movies Break in With Self-Criticism


The news that three Israeli movies are about to open at local commercial theaters may not shake the foundations of Hollywood, but for the small Israeli film industry, it’s a big breakthrough.

For years, Israeli producers have been trying to show their wares to American audiences, beyond the limited Jewish film festivals. With few exceptions, American distributors, the crucial middlemen, have not been willing to risk their time and money on Hebrew-language pictures.

Distributors usually cite the alleged American public aversion to subtitled movies and, truth be told, the production values and storylines of most Israeli films haven’t been all that great.

The opening of “Broken Wings” on March 12, “James’ Journey to Jerusalem” on March 26 and “Alila” in April may not yet herald a new era, but surely it is an encouraging sign for the younger Israeli directors coming to the fore.

One aspect is common to all three films. They focus on family, neighborhood or domestic social problems, with only the most tangential references to terrorism, suicide bombers and other events that define the image of Israel for most of the world. The films are also, at least in Diaspora eyes, unsparing in the criticism of their own society.

“Broken Wings,” which won awards at international festivals in Berlin, Tokyo and Jerusalem, is being released by the prestigious Sony Pictures Classics.

A first feature by 34-year-old director-writer Nir Bergman, it chronicles the dissentions and, ultimately, loves of the Ullman family of Haifa, whose father died recently after a prosaic bee sting.

The tragedy leaves it up to the 43-year-old mother Dafna, superbly played by Orli Zilbershatz-Banai, to keep her family afloat by working nightshifts as a hospital midwife. During the day, she deals with her two teenagers and two younger kids, who have all been traumatized, in one way or the other, by the father’s death.

Much of the responsibility for looking after her siblings falls on 17-year-old Maya, who is torn between a budding career as a singer-composer and her unwelcome home duties.

Frequently agonizing, in the end the film finds the family healing and coming together.

“James’ Journey to Jerusalem,” which might be subtitled “An Innocent Abroad” or “Candide Meets the Israelis,” is likely to be enjoyed most by American audiences.

The title character is a young black from a remote and devoutly Christian village in Africa, who is chosen by his tribe to journey to the heavenly Jerusalem of the Bible and report back on the wonders he has seen.

Starry-eyed and wild-haired, James arrives in the Holy Land only to be clapped into jail as an illegal immigrant. He is bailed out by the boss of a house-cleaning service for wealthy Tel Avivians, but as a fast learner, James quickly organizes his fellow Africans into his own service crew.

Despite the film’s humor, Diaspora Jews are bound to wince as James makes his way in an Israel where everybody cheats a little and the greatest fear is to be played for a frayer, or sucker.

“Alila” is by veteran filmmaker Amos Gitai, who has been getting under the skin of his countrymen for 20 years with movies that dissect their warts, prejudices and insecurities.

Set in a shabby apartment building in a rundown Tel Aviv neighborhood, “Alila” is populated by a dozen characters who battle each other and their surroundings for survival and a small share of happiness.

As Israelis of many backgrounds, they fight and stick their noses in each other’s businesses, but when the chips are down they come together and lend a hand.

Why are Israeli films beginning to enjoy greater exposure in the United States? Why do they seem to focus on personal problems, in contrast to such recent political Palestinian movies as “Divine Intervention” or “Rana’s Wedding,” which deal, quite cleverly, with life under the occupation?

We put the question to director Bergman of “Broken Wings,” during his visit to Los Angeles last week; Ra’anan Alexandrowicz, the young director of “James’ Journey”; and Dan Fainaru, a veteran Israeli movie critic and editor of the magazine Cinematech.

Bergman believes that Israeli films are getting better, thanks largely to directors who trained in Israel’s many university film schools and who cut their teeth on television productions.

A second factor is money. Practically all Israeli producers draw their budgets from national, municipal or private support funds, and despite the harsh economic conditions, the subsidies have been going up.

As a result, more feature films are being made — close to 20 this year compared to half that number a few years back — increasing the chances that a few will be first rate.

The second question, on the personal focus of Israeli films, is harder to answer.

“In the 1980s, we had a lot of movies on Jewish-Arab relations, usually from a left liberal perspective, and Israeli audiences stayed away,” Fainaru said.

“We see news about terrorism and politics on television every hour on the hour, while our documentaries deal with the same subjects,” he added. “We don’t need any more of that when we pay a babysitter to go to the movie theaters.”

When Israelis really want to get away from it all for two hours, they go to see foreign films, overwhelmingly American, which account for a staggering 95 percent of attendance and box-office receipts, Fainaru said.

Alexandrowicz doesn’t think that Israeli pictures are too self-critical. “It’s my country and I love it,” he said. “But I think it’s healthy to put a mirror in front of your own society.”

Bergman defends his own focus on family life. “Since Rabin’s assassination, Israel has become a different country,” he said. “Now every family is a country of its own.”

From a Los Angeles perspective, Paul Fagen, the chief programmer for the upcoming Israel Film Festival, sees a quality improvement in the pictures he is checking out now.

“There have been a few lean years,” Fagen said. “But now the stories are more universally human and we have a very strong lineup.”

“Broken Wings” opens March 12 at Laemmle’s Music Hall inBeverly Hills and the Town Center in Encino. “James’ Journey to Jerusalem” opensMarch 26 at the same venues and the Playhouse in Pasadena. The exact April dateand location for “Alila” will be announced soon. For more information, visit www.laemmle.com .

Women Directors ‘Reflect’ on Israeli Life


After Keren Margalit’s boyfriend died in an army-related accident a decade ago, she envisioned the drama that would become "All I’ve Got," the opening-night film of the 2003 Israel Film Festival. The story revolves around a young woman who loses her boyfriend in a grisly car wreck; 50 years later, she must choose between accompanying her first love or her husband into the afterlife.

"In the first years after you lose someone, you’re just struggling to feel better," Margalit, 32, said of the film’s genesis. "Then you continue your life, you marry and have children, but at one point you wonder, ‘What if some day the one I loved knocked on my door?’ Actually it’s a common experience in Israel because everyone knows someone who went to the army and died young."

Margalit’s intense but intimate work is typical of the eight movies by female directors that make up a quarter of the festival’s films, according to program director Paul Fagen. They include Dina Zvi-Riklis’ Cyrano-like "The Postwoman" and Hadar Friedlich’s "Slaves of the Lord," about an Orthodox girl’s descent into madness.

The films indicate the progress women have made — spurred by the establishment of a second Israeli TV channel — in a field long dominated by male directors such as Amos Gitai.

In fact, Channel Two’s pioneering "Reflections of Women" program — a series of four made-for-TV movies, all of which will screen during the festival — gave Margalit the chance to direct her debut feature, "All I’ve Got." "Reflections" provided a similar break for esteemed documentarian Dalia Mevorach of "1,000 Calories."

Speaking by phone from Tel Aviv, the jovial Mevorach said she was drawn to Nava Semel’s comic script about three best friends at a health spa because, "My life is a continued diet, a big struggle. Israeli women are nervous about the political situation, so we are going to the refrigerator."

The 47-year-old director said she made the severely overweight character, Avigail (Esthie Zakheim), the heroine to combat lingering Israeli myths about female body image. Apparently the strategy worked.

"Esthie was in the mall recently and women kept coming up to her and saying, ‘You are like a queen,’" Mevorach added. "They see the message as, ‘I’m fat and I’m still beautiful.’"

The Show Must Go On


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.”

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