New Setting Could Bring New Faces

There is an old Jewish saying that if you change your place, you change your luck. The organizers of the 21st annual Israel Film Festival are putting it to the test.

Which means that this year, if you head out to Laemmle’s on Fairfax hoping to see a new crop of Israeli films, as in years past, you might be disappointed. The majority this year will screen at Sunset Five, another Laemmle cinema, on the corner of Sunset Boulevard at Crescent Heights Boulevard. Other films are scheduled for the Laemmle Fallbrook in West Hills.

Festival organizers want the films to reach a wider audience, including the more avant-garde types who troll Sunset Boulevard.

“Sunset Five has a different, more open audience, that we hope we can bring,” said Meir Fenigstein, the festival director. “And the Valley has a very strong audience for the festival, since there are a lot of Israelis there. But I am not looking for Israelis. I know it is hard, it is difficult, to bring Americans [as an audience] but that is the challenge.”

Other new ideas pertain to the filmmakers. The festival’s winning film will earn for the director and producer the use, for one month, of a $50,000-$80,000 package that includes a 35-millimeter Panavision camera.

The festival is also sponsoring travel for 40 Israeli directors to attend, the largest contingent ever.

The program itself will include a number of films that deal with issues of Jewish identity, such as “A Green Chariot” (directed by Gilad Goldschmidt), “Wasserman — The Rain Man” (directed by Idit Shechori) and “Catching the Sky” (directed by Roni Ninio and Yankal Goldwasser). The films will be followed by a program called “Jewish Identity in Israeli Films.” In previous years, panel discussions have focused on the state of Israeli cinema, so this sort of subject matter is new ground.

“The idea is to bring together different kinds of teenagers, Reform, Conservative and Orthodox, and watch a film that has a strong Jewish identity,” Fenigstein said.

Fenigstein and festival program director Paul Fagen generally pick films that have made their mark in Israel, either by winning awards there or in festivals elsewhere. The opening night film “What a Wonderful Place” (directed by Eyal Halfon), won the best film award at the Israel Film Academy, Israel’s equivalent of the Oscars, and will be Israel’s entry to the foreign film category at the 2006 Academy Awards.

“The Israeli film industry has a kind of foothold in America right now, and I believe that the festival had a hand in that,” Fenigstein said.

The film, “Ushpizin,” is currently playing in cities all over America. Last year, the Israeli film, “Walk on Water,” made about $3 million at the box office. And, slowly but surely more people are going to see foreign films. Last year at the Miami sector of the Israel Film Festiva,l there was a 100 percent increase in ticket sales.

“The films are getting a little bit better, and the distributors are starting to become more savvy and they see the niche market for these films,” Fagen said.

This year, about 20 film distributors are expected to attend the festival. About two to four films are likely to be picked up. For most of the films, however, the festival will be their only showing in the United States.

“It is very difficult for non-American films to get recognized in the States,” said Dan Fainaru, an Israeli film critic. “American audiences are not that interested in them. Compare an Israeli film that has done very well in the States — like “Walk on Water” — the income [generated] is maybe enough to cover the limousine budget in a big American production.

Nevertheless, organizers see their festival as an important tool for Israeli cinema.

“It gives an opportunity for the films to be seen by American audiences. It helps them to find distributors. It gives the Hollywood community a chance to connect with the Israeli community, and it gives the filmmakers an opportunity to come and meet the audience,” Fenigstein said.