Calendar Picks and Clicks: July 21-27, 2012


“Hath not a Jew eyes?” Shylock pleads, reminding listeners that all people are equally human. The City of West Hollywood and Classical Theatre Lab present a family-friendly, contemporary musical version of Shakespeare’s tragic comedy, “The Merchant of Venice.” Tony Award-nominated Tony Tanner directs this upbeat, 90-minute adaptation featuring original songs and lyrics. Sat. Through July 29. 5 p.m. Free. Plummer Park, Great Hall Courtyard, 7377 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood. Also: Aug. 4-19. 4 p.m. Free. Kings Road Park, 1000 N. Kings Road, West Hollywood. RSVP, (323) 960-5691 or (323) 848-6496 (TTY).


Art restorer and Israeli secret agent Gabriel Allon is plunged into a world of spies, lovers, priests and thieves when he is called to investigate the death of a beautiful woman in Silva’s latest novel, “The Fallen Angel.” A best-selling novelist, Silva appears in conversation with Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple. A book signing follows. Tue. 7:30 p.m. Free. Sinai Temple, Barad Hall, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 474-1518.

Writer Amy Ephron introduces and provides insight into the 1957 Hepburn-Tracy classic, scripted by her screenwriter parents Phoebe and Henry Ephron. Two strong personalities — a reference librarian and an efficiency expert — clash over the computerization of a television network’s research department in this battle-of-the-sexes romantic comedy. Don’t miss this discussion and screening, part of Skirball’s “Classic Film: The Write Stuff” series. Tue. 8 p.m. $6 (general), $5 (students), free (Skirball members). Advance reservations required. Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500.


Set on the pool deck of the newly renovated, luxurious Mr. C Beverly Hills, Young Adults of Los Angeles hosts its second annual Summer Soiree. Dress to impress during the Olympics-themed festivities by representing your favorite country or favorite athlete. Also, bring gently used sports equipment to donate to Kids in Sports Los Angeles — which provides high-quality, low-cost sports opportunities for underserved youth — to be entered to win raffle prizes. Wed. 7:30-10:30 p.m. $20 (advance), $25 (door). Admission includes one drink ticket and unlimited pictures in a photo booth. Mr. C Beverly Hills, 1224 S. Beverwil Drive, Los Angeles. (323) 761-8324.

Aiming to empower individuals by equipping them with the tools to influence public policy, the National Council of Jewish Women/Los Angeles’ advocacy department hosts a half-day workshop to train students, activists and multidisciplinary professionals in the art and craft of lobbying for social change. Abbe Land, mayor pro tempore of the City of West Hollywood and executive director of the Trevor Project — which provides crisis intervention for LGBTQ youth — delivers the keynote address, and social change experts lead breakout sessions. Wed. 8:30 a.m.-Noon. Free. National Council of Jewish Women/Los Angeles Council House, 543 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 852-8514.


This examination of current assaults to church-and-state separation — and how they affect you and your children — includes an interactive discussion led by Rabbi Jeffrey Marx, spiritual leader and teacher of Santa Monica Synagogue, and a presentation by John Suarez, chair of Americans United for Separation of Church and State’s education committee. Suarez reviews the threats religious organizations pose to governmental institutions. Thu. 7:30 p.m. Free. Santa Monica Synagogue, 1448 18th St., Santa Monica.

Featuring hard-to-find single-malt whiskeys and tasty pairings, this local whiskey journey led by Scotch wizard Barry Kaye promises to be both delicious and inspirational. All proceeds support Jewlicious SummerFest, an upcoming weekend retreat of music, arts and Judaism. Thu. 8 p.m. $100 (suggested donation). Private home. (310) 277-5544.


Mel Brooks’ Tony Award-winning musical, based on his 1968 film, comes to the Hollywood Bowl. Down-on-his-luck Broadway producer Max Bialystock (Richard Kind) and his mild-mannered accountant Leo Bloom (“Modern Family’s” Jesse Tyler Ferguson) concoct a get-rich scheme to bilk their investors out of millions by producing the most notorious flop in history. Tonight’s cast includes Roger Bart (Carmen Ghia), Gary Beach (Roger De Bris), Dane Cook (Franz Liebkind) and Rebecca Romijn (Ulla). Fri. Through July 29. 8 p.m. (Friday, Saturday), 7:30 p.m. (Sunday). $11-$164. Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 850-2000.

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.”

The Furst Brothers’ Gamble

When producers Sean and Bryan Furst met Wayne Kramer in 2001, just about everyone had rejected his Las Vegas fable, "The Cooler." The screenplay was a hard sell, "because it defies any specific genre," Bryan Furst said. "It’s not a mob flick, it’s not a comedy or a love story, but all three together."

It didn’t help that the inexperienced Kramer wanted to direct, although that hardly bothered the Fursts. With their eight-year-old production company, Furst Films, Sean, 33, and Bryan, 26, have made a name for themselves by discovering previously unknown talent. In 2000, their Sundance picture, "Everything Put Together," introduced filmmaker Marc Forster, who went on to direct the Oscar-winning "Monster’s Ball." "Sean has this incredible, risk-taking entrepreneurial spirit," Forster told Variety, which listed the Fursts among 2003 "producers to watch."

So it wasn’t surprising that the brothers were willing to gamble on Kramer, who impressed them with his visual sensibility and his sharp screenplay, co-written with Frank Hannah.

The story is more reminiscent of classic 1970s films than recent Sin City flicks such as "Leaving Las Vegas," which interested the Fursts.

"We were also drawn to the film because we identify with the idea that to a certain extent, you make your own luck," Sean Furst said.

While growing up Reform in Beverlywood, their model was their father, who turned the flag company he started in his garage in his early 20s into a national business. Although Sean Furst initially aspired to become an actor (he caught the bug while starring in a Temple Emanuel production of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat"), he adopted dad’s Jewish work ethic and set his sights on producing. "I wanted to pursue something that would allow me to be creative but also to build a business," he said.

After majoring in theater and business and USC, he moved to New York to work as a producer’s assistant, and proved resilient when that job fell through. He waited tables, interned at a production company and developed "a little gift of gab," he said. By age 25 he had founded Furst Films: "But I had to put myself on the map," he said.

He began doing so by investing his own money into a pet property, "Everything Put Together," which "was like a debutante, coming-out kind of thing," he said.

His younger brother helped out on the set after graduating from NYU’s film school in 1999 and soon became his partner. The Fursts went on to establish a reputation for securing high-profile talent for inexpensive independent films, casting Philip Seymour Hoffman and Minnie Driver in "Owning Mahowny," for example.

"One of the things we’re very good at is making a compelling case to actors’ representatives," Sean Furst said.

They used that talent to snag an initially reluctant Macy for "The Cooler," their first project under a first-look deal with ContentFilm.

"Bill had read the script, but he hadn’t really committed to the movie, " Bryan Furst said.

"[I’d] played a lot of losers in my career, so many, in fact, that I had decided to put a moratorium on that type of role for myself," said Macy ("Fargo," "Boogie Nights"). "When I read ‘The Cooler,’ I thought, ‘This takes the character of the loser to operatic heights.’"

The producers changed Macy’s mind by writing persuasive letters to his agent, emphasizing that Lootz was the romantic lead and that the film was first and foremost a love story.

Several months later, "The Cooler" went into production at the Flamingo Reno; in January 2003, it was the first movie to sell at the Sundance Film Festival (Lions Gate acquired the North American distribution rights for an advance of $1.5 million). "We screened the film on a Thursday and closed the deal on Sunday," Bryan Furst said.

Since then, "The Cooler" has earned rave reviews, dramatically increasing the brothers’ producing cache. Today, they have a dozen new projects in the works, including the horror film "The Woods" for United Artists and the Hughes brothers’ thriller, "Conviction."

As the producers continue seeking out new talent, they have something in common with "Cooler" characters: We gamble every day at the office," Sean Furst said.

‘Slap’ Happy

When Melanie Mayron read an early script of the iconic yuppie angst-fest "thirtysomething" in 1987, she rushed to the telephone. The series’ creators had portrayed her character, Melissa, as Jewish, fat and troubled. But the famously redheaded actress didn’t want any of that. She’d already been a recurring character on another show about a food-obsessed Jewish chick, the 1970s sitcom, "Rhoda." And she was tired of the cliché.

"So I talked their ears off about why they shouldn’t make Melissa another self-deprecating Jewish woman who dumps on herself and eats," says Mayron, who has just directed her second feature film, "Slap Her, She’s French," starring Piper Perabo. "I felt that while she had perhaps done that in her 20s, she was 30-something, she’d had therapy, and she was beyond it."

The executive producers agreed, and Melissa went on to become "thirtysomething’s" scrappy, lovable underdog — among the most memorable Jewish characters in prime time — a freelance photographer struggling to find the right job and the right guy. Some complained that she was the stereotypical, unlucky-in-love Jewish girl, but Mayron begged to differ. "I didn’t see Melissa as a loser or a neurotic," she says. "I saw her as a survivor."

The same could be said of the 49-year-old Jewish actress, who in person is funny — and waif-like. If Melissa has been described as Chaplin’s "Little Tramp reincarnated in a woman’s body," so is Mayron. When acting jobs proved scarce over the years, she supported herself as — you guessed it — a freelance photographer.

When Mayron found that the Jewish men who ran Hollywood favored non-Jewish actresses, she co-wrote a short film, "Shiny Shoes," starring herself as "a Jewish girl who wanted a Jewish guy while the Jewish men around her just wanted shiksa goddesses."

By the time the acting jobs started to dwindle, as they do for many women over 40, Mayron had already transitioned into writing and directing. Her credits include ABC "Afterschool Specials," episodes of "New York Undercover" and "Ed" and her 1995 feature film directorial debut, "The Baby-Sitters Club," based on the novels of Ann M. Martin.

She’s continuing to persevere as a director, though the odds are daunting. Despite the success of a handful of female filmmakers such as Penny Marshall and Kathryn Bigelow, only four of the 100 highest grossing films in 2001 were directed by women, according to a recent study from San Diego State University. Though hotshot young male directors are quickly signed to bigger movies, women have a different experience, Mayron, and the study, suggest.

"My debut feature, ‘The Baby-Sitters Club,’ got good reviews and made good money for what it cost," she says, wearing jeans and boots recently in her publicist’s mid-Wilshire office. "But it took me six years to get to direct my second feature. I think a guy would have had another movie out the same year."

Ask why she signed on to "Slap Her" — about a conniving foreigner who usurps the identity of a popular Texas teen — and she jokes, "They were gonna make the movie and they wanted me." While the few reviews out so far have been disappointing, Mayron has been singled out for praise. Variety complimented her for drawing "lively playing from her cast without over-indulging them as a fellow actor."

Mayron says she hopes it doesn’t take another six years to land her next directing gig. Then her head swivels and she’s looking around, Melissa-like, for some wood to knock. "Here’s a tree," she says, brightly, rapping the branches of a potted plant.

Though most people assume Mayron — everyone’s favorite TV gingit — is the quintessential East Coast Ashkenazi Jew, her background is more varied. While her mother hails from Russian Jewish stock, her father, David, a chemist, is a Sephardic Jew whose family goes back five generations in the land of Israel. "My grandfather sold insurance to King Farouk of Egypt," she says. "And my savta’s parents helped found the city of Tel Aviv in 1906. Our family name used to be Mizrahi, but they changed it to Mayron, which means ‘happy water’ in Hebrew."

The actress’s dad was raised in then-Palestine and served as a combat medic in the War of Independence (Mayron carries a photograph of him in uniform in her wallet). Soon after the war, he arrived in Philadelphia to attend university and met Mayron’s mother, Norma, at a Hillel party in 1950.

Melanie, the eldest of their three children, grew up traveling to Israel every few years. Her most vivid memories: playing in bomb shelters and speaking a patois of Hebrew, French and Ladino to her now 101-year-old savta. Back home in Ambler, Pa., she attended Jewish camps and weekly services at a "Conservadox" synagogue.

Around the time of her bat mitzvah, she viewed a production of "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" and vowed, during the car ride home, to become an actress. But the road wasn’t always easy. After playing a chunky Jewish girl (among other less-than-svelte roles) who considers an affair with a rabbi in Claudia Weill’s 1978 flick, "Girl Friends," Mayron decided to go on a crash diet. "I lived on coffee and Tab for two weeks, lost 16 pounds and then my hair started falling out in clumps," she says sheepishly. "Thank God I had enough nice, thick Jewish hair to cover up the bald spots."

A few years later, she shaved her head to play Vanessa Redgrave’s best friend in the Auschwitz saga, "Playing for Time" — and didn’t work for two years while waiting for her hair to grow back.

Things had picked up by the time Mayron created the role of Isabelle Grossman, the hipster courted by the Pickle Man in Susan Sandler’s "Crossing Delancey" at New York’s Jewish Repertory Theater in 1985. "Susan told me she’d written the part for me after seeing ‘Girl Friends,’" recalls Mayron, the never-married mom of two 3-year-olds. "I was supposed to star in the movie version, but Steven Spielberg bought the [property] for [his then-wife] Amy Irving. I was devastated because I loved that part; I mean, I was her."

Mayron also identified with Melissa, the searching, yearning, single artist she went on to play on "thirtysomething." The series earned her a 1989 Emmy Award for best supporting actress as well as her first shot in the director’s chair (she eventually directed two episodes).

The New York Times recently called her "among the more versatile women in Hollywood," but the actor-writer-director isn’t cocky about her future. She still has the same scrappy license plate she’s had for more than a decade: "It says ONDWAY," she says with a laugh, again sounding like Melissa. "Because I feel like I’ll always be on the way. On the way in, or on the way out."

"Slap Her, She’s French" opens next week in Los Angeles.

The Ongoing Dream

Producers Andrew Kosove and Broderick Johnson are sitting behind twin prefab desks in their spare Los Angeles office, looking like the Odd Couple. Kosove, an intense, detail-oriented Jew from Philadelphia, stands about 5-foot-6-inches. Affable ex-basketball star Johnson, an African American from Athens, Ga., appears to be a head taller.

But the story of how these Princeton economics majors came to found Alcon Entertainment — and to produce the new thriller, “Insomnia,” starring Al Pacino and Robin Williams — is more Horatio Alger than Neil Simon. “Neither of us ever had any intention of going into the movie business,” says Kosove, 32. “We really stumbled into it in an unconventional way.”

The producers — who made Entertainment Weekly’s 2000 “power issue” — met at Princeton around 1989. At lunch one day, Kosove approached Johnson, then captain of the intramural basketball team: “He said, ‘I know you guys won the championship last year, but unless you have a short Jewish kid on your team, you won’t repeat,” Johnson recalls with a laugh. “I fell in love with him from that point on.”

Three years later, Kosove demonstrated the same kind of chutzpah when he read a newspaper story about an unusual gangster and thought it would make a good film. “On a lark, I started buying books on the movie business,” he says. “I started sending them to Broderick, who by then had graduated and was working on Wall Street. We sort of mutually became fascinated with the business.”

By 1995, the friends had moved to Hollywood, hooked up with a producer and were struggling to finance their gangster film. It was Frugal Living 101: “We were staying in the guest house behind our producer’s home,” says Johnson, 35. “We didn’t even have a car.”

After three years of work, the relationship with the producer soured, and the movie deal fell through. But the cloud had a silver lining: Through the producer, they’d met Fred Smith, the near-billionaire founder of Federal Express, who recognized kindred spirits in the young entrepreneurs. “We helped him find distribution for a stalled film he’d financed, and in return, he agreed to read our business plan for launching a film company that would maximize profit and minimize risk,” Kosove says.

The 220-page plan outlined strategies such as developing creative deals with talent, pursuing studio distribution, sticking to commercial genres such as thrillers and slashing budgets (hence the prefab office furniture). According to Kosove, it “tried to combine the best of the independent and studio worlds.”

Smith could relate, because while at Yale in 1965, he’d also written a paper outlining a new kind of business — one that in 1971 became FedEx. Though Smith had received a C on his paper, he gave Kosove and Johnson a solid A: “It was one of the most well-though-out plans I had ever seen,” he told the Los Angeles Times.

In 1997, the tycoon agreed to bankroll Alcon, named for a mythological archer who never missed his mark. Smith stuck with the producers even when their first film “Lost & Found,” tanked at the box office. Smith was rewarded when Alcon’s second movie, the $7.5 million family drama, “My Dog Skip,” grossed $35 million and convinced Warner Bros. to sign a five-year, 10-picture distribution agreement.

The $300 million deal is indicative of what could become a new trend in show business: While many independents pre-sell movies to raise financing (which often means forfeiting profits), Alcon funds 100 percent of production costs, pays Warner Bros. a reduced distribution fee and gets to use the studio’s worldwide distribution system, while keeping profits and copyrights.

“The economics of production have become more and more difficult for the studios, because of the huge overheads they’re carrying and the position they’ve put themselves in where they’re paying exorbitant fees to talent,” says Kosove, who is married and attends University Synagogue. “They’ve had to figure out ways to keep their distribution pipelines full, while reducing their risk in financing films, which has provided opportunities for a company like Alcon.”

Along the way, the producers have proved their mettle with a series of prescient creative decisions. For their 18th century drama, “The Affair of the Necklace,” they cast the then-obscure actress, Hilary Swank, months before she earned an Oscar nomination for “Boys Don’t Cry.” Swank, who went on to win a 2000 Oscar, told The Journal she signed on to “Insomnia” partly because the producers “make the set such a creative and productive environment for the actors.”

Kosove and Johnson also managed to hire Christopher Nolan to direct “Insomnia” before the release of his 2000 feature, “Memento,” which received a 2001 Oscar nomination and numerous awards. “As an up-and-coming company, we try to invest in other up-and-comers,” Kosove says.

In “Insomnia,” Williams, cast against type as a psychopathic killer, plays cat and mouse with shady LAPD cop Will Dormer (Pacino) in an Alaskan hamlet. The gripping thriller — a remake of a 1997 Norwegian film — is set during the perpetual sunlight of an Arctic summer.

Kosove, who grew up attending one of Philadelphia’s oldest Reform synagogues, Rodeph Shalom, implies the flick has a Jewish value or two. In the glare of the constant sunlight, Dormer can’t sleep because his conscience is grappling with his yetzer harah (evil inclination). “His insomnia is the physical manifestation of his psychic struggle,” Kosove says. “He’s a character in moral conflict.”

“Insomnia” opens today in Los Angeles.

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.”