Love and praise from Aaron Sorkin and Helen Mirren at Israel Film Festival’s opening night

October 29, 2015

Returning home from opening night of the 29th Israel Film Festival in Los Angeles, I felt like Cinderella after the ball.

Not because I found a prince – though there was Hollywood royalty and real royalty present in the form of screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and the actress Dame Helen Mirren, both of whom were honored Wednesday night — but because the evening affirmed that there are major figures in Hollywood who understand Israel, who know her scars, and her struggles, and still celebrate her beauty.

“It couldn’t be more important to support Israel,” Sorkin said during an interview on the red carpet.

“Israel has an important place in my heart,” Mirren said.

Nearly 2,000 attendees gathered at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills for the festival’s most star-studded event yet, and the premiere of “Baba Joon,” a father/son drama about an Iranian family that immigrates to Israel. But it was Sorkin and Mirren who were most astonishing in their roles, unafraid to speak lovingly about one of the most polarizing countries in the world.  

From a plum spot on the red carpet, I had a chance to interview both honorees on camera (video forthcoming) and it was hard not to be moved by what they said.

The 70-year-old Mirren, who earlier this year starred in “Woman in Gold,” about a Jewish woman who fights to reclaim family possessions stolen by the Nazis, was effervescent and effusive in recounting her visits to Israel.

Mirren said she first visited Israel in the 1960s, six months after the Six Day War, accompanied by her then-Jewish boyfriend — (who knew?). As her famous publicist Stan Rosenfeld hovered nearby and other red carpet interviewers looked on with a mix of longing and resentment, Mirren spent an incredibly generous amount of time recalling her visits, describing the sorts of things young people do when visiting Israel for the first time: she hitchhiked, she worked on a Kibbutz (she even remembered the name, Kibbutz Ha’On) and she slept on a beach in Eilat. I can only imagine the unwitting Israelis who had the good fortune of walking past a young, scantily clad Mirren on an Israeli beach.

The actress returned to Israel several times over the years; once, to film the English-version remake of the Israeli movie, “The Debt,” about Mossad agents who return to post-war Berlin to apprehend a Nazi war criminal. “I love Israel; I think it's a great country,” Mirren said, accepting her award for career achievement. She also expressed her admiration for a the Israeli film industry, and did not flinch on the subject of the BDS movement (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) calling for economic and cultural boycott of Israel. Though you’ll have to wait for the video for her exact words, I reminded Mirren that just last week, a large group of British artists, intellectuals and politicians – including “Harry Potter” author J.K. Rowling and Booker-prize winner Hilary Mantel — placed an open letter in The Guardian saying a boycott of Israeli culture was a bad idea.

“I completely agree with J.K. Rowling,” Mirren said.

Actress Diane Lane, Mirren’s co-star in the upcoming film “Trumbo” in which Mirren plays gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, presented Mirren with her award. Mirren expressed her admiration for the Israeli entertainment industry and said that her early visit to Israel helped shape her career and her life.

“My visit to Israel is part of the building blocks that have made me into the actress that I am,” she said. “I think that through all the difficulties and all the pain that Israel has suffered in the past and will in the future, the great thing that Israel has is Israelis.”

When I asked Sorkin what comes to mind when he hears the word Israel, he was blunt: “Fear,” he said, “to be perfectly honest.”

He went on to say that Israel has many enemies and he worries for the country and its future, but that he sees its culture as a gateway to cultivating empathy and understanding.

Sorkin was gracious in accepting his award, telling a story about his father coming to his apartment one morning many years ago, when they were both hopeful he might receive an Oscar nomination.  “For most people it’s an honor just to be nominated; in my family it’s an honor to be overlooked, so you can imagine how I feel about getting recognition like this from a group of people like this.”

Sorkin promised to keep his remarks brief, “though, if you’re familiar with my work, you know that brevity is a challenge for me.” Still, he couldn’t stop himself from sending the audience – and Israel itself –an encouraging message:

“My friends who are screenwriters tell me that successfully pitching a movie that takes place in the Middle East is somewhere between very difficult and impossible. The reaction from the studios usually is, 'That's a good story but who right now wants to see a movie set in that part of the world?'

“I do,” Sorkin said. “I want to see a lot of them. There are great stories that don’t take place in my front yard.”

The Israel Film Festival runs through Nov. 19.

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