January 22, 2019

Israeli Film Fails to Make Oscars Shortlist

A scene from Israel’s first Oscar-nominated film, “Sallah” (1964)

Israel’s more than half-century courtship to win an Oscar for best foreign language film has been akin to the tale of an attractive young woman, often chosen as a bridesmaid, but never as a bride.

Since submitting its first entry and earning its first nomination — “Sallah” in 1964 — Israel has made the shortlist of top nominees 10 times, without ever catching the Oscar bouquet.

This year, tribal boosters can stop biting their fingernails anticipating the outcome. Israel’s entry “The Cakemaker,” a challenging film about bisexual affairs between German and Israeli lovers, was eliminated in the first round.

The list of nine semifinalists among entries from 87 countries, announced by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on Dec. 17, didn’t include the Israeli entry.

Since submitting its first entry and earning its first nomination — “Sallah” in 1964 — Israel has made the short list of top nominees 10 times, without ever catching the Oscar bouquet.

However, Israel has some lofty company among snubbed contenders. Looking at the entire history of the Academy Awards, the three countries that lead in the number of both nominees and winners in the foreign language category — Italy, France and Spain — all missed the cut this year.

Yet if the themes chosen by a country’s filmmakers reflect in some ways the interests of their movie-going public, the world’s fascination with the Holocaust, World War II and their aftermaths, has never been higher.

This year, eight countries submitted films that deal directly or indirectly with the fate of Europe’s Jews during their darkest period, including Austria, France, Holland, Poland, Romania, Russia, Slovakia and Switzerland.

None of these countries’ films made the shortlist, but of particular interest is Russia’s “Sobibor,” centering on the 1943 uprising in the notorious concentration camp, and Romania’s oddly named “I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians,” which focuses on the massacre of Odessa’s Jews by the Romanian military.

The list of the nine semifinalists will be winnowed to five and the nominees announced on Jan. 22. The winner will clutch the golden statuette at the Oscar ceremony on Feb. 24.

Israeli film makes Oscars shortlist

Screenshot from YouTube.

“Foxtrot,” Israel’s entry in the Oscar race for best-foreign language film, has made the shortlist of nine movies among submissions from 92 countries.

Directed by Samuel Maoz and starring Lior Ashkenazi and Sarah Adler, “Foxtrot” is a superb and wrenching film about parental grief at the death of a soldier son, the joys and stresses of marriage, the boredom of army life, and how Israel’s occupation humiliates the occupied and hardens the occupiers.

In a previous phone interview with the Journal, Maoz described his film as “the dance of a man with his fate … there are many variations to this dance, but they end up at the same starting point.”

The film has come under fire by Miri Regev, Minister of Culture and Sports in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet. “It is inconceivable,” Regev declared publicly, “that movies which shame the reputation of the Israel Defense Forces … and that are supported [financially] by the state… are selected to showcase Israel cinema abroad.”

In the interview, Maoz did not directly address Regev’s criticism, but declared, “When my brothers are dying, I have the right to make such a movie.”

The German movie “In the Fade,” which also made the cut, addresses the rise of neo-Nazism in present-day Germany, dramatized through the murder by a neo-Nazi couple of a German woman, her Kurdish husband and their small son.

Director Fatih Akin, a German-born citizen of Turkish descent, attributed the growing neo-Nazi sentiment mainly to hostility to the large number of refugees, mainly from Muslim countries, admitted into Germany.

“We are seeing the rise of a new racism in Germany, based on the fear that the existing German identity will be altered by the refugees,” Akin said in a phone interview.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean and director of the Global Social Action Agenda for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, commented that hate groups everywhere “have perfected the delivery system” of their anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish messages through the use of social and other media.”

In contrast to nearly every other year since the end of World War II, none of the 92 entries deal with the Holocaust or the Hitler era. This may well indicate that to a new generation the horrors of the 1930s and ‘40s are now ancient history.

Still, that doesn’t mean that there were no international films of note on the subject. The outstanding Hungarian film “1945” deals with the return of a Jewish father and son to their native Hungarian village, immediately after the end World War II in 1945. The movie vividly portrays the resultant fear of the village’s gentile residents, who had helped themselves to the homes and goods of their expelled Jewish neighbors, and are now in a panic at the prospect of having to return the looted goods.

Unfortunately, each country is allowed only one entry, and Hungary instead chose “On Body and Soul.” The film, which also qualified for the shortlist, focuses on an unusual romance between two workers in an animal slaughterhouse.

Problems of the Middle East get a close-up in Lebanon’s “The Insult,” also among the chosen nine films. The movie is directed by Ziad Doueiri, who earlier got into hot water in his country for shooting an earlier film in Israel.

In “The Insult,” a dispute between a Lebanese Christian and a Palestinian refugee escalates into an acrimonious national dispute threatening a social explosion in divided Lebanon.

Other films and countries on the Oscars shortlist are “A Fantastic Woman” (Chile), about the tribulations of a young transgender woman;

“Loveless” (Russia), which takes a harsh look at Russian society; “The Wound” (South Africa), exploring issues of masculinity in the story of a closeted gay man; and “The Square” (Sweden), a sharp satire of the art world.

The nine shortlisted films will be winnowed down to five when nominations in all Oscar categories are announced on Jan. 23. Academy Award winners will get to clutch their trophies on March 4 at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, during a glamor-filled evening televised to 225 countries and territories around the globe.

Israeli Film ‘Foxtrot’ Examines a Dance with Fate

Actor Lior Ashkenazi as Michael Feldman (third from left) is stunned when he is informed that his soldier son Jonathan has been killed. Photos by Giora Bejach, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

The controversial film “Foxtrot” opens with two somber-faced soldiers arriving at the front door of a successful architect, Michael Feldman (played by Lior Ashkenazi), and his wife, Daphna (Sarah Adler). Daphna immediately guesses their mission and faints, while the emissaries regretfully inform Michael that the couple’s son, Jonathan, has fallen in the line of duty.

As family and friends gather for the funeral, a third military messenger arrives to announce that there has been an unfortunate mistake. Another soldier, also named Jonathan Feldman, has been killed, but Michael and Daphna’s son is alive and well.

The mood and locale of the film then change abruptly to a remote army checkpoint on Israel’s northern border, guarded by Jonathan and three fellow soldiers. They live in a large, converted container and operate a manual gate to allow an occasional camel to pass through. Even more rarely, a car with a Palestinian family stops for inspection.

During one such stop, the bored Israeli soldiers get their kicks by making the nervous driver and passengers, dressed up for a wedding, stand in the pouring rain during a lengthy car inspection. During another inspection, something goes horribly awry,
but the Israeli army brass quickly covers up the traces.

“Foxtrot” is a wrenching film about parental grief, the joys and stresses of marriage, the boredom of army life, and how Israel’s occupation policy humiliates the occupied and hardens the occupiers.

The drama won the Grand Jury Prize at the prestigious 2017 Venice International Film Festival and racked up 13 Ophirs (Israel’s version of the Academy Awards), including best film, which automatically makes it the country’s entry in the Oscar race for best foreign-language picture.

In a telephone interview from Tel Aviv, director Samuel (Shmulik) Maoz described “Foxtrot” as “the dance of a man with his fate.”

Despite its superb artistry and acting, the film has become somewhat of a political and ideological football in Israel. As in many other countries, the predominantly left-liberal filmmakers (in Tel Aviv) often have been at loggerheads with the right-conservative government (in Jerusalem). Another factor in the tense relationship is that the government-supported Israel Film Fund contributes to the budget of practically every film made by Israeli talent, including “Foxtrot.”

The movie has come under fire publicly from Miri Regev, minister of Culture and Sports in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet. “It is inconceivable that movies which shame the reputation of the Israel Defense Forces are those that are supported by the Israel Film Fund, which is supported by the state,” Regev declared in an interview on Israel’s Channel 2 TV station. “And those are selected to showcase Israeli cinema abroad.”

In the interview, Maoz pointed out that Regev had not actually seen the film, adding, “When my brothers are dying, I have the right to make such a movie.”

When “Foxtrot” screened in various European cities, Israeli diplomats frequently told Maoz that the film single-handedly had negated years of Israeli public relations efforts.

Actor Yehuda Almagor (seated) as Avigdor Feldman, tries to console his brother in “Foxtrot.”

Actress Sarah Adler portrays Daphna Feldman, mother of Israeli soldier Jonathan in “Foxtrot.”

The director believes that underlying many of Israel’s actions is the enduring trauma of the Holocaust. But he also maintains that Israelis who have seen action in the defense forces have been supportive of “Foxtrot.”

When he speaks of combat, Maoz, 55, is talking from personal experience. He was a gunner in a tank during the first Lebanon invasion in 1982, and his harrowing experiences are reflected in his first film, “Lebanon” (2009).

Maoz also knows firsthand the trauma of believing, mistakenly, that one has lost a child. It happened when his oldest daughter ran consistently late for school and always asked her father to call (and pay for) a taxi to get to her class in time.  After a while, Maoz concluded that the habit was not only expensive but also bad for the girl’s education, so one morning he told her to take a public bus — Line 5 — to school like all the other students.

About half an hour after she had left, her father heard on the radio that a No. 5 bus had been blown up by terrorists, with dozens of people killed. Desperately, he tried to get through to her on the phone, but all the lines were tied up. “The next hour was worse than all my time at war put together,” he said.

Later, his daughter returned home. She had just missed the bus that was blown up by terrorists.

“Foxtrot” will screen for one week at Laemmle’s Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles, starting Dec. 8 — its qualifying run to compete in the Academy Awards. The movie will be released in Los Angeles theaters on March 2.

Films present dark side of Israeli policies

“West of the Jordan River”

In 2013, two Israeli films — “5 Broken Cameras” and “The Gatekeepers” — were nominated for an Academy Award for feature-length documentary. It was a great kavod to the Jewish state, no doubt.

Except that supporters of Israel had mixed feelings about these films. “How can we defend Israel,” they moaned, “when Israelis themselves produce such damning films?”

And, as we learned earlier this month at the Jerusalem Film Festival, which screened “West of the Jordan River” and “Born in Deir Yassin,” that was just the beginning of the cinematic self-criticism. 

In 2013, it was clear that both Israeli Oscar contenders were not the products of the Israeli Foreign Ministry or of any pro-Israeli advocacy group, for that matter. “5 Broken Cameras” details the travails of the Palestinian village Bil’in with the defense barrier, the Israel Defense Forces and the neighboring settlers. In “The Gatekeepers,” five former heads of Israel’s Shin Bet secret service reflect candidly on their years of chasing Palestinian terrorists and Jewish extremists. There is a consensus among these five experienced men: Occupation corrupts Israeli society, and it is in the best interest of Israel to make peace with the Palestinians.

Israeli journalist Igal Sarna was shocked by “5 Broken Cameras,” writing in Al-Monitor in 2012, “What I saw scared me and caused me shame, as an Israeli who loves his country, because these actions of occupation and expropriation, uprooting of olive trees and land theft — are our actions, our stupidity.” On the other hand, J.J. Surbeck, executive director of the nonprofit T.E.A.M. (Training and Education About the Middle East) called it “a manipulative pro-Palestinian movie” that contains “manipulative emotional content to better rile viewers against Israel.”

While die-hard supporters of Israel could perhaps dismiss “5 Broken Cameras” as a propaganda film colluded by Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi, its Palestinian and Israeli directors, “The Gatekeepers” was a tougher case to handle. As director Dror Moreh said in an interview, the criticism these security chiefs had expressed “didn’t come from the leftists, it came from the heart of the defense establishment. If they say such things, then, OK, there must be something to it.”

Yet “5 Broken Cameras” and “The Gatekeepers” were only a harbinger for more films looking critically at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The 34th Jerusalem Film Festival, which ran from July 13-23, fired another salvo of films that will undoubtedly frustrate people who hate to see any artistic questioning of Israel’s policies and conduct.

“West of the Jordan River,” a documentary directed by Amos Gitai, tells the stories of Israelis and Palestinians, who — with the absence of any political solution — struggle daily with the hardships of life in the West Bank. Gitai last dealt with this issue 35 years ago with his documentary “Field Diary,” which at the time didn’t win him many friends. Here, he makes no bones about where he stands. Talking to i24News in May, he said that “[we] are not in a good moment of history. …  I would say this is a film by Israeli citizens concerned about the direction that the country is taking. … I think I have to take my responsibility as a citizen and talk to the world.”

He did talk to the world in May at the prestigious Cannes International Film Festival, where his film was screened. Variety magazine mentioned that Gitai went out of his way to grant Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Tzipi Hotovely a chance to air her “relatively mystical approach to Israeli geopolitics,” but then contrasted it with his 1994 interview with the pragmatic Yitzhak Rabin. And anyway, says Variety, the film reflects “Gitai’s clear anti-government position.”

If this is bad enough news for people who believe that we shouldn’t air our dirty laundry, then they are up to an even harsher blow with “Born in Deir Yassin.” Director Neta Shoshani took on one of the most sensitive landmarks of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — the bloody conquest of the Arab village Deir Yassin on the western outskirts of Jerusalem in April 1948 by Etzel (the Irgun) and Lehi (the Stern Gang). After the death of 110 of the villagers — many of them the elderly, women and children — the Arab population panicked and started to flee Palestine, thus becoming refugees for generations.

Shoshani interviewed the people who had taken part in the operation in 1948 and again, like in “The Gatekeepers,” these are far from being leftists or liberals. Now in their early 90s and obviously still haunted by the gory scenes of the battle, these men proudly defended their brutal acts by saying — not without justice — that it was “either us or them.”

It’s not only pro-Israel advocates in the Diaspora who resent these kinds of films that seem to badmouth the beloved Jewish state. Last year, Israeli Culture Minister Miri Regev proposed a bill, referred to as “Loyalty in Culture,” which conditions state funding to cultural institutions on the respect they show to Israel. And recently, she demanded that movie foundations hand over information about lectors who had discussed movie-funding proposals over the past five years and the reasons they gave for their decisions.

My advice to anyone startled by these films is to take a deep breath and relax. The Israel that survived a surprise attack on both fronts in the Yom Kippur War surely can survive these critical films. Furthermore, this is a cleansing process that shows the self-confidence and maturity of Israeli society, which is ready to confront unpleasant chapters of its history. When a reconciliation with the Palestinians finally is reached, these films will be remembered as the first positive steps.

But when will Palestinian films begin to echo some soul searching on the other side, confessing atrocities and admitting the rejection of any compromise? Probably not so fast.

And yet, this year’s Jerusalem Film Festival also included “Gaza Surf Club,” which tells the story of Palestinian youth in that Godforsaken place, who instead of joining Hamas, becoming suicide bombers or butchering a Jewish family with a knife, are poised to become world-renowned surfers. In our gloomy environment, this looked to me like a little sign of hope.

Am I daydreaming here? Maybe, but isn’t that what movies are made for? 

Uri Dromi is director general of the Jerusalem Press Club. He served as spokesman of the Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres governments from 1992 to 1996, during the Oslo peace process.

Israeli film about women soldiers to be made into American TV series

An Israeli film about women serving in the Israeli army will be adapted into a U.S. television series.

“Zero Motivation” will be remade into a comedy-drama by BBC America in conjunction with American actress and comedian Amy Poehler’s production company, Paper Kite Productions, Variety magazine reported.

The successful 2014 film, which was directed by the Israeli filmmaker Talya Lavie, won two awards at the Tribeca Film Festival and was nominated for 12 Ophir Awards, Israel’s equivalent of the Oscars, winning six of them.

The TV rights were bought by Poehler, a former star of “Saturday Night Live,” and Natasha Lyonne, who stars in  the hit Netflix series “Orange is the New Black” and is the daughter of Holocaust survivors.

Israeli audiences warm to home-grown horror movies

On an army base in northern Israel, a scrawny nerd with glasses shakily patrols in the dead of night. Suddenly he’s ambushed by a group of militants in kaffiyehs, and he’s forced to fight for his life, using everything from a gun to a knife to a desk lamp, until he’s left with blood dripping down his face.

This isn’t the most recent flare-up in the Israeli terror wave. It’s a scene from the recent horror film “Freak Out,” starring Itay Zvolon — who is famous in Israel for a self-produced comic viral video — as an inexperienced soldier fighting a gory caricature of Israelis’ worst nightmare: faceless terrorists out for blood.

The horror-comedy is the latest in a string of such movies from Israel, many of which add a local twist to the genre. Since 2010, Israeli filmmakers have pumped out at least nine fright films ranging from zombie flicks to psychological thrillers that typically feature over-the-top, campy takes on the real-life violence facing Israelis.

“These are fears from Israeli culture and Israeli society,” said Boaz Armoni, director of “Freak Out,” which was released in October. “Being scared of Arabs, for example. It’s not a movie about a strong, heroic army. It’s about a small, cowardly soldier in a dangerous place.”

During its first six decades, Israel’s film industry produced only a few horror films, focusing instead on comedic satires of Israeli society and art-house dramas.

The turn toward horror, filmmakers say, reflects a shift away from the prestigious indie films that have characterized recent Israeli cinema — like “Waltz with Bashir” and “Ajami,” both of which were nominated for Academy Awards — and toward movies with more mass appeal.

“Our first movie was a heavy art-house film, got all the best reviews, the biggest festivals, all the olive branches — but no one came to see this movie,” said Doron Paz, who with his brother Yoav co-directed 2010’s “Phobidilia,” about a recluse soon to be forced out of his apartment.

The Paz brothers then directed the 2015 zombie movie “JeruZalem.” The film follows three American tourists out to see Jerusalem, only to find themselves fleeing a zombie uprising as the Old City’s gates close on them.

“Now what we’re beginning to understand is that we need to think commercially,” Paz said. “We’re not making movies for critics. We’re making movies for viewers.”

The first in this wave of Israeli horror movies, 2010’s “Rabies,” saw four friends lost in a forest on a hike encountering unsavory characters, including a psychopathic killer and corrupt policeman.

The movie received an 88 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the review aggregating website. It succeeded, said producer Chilik Michaeli, because in typical Israeli fashion, directors Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado didn’t feel bound by horror’s accepted rules.

“They took the genre and took it apart,” Michaeli said. “In horror films, common knowledge is that the coward dies first. In ‘Rabies,’ the coward is left alive. They’re playing with the rules. They’re building something new.”

A scene from the Israeli horror film A scene from the Israeli horror film “JeruZalem.” Photo courtesy of “JeruZalem”

The films also don’t shy away from uniquely Israeli topics. In 2013’s “Big Bad Wolves,” also from Keshales and Papushado, dueling Israeli security veterans set out to find the head of a murdered girl. “Cannon Fodder,” from the same year, features Israeli soldiers fighting zombies in Lebanon. The zombie uprising in “JeruZalem” takes place on Yom Kippur.

“You’ve seen [movies about] resurrection of the dead in every city, but the most logical city for it to begin in is Jerusalem,” Paz said, referring to the city’s religious cachet. “It has to be through the Israeli, Middle Eastern prism.”

Current events have also given Israelis a taste for horror, Armoni said. Surrounded by blood and gore in the news and in their lives, he said, Israelis can find an escape in movies that caricature violence.

“There’s something very violent in the day to day, in the street,” he said. “[But] violence in entertainment is liberating. It’s not real. It can free up tensions.”

Another reason for the rising popularity of horror films in Israel? They’re typically made on tight budgets.

Israeli star Lior Ashkenazi has acted in Keshales and Papushado’s films, but many of the other Israeli horror actors have been relative unknowns. “JeruZalem” was filmed in a shaky “point-of-view” style on a budget of $250,000. “Freak Out” cost less than $150,000 to make.

“It allows you to work with the same tools as filmmakers in the rest of the world,” said Yoav Paz, Doron’s brother and co-director. “You’re not competing in Hollywood with the most expensive lenses and cameras.”

But Israeli horror directors will be heading to Hollywood soon. The renowned filmmaker Quentin Tarantinosaid “Big Bad Wolves” was his favorite film of 2013.

In March, it was reported that MGM and Paramount have tapped Keshales and Papushado to direct a remake of “Death Wish,” the 1974 film about a vigilante killer, starring Bruce Willis.

“Everyone talks about Israeli talent and Israeli stories,” Michaeli said. “Why should it stop with drama? Why can’t it go to other genres? It’s not embarrassing anymore to say you want to do a horror movie. It’s kosher.”

Hope and romance bloom in the desert in ‘Wedding Doll’

The title “Wedding Doll” may lead the unwary film fan to anticipate a risqué musical comedy, but this Israeli movie is actually something much deeper.

Set in a small, rather forlorn town in Israel’s Negev desert, the film revolves around a young woman left with a fairly mild mental handicap by a childhood brain injury.

At 24, Hagit (Moran Rosenblatt) is lovely to look at, with a smile that lights up not just a room but the brooding desert outside. She works, apparently contentedly, in a small factory, doing the rather unglamorous but necessary job of cutting and packaging rolls of toilet paper.

After work, she takes the leftovers from her day’s labor and fashions little dolls, invariably outfitted in wedding gowns. It doesn’t take a psychologist to deduce that the dolls express Hagit’s own yearnings, specifically her fervent hope to someday marry the factory owner’s handsome son, Omri (Roy Assaf).

Reality is somewhat different. Hagit lives with her mother, Sarah, who is divorced and works as a chambermaid at a local hotel. Sarah’s main focus is to protect her daughter at all costs — from the neighborhood kids’ taunts of “weirdo” to any attempt of independence by Hagit.

But occasionally, Hagit escapes the surveillance to spend long, largely silent evenings with Omri at the top of a hill overlooking the Negev, which takes on a beauty of its own at night.

Omri is a decent sort and is genuinely fond of Hagit, but he is afraid to let anyone, not least his family, know of a possible liaison with her.

But nothing can squelch Hagit’s hopes, and she fashions a wedding dress of her own, whose striking feature is a hoop skirt decorated entirely with actual toilet rolls.

“Wedding Doll” is the first feature by the film’s director, producer and scriptwriter, Nitzan Gilady, 46, who previously made four documentaries that have won 13 international awards.

Gilady knows something about what it means to be an outsider. The son of immigrants from Yemen, he was born in Beersheba, in the northern Negev, and was taunted by classmates in first grade, more for pronouncing certain Hebrew words with his parental accent than for his dark skin.

He also came out early as gay, and has a younger brother who returned from war with post-traumatic stress disorder and was thereafter fiercely overprotected by their father.

In a phone call from Paris, Gilady described his early ambition to become an actor and to study at New York’s Circle in the Square Theatre.

“My ambition was to become a Robert De Niro or a classical Shakespearean actor, but because of my appearance I was always cast as a terrorist,” Gilady said. So he decided to become a director. Unable to afford a university education, he bought a video camera and started to “direct” an actress friend.

For the setting of “Wedding Doll,” Gilady returned to the isolated Negev town of Mitzpe Ramon, where he spent part of his army service.

In casting the key role of Hagit, Gilady interviewed more than 40 aspirants and was still searching when he recalled a young Israeli actress, Rosenblatt, whom he had seen in one of her earlier movies. Once picked for the role, Rosenblatt put in a rigorous four months with the director before shooting began.

“We worked on my voice, my walk and my smile,” she recalled in a phone interview. As Hagit, “The smile is more than my own; it comes from the inside and tries to say, ‘I’m a good person, I’m a nice person.’ ”

Rosenblatt’s smile — and performance — earned her a best actress Ophir, Israel’s equivalent of the Oscar. The film had nine nominations in all.

Not content just with acting, the 30-year-old descendant of immigrants from Iran, Poland and Belgium is looking for additional artistic outlets. Rosenblatt is studying screenwriting and directing at the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School in Jerusalem but hasn’t decided on her ultimate career. However, she said, “It will have to be one of the three fields.”

Gilady faced no indecision in casting the role of Sarah, Hagit’s mother, after Asi Levi, one of Israel’s foremost actresses, agreed to take the part.

“Wedding Doll” opens April 15 at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills and Town Center in Encino. 

Israeli film in Arabic takes world prize at Sundance

The Arabic-language Israeli film “Sand Storm” won the top prize for a foreign film at the Sundance Film Festival.

The film took the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize on Saturday night. Written and directed by a Jewish-Israeli, Elite Zexer, “Sand Storm” was making its debut at the annual festival in Utah.

In the drama, a Bedouin woman must welcome her husband’s second wife and deal with her modern daughter.

“Weiner,” a film about the mayoral campaign of Anthony Weiner, the disgraced New York Jewish congressman, and the landscape of today’s politics, won the the U.S. Documentary Grand Jury Prize.

Steve Tisch gives $10 million to Tel Aviv U. for film and TV school

Steve Tisch, a film producer and New York Giants co-owner, has donated $10 million to Tel Aviv University to create a film and television school.

Tisch’s gift, which was first reported last week by Variety, allows the university to expand its film and television department to a film school, which will be called the Steve Tisch School of Film and Television.

Tisch, the scion of a philanthropic family, told Variety that he was inspired to make the gift after serving as the honorary chair in 2014 for the Tel Aviv Student Film Festival.

Previous film and television graduates of the program at Tel Aviv University include Oscar nominee Ari Folman, “Homeland” creator Gideon Raff and Hagai Levy, who co-created “In Treatment” and “The Affair.”

Tisch himself is an Oscar winner as a producer of “Forrest Gump,” and he has also produced other hits such as “Risky Business” and “American History X.” The Giants have won two Super Bowl rings while Tisch has served as the football team’s co-owner and chairman.

The Tisch family, which co-founded and still runs the Loews Corp. conglomerate, has been known for its generosity to Jewish and secular causes. New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts is named for Tisch’s father and uncle, Preston Robert Tisch and Laurence Tisch, respectively, who endowed the school in the 1980s, and his first cousin, James Tisch, is currently the CEO of Loews.

‘Gett’ illustrates divorce inequality — a hot-button topic in Israel

You may not know the name yet, but if you follow Israeli movies, the face is unforgettable. The throaty Sephardic voice, the black hair, burning eyes and bone structure to die for: Ronit Elkabetz is built for melodrama before she opens her preternaturally mobile mouth. With her lush sensuality, the actress has played her share of sexpots and slatterns. But over the years, her range has grown wider and deeper: In “Late Marriage (2001) and “The Band’s Visit (2007), two of the finest movies to come out of Israel’s thriving national cinema, Elkabetz nimbly combines comic verve with a lyrical feel for grief and disappointment. And in France, where Elkabetz lives when she’s not in Israel with her husband of four years, she’s about to play the French prime minister in a futuristic sci-fi series on television. Now, with her film “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem” having been Israel’s Oscar submission this year for best foreign film — though it did not make the final list — she’s a writer-director to reckon with, too.

Onscreen, Elkabetz carries herself with the stately, look-at-me pride of a 1940s Hollywood diva. Stepping up gamely for an interview in a Beverly Hills hotel last October, however, she wilted over mint tea. Elkabetz was exhausted from a whistle-stop tour of some of the 30 countries that have picked up the courtroom drama “Gett,” the latest in a trilogy that she wrote and directed with her younger brother, Shlomi. As Viviane, an Israeli woman trying to obtain a divorce from her Orthodox husband, Elkabetz is stubborn, majestic and seething with barely suppressed rage.

“Gett” is not the first film to take on the gender inequities of divorce in a country that is largely secular, yet without institutional arrangements for civil marriage or divorce. To the best of my knowledge, however, it is the first to set the cat among the rabbinical pigeons by addressing the breakdown of a union in which, for one partner, at least, all affection is gone. Viviane’s calmly recalcitrant husband (Simon Abkarian) doesn’t beat or sexually coerce her: She simply no longer loves him. To the panel of cranky rabbis who sit in judgment over her petition, that is insufficient grounds for annulment, and they keep sending the couple away to reconcile. 

Even without its incendiary topicality (the movie played to enthusiastic crowds at last year’s Jerusalem Film Festival, where it won best feature) “Gett” is a demanding movie whose minimalist form, unfolding in a sparsely furnished courtroom, forces our attention on the futile process that stymies Viviane’s efforts to gain her independence. “We didn’t want to show any exteriors,” Elkabetz said in halting but precise English, “because there is no home. The marriage is finished.”  

Instead we see Viviane and her lawyer returning to the courtroom again and again, with and without her stubbornly uncooperative spouse. Amid increasingly heated exchanges between the plaintiff, her frustrated attorney and the implacable (if sometimes flustered) judges, her husband looks on impassively, secure in the knowledge that he has time and a rigid interpretation of Jewish law on his side. The filmmakers want us to experience Viviane’s frustration and rising anger as she’s sent back again to create shalom bayit (domestic peace). Space is claustrophobically confined as befits a closed court; months pass with Bressonian slowness. “The judges want to gain time,” Elkabetz explained.

The director bristles at the suggestion that audiences may need to shift gears to adjust to the movie’s measured pace. “Maybe you had jetlag too when you saw it,” she counters slyly. And in its austere way, “Gett” is a wonderfully handsome movie with a palette of dramatically monochromatic browns and greys, with occasional bursts into significant color as the action approaches crisis. “We wanted very much to shoot in black-and-white,” Elkabetz said. “But everyone told us, forget it. No one will believe that this is happening today.” 

To highlight the lack of objectivity in the process, there’s no omniscient narrator; the point of view segues between characters as they slog through the archaic proceedings. “We never took a master shot from our point of view,” Elkabetz said. “It’s always from the point of view of the other.” But the movie’s tonal shifts belong to Viviane. She may be a victim, but she’s no shrinking violet. She’s a screamer with cause, and “Gett” speaks on her behalf. In a nod to Israel’s popular ethnic comedy, character witnesses bring hilarious relief from all the pent-up passion. “I’m a tragedienne,” Elkabetz said, “and I know very well that in the middle of tragedy, there is comedy. It’s a fine line.”

Taken together, the trilogy, which Elkabetz sums up as “a woman in search of her freedom,” is loosely based on the family experiences she shared with her brother growing up in a traditional North African family in Beersheba and Haifa. “The films were inspired by my mother’s life,” Elkabetz said. “They’re not autobiographical. We didn’t use specific detail. But they’re very personal, and very good therapy for both of us.” Of Shlomi, a slim, handsome film professor and filmmaker who’s eight years younger and her constant companion on the tour, she says, “We are so good together. We talk a lot, a lot before we start production. While shooting we don’t talk at all.” 

If the first two films in the trilogy opened in Israel to decent notices, “Gett” has been a sensation. When it opened there commercially last September, the movie played to packed houses and stepped up an already furious public debate in a country where the divide between religious and secular runs a close second to the conflict with the Palestinians in Israel’s noisy culture wars. Plaudits flowed, Elkabetz says, from the media and from government sources, among them former Justice Minister Tzipi Livni. “We heard from foundations advocating against sexual violence, for women in danger, as well as women who have been denied divorce. We even heard from women in high-tech. It was like bulimia, everyone wanted to vomit about it.” 

Elkabetz received supportive letters from men as well as women. As for the Orthodox: “They don’t go to the cinema,” Elkabetz said, shrugging. “But one of their male rabbis urged his community to see it, while a woman rabbi said, ‘Don’t go.’ ”

“Maybe,” she added, “ ‘Gett’ will be the first film in Israel to change reality.” At the end of the movie, having agreed to a shocking bargain driven by her implacable spouse, Viviane drifts over to a window and looks out onto a sunlit patch of a world busy with people going about their business.

Will there be a sequel? “Viviane bought her freedom,” Elkabetz said. “Maybe there will be a new life.” She smiles enigmatically. “Maybe.”

“Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem” opens in Los Angeles Feb. 13. 

‘Zero Motivation’: An art film by and about women

When filmmaker Talya Lavie was growing up in the 1980s, Israel had only one television channel. Lavie got her initial film education watching the same movies over and over again: Among her favorites were Federico Fellini’s “The Nights of Cabiria” and Jim Sheridan’s drama “In the Name of the Father,” about the Irish Republican Army — and the entire “Monty Python” oeuvre.

That eclectic, undifferentiated early exposure may be one reason Lavie’s first feature, a giddy dark comedy about female clerical workers in the Israeli army, glories in its cheerful promiscuity with genre, tone, pace, score and just about any other tool in the filmmaker’s box. No wonder she cites John Ford, Billy Wilder and Quentin Tarantino, among others, as primary role models. “When I pitched the movie, I would say, ‘It’s “Apocalypse Now” meets “The Office,” ’ ” Lavie said.

Director Talya Lavie Photo by Rubi Castro

“Zero Motivation” turns on the travails of two quarrelsome best friends, played by Dana Ivgy and Nelly Tagar, who file and shred in a chaotic, all-female office on a desert army base. Mostly, they play video games while doing as little as possible under the baleful gaze of Rama (Shani Klein), a gung-ho officer who’s striving to gain respect and promotion from her own, openly sexist male superiors. Rama is a figure of fun, but professionally speaking, Lavie can relate to her predicament as an authority with little power. “As a director, I’m very identified with Rama,” the 37-year-old filmmaker said. “She’s trying to give orders, to be respected by men as one of them … and they never will.”

“Zero Motivation” opens up into an enchantingly zany social satire with the army as an over-the-top microcosm of Israeli society. In place of the heroism and disciplined efficiency for which the Israeli military is known, the film addresses bureaucracy, boredom and the futility of routine army work in a male-dominated environment. Israeli women do serve in combat roles, and some become officers. The majority, however, are lowly clerks whiling away the days until discharge or transfer. 

In its refreshingly unorthodox way, “Zero Motivation” is a feminist chick flick about the hothouse blend of jealousy, competition and solidarity that thrives in any situation where young women live together in cramped conditions. Women often tell Lavie that the film reminds them of their college dorm days. But, she said, the film will speak to anyone who “has played a small part in a big system.” 

The movie’s charm comes from watching the struggle when these women plunge into absurdly incongruous situations. In that sense, the movie’s unnerving formal plasticity fits the content. “You don’t need to stick to one genre anymore these days,” Lavie said gaily. “It’s interesting to put them together and see what happens. There’s a broad scale of emotions, and the actors play them all very seriously throughout.” You might call the movie a romantic melodrama that also touches on some pretty hot-button social issues, minus the usual reverence. A sudden death, she said, with mock solemnity, “is an expression of a very, very strong love.” A zombie of sorts lurches around the action for a bit.  A Chopin piano sonata plays at a very odd moment; Schubert is played on guitar. The climactic battle sequence, played deadpan, is waged with office supplies.

“I was influenced by ‘M*A*S*H’ and ‘Catch-22’,” Lavie said, “but also by great army films such as ‘Full Metal Jacket’ and ‘Apocalypse Now.’ And I got inspiration from many Israeli war films. I wanted to make a movie with the same pathos and epic proportions, but about secretaries.” 

With all its juggling of form and subject matter, the film could easily have gotten out of hand; now and again, the farce is repetitious or goes on too long. Yet it’s held together by a fairly conventional three-act structure, with each act focusing on a different player, with a different style and a different season. That frame, Lavie said, grew out of her prodigious reading of classic plays — and repeat readings of Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction,” which she called “one of the greatest scripts I ever read.”

Lavie, who was an army secretary herself, knows the terrain intimately. But she also brought to the making of the movie a rigorous training in several popular arts, and a confidence she attributes to the unconditional love and support of her parents, neither of who has a background in film. After studying comics and animation at the Bezalel Art Academy, Lavie went on to graduate from the Sam Spiegel Film School in Jerusalem. Worked up from a 2006 short called “The Substitute,” “Zero Motivation” was developed at the Sundance Directors and Screenwriters Lab. The film carried off six Israeli Academy Awards — including best director and best screenplay — along with best narrative feature at the Tribeca Film Festival and the Nora Ephron Prize, awarded to a woman writer or director with a distinctive voice.   

“In Israel, film is considered an art,” Lavie said. Unlike in the United States, where film is primarily a privately funded business, Israeli films are largely made with money from the state. “Without government funding, there would be no cinema,” she added, “only television.” Given the intensity of competition for scarce funding, it’s heartening that almost a third of Israeli features in the last few years were made by women, of which 10 were first features. That ratio leaves the United States — where a total of three female-directed movies were given a wide release in 2014 — in the dust.

Lavie is already working on her next script — an adaptation of a Sholem Aleichem story about an Israeli in Brooklyn — though she has no immediate plans to move to Hollywood.

2 Israeli Works Highlight L.A. Jewish Film Festival

The annual Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival this year bookends its six-day run with two Israeli films, opening with a bittersweet comedy and closing out with a hard-hitting look at the “lone soldiers” in the country’s army.

“A Matter of Size,” the festival opener on May 8, targets an American obsession, the constant struggle to shed excess weight.

In this case, the four protagonists are not just a few pounds over, but … well … enormously fat.

Foremost among the corpulent blue-collar workers in the hard-scrabble town of Ramle is Herzl (Itzik Cohen), who tips the scales at 340 pounds. After two weeks at a crash course on slimming, he’s gained another 28 pounds.

Desperate, with no girlfriend and a mother who simultaneously nags him to slim down and to eat up, Herzl recruits three heavyweight buddies and the four decide to become sumo wrestlers — a profession where fat folds are highly respected.

A Japanese restaurant owner — and former sumo coach — teaches the men the fundamentals, the lads put on a show for the enthusiastic townspeople, and Herzl gets the (full-figured) girl.

The plot and characters are reminiscent of “The Full Monty,” but with somewhat more serious undertones. While, in “Monty,” the size of a man’s private parts is generally not a matter for public inspection, the enormously obese men can’t hide their imperfections from sarcastic bystanders or scornful members of the opposite sex.

So there are lots of laughs, but “A Matter of Size” is also about how to regain one’s self-esteem in a thin-obsessed world, ready to humiliate those who don’t fit in.

The movie premieres May 8 at the Writers Guild of America, 135 S. Doheny Drive,  in Beverly Hills. Red carpet arrivals, reception, and a discussion with the film’s directors, Erez Tadmor and Sharon Maymon, moderated by Jewish Journal Editor-in-Chief Rob Eshman, start at 7:30 p.m. The screening begins at 8:30 p.m.

It will reprise May 10, 7:30 p.m., at Laemmle’s Town Center in Encino.

From the very beginning of the state, Is rael’s defense forces have been strengthened by volunteers from abroad. For instance, according to official statistics, 14,250 Americans are now serving Israel on active or reserve duty.

In local parlance, these men and women are “lone soldiers,” because they have no families to visit on weekends to soften the harshness of military life.

“The Loners” (in Hebrew, “HaBodedim”) takes its title from two Russians, who left their kin in the late 1990s to enlist in the Jewish state’s famed Golani Brigade.

One, who goes by the odd name of Glory Campbell, is from the Caucasus, a region that breeds fierce fighters, while his close friend Sasha Bluchin is the son of a Russian general and more given to discussion and compromise.

Los Angeles Israeli Film Festival put focus on social justice — and secrets

Critics and audiences alike can try to search for a political message in the 23rd Israeli Film Festival’s premiere films.

It’s not easy being apolitical when it comes to Israeli films — films that foreign audiences often view through the prism of the Israel-Palestinian/Middle East crises and hopes for the future.

Take the “The Band’s Visit,” Eran Kolirin’s poignant and humorous feature about an Egyptian police orchestra that gets lost in a small Israeli town. Although the film portrays Egyptians and Israelis, Jews and Muslims, the story is more about cultural understanding, love and friendship than any high-falutin’ political statement.

But New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis insists on putting “The Band’s Visit” into the context of a political landscape.

Trailer: ‘The Band’s Visit’

“Mr. Kolirin also seems to be saying that a specific loneliness haunts Israel as well,” she wrote in a Dec. 7 review. “Surrounded by desert, a few longingly invoke the sea, summoning a desire, but for what? Mr. Kolirin, I think, suggests that this longing is for something the poet Marcia Falk calls the ‘Eternal wellspring of peace.'”

But they won’t find a political message in “The Secrets,” which premieres opening night, June 12, or in the spotlight premiere screening of “Noodle” on June 14.

That’s because neither film deals with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the crisis in the Middle East or military life and its consequences, as many movies have in the past.

“The Secrets” is a tale of two rebellious ultra-Orthodox girls who befriend each other at a yeshiva seminary in Safed and try to help a woman using kabbalistic remedies. “Noodle” is about a Tel Aviv flight attendant who must deal with a young Chinese boy after his mother, her cleaning lady, is deported from Israel.

Religious themes? Yes. Social themes? Maybe. Political? Not at all.

The two films are part of Israel’s growing trend toward smaller, character-driven films that cast Israel in a far different light from what one we might expect from watching CNN or reading the newspaper.

“If you make a movie about ‘the situation,’ which is bigger than anything else, you might as well write an essay in a newspaper,” said Avi Nesher, director and co-writer of “The Secrets.”

“People are no longer compelled to make a movie about this one subject; I think it’s a maturing of the country and the culture,” he said.

This trend might be one of the reasons behind the startling fact that Israelis, for the first time, went to see their own local movies more than American imports. For the second time in 20 years, Israeli films hit the $1 million mark at the local box office with five films: “The Band’s Visit,” “Noodle,” “The Secrets,” “Jellyfish” and “Beaufort,” Joseph Cedar’s Oscar-nominated film about the Lebanon withdrawal, the only one with a war theme.

“Israel is about many things, and if you stick to one subject, you trivialize it,” Nesher said.

Nesher, 53, knows from politically themed films. His first, at age 23, was “HaLahaka,” which has since become a cult classic, about an Israeli-type USO troupe entertaining soldiers after the 1967 war. It was actually another of his political films, “Oriental,” a 2004 documentary about the failure of the peace process, that got him thinking about what would later become the apolitical “Secrets.”

“The more you talk to people, the more you see that there is this whole agenda: women’s rights,” Nesher noticed after interviewing Israelis and Palestinians for “Oriental.” There is a “revolution” for women’s rights all over the Middle East, he said. “That’s one of the main themes, as far as I’m concerned.”

To call a driving theme of “The Secrets” women’s rights is somewhat surprising.

Oscars are Coen ‘Country’ but a win is still foreign for Israeli filmmakers

Disappointed but not downcast, Israeli filmmakers and their supporters vowed to come back strong next year after the country’s entry, “Beaufort,” lost out in Sunday’s Oscar race for best foreign-language film.

“We have shown that Israel can make very good movies, and we will prove it again next time,” Eli Eltonyo, a “Beaufort” actor, told a cheering crowd of some 350 attending an Oscar party at the Hollywood night club Avalon. An ebullient Yaacov Dayan, Israel’s resident consul general, went further, shouting, “We’ll have a bigger party next year, and we’ll take the Oscar, I promise you.”

There was some solace in the success of Jewish creative talent at the 80th Academy Awards. Brothers Joel and Ethan Coen were the big winners of the evening, each capturing three Oscars for their gritty contemporary Western “No Country for Old Men” — for best picture, directing and adapted screenplay.

Britain’s Daniel Day-Lewis took acting honors as the greedy oil prospector in “There Will Be Blood.” Day-Lewis is the son of Jewish actress Jill Balcon, and in his acceptance speech he thanked his grandfather, British film pioneer Sir Michael Balcon, as well as his wife Rebecca, daughter of the late playwright Arthur Miller.

The evening’s host, Jon Stewart, characteristically opened the ceremonies with a Jewish gag, noting that the Oscar contending movie “Atonement” caught “the raw passion and sexuality of Yom Kippur.”

When the remark was greeted with applause, Stewart quipped, “Now we know where the Jews are in the audience.”

From its arrival three days before the Oscar ceremony, the “Beaufort” contingent became a celebratory rallying point for the large Israeli expatriate and general Jewish communities, akin to a reception for Israeli athletes competing for Olympic gold.

At the Oscar party hosted by the Israeli consulate, Los Angeles Jewish Federation, and StandWithUs, guests included Israeli pop idol Ninette Tayeb and 10 teenagers from Sderot, here to participate in a benefit concert for the Negev town targeted by rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip.

“Beaufort” director Joseph Cedar, lead actor Oshri Cohen and producers David Silber and Moshe Edry were accompanied by more than a dozen Israeli television reporters and hosts, among them Eli Yitzpan and anchors Aharon Barnea and Gil Tamary.

The intense coverage reflected the country’s pride that, after a hiatus of 23 years, an Israeli film had made the final five list among 63 foreign entries.

“Beaufort” depicts the windup of the first Lebanon War in the year 2000, not in the glory of a 1967 victory but in an indecisive and exhaustive ending. The film’s strength lies in presenting its protagonists not as super warriors, but rather as young men who acknowledge and face their fears.

The euphoria and high hopes “Beaufort” triggered were explained partially by Israel’s current mood and by the apparent validation of Israel’s new standing on the international film scene.

“We Israelis are going through our regular manic-depressive cycle,” explained Ron Leshem, who wrote the book on which the film is based. “We’re hungry for good news.”

The good news Israelis were hoping for was that after six previous nominations, an Israeli film would finally take the top prize.

A win this time would have also put an exclamation point to what is often described as the “renaissance” of the Israeli movie industry.

The renaissance has been certified by a slew of awards at the most prestigious European and American film festivals at Cannes, Berlin, Venice, Sundance and Tribeca for pictures such as “The Band’s Visit,” “Jellyfish,” “Lemon Tree,” “Walk on Water” and “Jossi & Jagger.”

“The Israeli film industry has really matured in the last few years,” Jewish Federation President John Fishel observed. “I fully expect to see an Israeli Oscar winner in the near future.”

In this year’s Oscar stakes, the five finalists were the films of Austria, Israel, Kazakhstan, Poland and Russia, but it seemed clear that the final choice would be between “Beaufort” and the Austrian entry “Counterfeiters.”

The movie by Austrian filmmaker Stefan Ruzowitzky is based on one of the odder footnotes of World War II and probes the moral dilemmas facing a special group of Jewish concentration camp inmates.

Some 100 Jews, all skilled engravers, photographers and one-time counterfeiters, were culled for “Operation Bernard” and given excellent treatment as long as they succeeded in turning out massive amounts of perfect imitation pound and dollar bills to undermine the economies of Britain and the United States and to pay for the German war effort.

The film’s tension comes from the prisoners’ moral struggle on whether to collaborate with the Nazi scheme and gain at least temporary survival, or try to sabotage the operation at the cost of immediate death.

Even pro-Israel partisans who had seen “Counterfeiters” acknowledged that the Austrian entry was first-class, though Cedar and “Beaufort’s” producers were attending the actual Academy Awards at the Kodak Theatre and could not be reached immediately for comment.

In his short acceptance speech, Ruzowitzky paid graceful tribute to the great Jewish movie directors of his country’s past.

“There have been some great Austrian filmmakers working here, thinking of Billy Wilder, Fred Zinnemann, Otto Preminger, most of them had to leave my country because of the Nazis, so it sort of makes sense that the first Austrian movie to win an Oscar is about the Nazis’ crimes.”

In an earlier interview with The Journal, Ruzowitzky went further.

“My grandparents on both sides were Nazis, or Nazi sympathizers, so I felt a special responsibility to deal with the Holocaust era,” he said. “I felt an equal responsibility not to exercise moral judgment on the Jews who collaborated in Operation Bernard.”

Film: Israel’s ‘Band’s Visit’ finally plays L.A.

Jewish-Arab relations, sometimes in war, occasionally in love, are frequent themes of Israeli movies, but rarely are they examined with the subtle humor and sensitivity of “The Band’s Visit.”

At the center of the leisurely action is the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, eight Egyptian men in immaculate light-blue uniforms, who have come to Israel to perform at the opening of an Arab Cultural Center in Petach Tikvah.

Nobody meets the band at Ben-Gurion Airport and, after futile attempts by the Egyptians and Israelis to communicate in broken English, the group is loaded on a van to Bet Hatikvah, a forlorn settlement in the Negev.

Arriving at the dusty little town, which seems to have been lifted from an old John Wayne western, Tewfiq (Sasson Gabai), the leader of the band, asks Dina (Ronit Elkabetz), the lusty proprietress of a cafÃ(c), for directions to the Arab Cultural Center.

Dina sums up the glamour of her community by answering that there is “no Arab culture here, no Israeli culture, no culture at all.”

The town folks offer to put up the visitors in their homes overnight, and in halting conversations, Israelis and Egyptians talk not about politics and wars but of their everyday work and families.

Dina takes the widowed Tewfiq to a local restaurant, where the odd couple is eyed with considerable curiosity. The Egyptian is at first reserved and suspicious, but warms up under his companion’s genuine interest and sympathy, until both join the jukebox in a rendition of Gershwins’ “Summertime.”

Most of the other binational encounters are handled with light humor, often tinged with a touch of sadness, but for one hilarious episode.

The band’s handsome young trumpet player, who idolizes jazz icon Chet Baker, encounters the resident Israeli nebbish and accompanies him on a blind date at a roller-skating rink. When the local boy proves too awkward to make any advances to his date, the more experienced Egyptian guides him along, wordlessly, but with eloquent gestures.

“Band’s Visit” is a very auspicious debut for 34-year-old Eran Kolirin, directing his first feature film. Unlike most young Israeli directors, Kolirin did not go to film school, but apprenticed himself to his father, a movie editor and director.

He thought he had hit the jackpot when the Israel Film Academy picked “Band’s Visit” as the top domestic picture of the year, which automatically qualified it as the country’s entry in the Oscar race for best foreign language film.

But something strange happened on the road to Hollywood’s red carpet.

Under the rules of the American Academy, more than half the dialogue in a foreign film entry must be in the originating country’s own language. However, “Band’s Visit,” whose Egyptian and Israeli characters communicate mainly in broken English, didn’t meet the requirement and was disqualified by the Oscar committee.

Even so, Sony Pictures, the film’s distributor, entered it in the general Oscar categories of best picture, director, screenplay, actor and actress — none of which came through for the film.

“Nobody in Israel thought about the language problem,” said Kolirin, who spent four years making the film.

When he heard about the adverse American decision, “I was pissed off for a few days, but I’ve gotten over it,” he said during a visit to Los Angeles.

Since no Egyptian actors would accept a role in an Israeli film, Kolirin cast Israeli actors with roots in Morocco, Iraq or other Arab-speaking countries. “However, we had to teach them to speak with an Egyptian accent,” he said. Kolirin is a seventh-generation sabra on his father’s side, and, like many Israelis, he is struggling with his identity.

“The problem is that we are part of the Middle East but live in an increasingly Westernized country,” he observed. “I wonder how much of me is Arab, not through genes, but by living in this region.”

“The Band’s Visit” is now playing at Laemmle’s Town Center in Encino and Playhouse 7 in Pasadena, and begins Feb. 29 at the Fallbrook 7 in West Hills. For information, visit www.laemmle.com

Briefs: Cancer helps Olmert poll numbers, Mrs. El Presidente in Argentina — still good for the Jews

Olmert’s Popularity Buoyed by Cancer

Ehud Olmert’s disclosure that he has prostate cancer edged up his approval ratings. A poll commissioned by Yediot Achronot after Olmert’s surprise announcement Monday found that 41 percent of Israelis “appreciate” his performance as prime minister, up from 35 percent last month.

Olmert, whose popularity plummeted after last year’s Lebanon war and amid ongoing corruption allegations, also got high marks in the survey for his “bravery” in coming forward, an act that 61 percent of respondents said they found moving. Eighty-seven percent of respondents agreed with Olmert’s decision to stay in office. But asked which among Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu is most fit to be prime minister, 14 percent said Olmert, 17 percent said Barak and 35 percent said Netanyahu. Yediot did not say how many people were polled. The margin of error was 4.3 percent.

Argentine Vote Means No Change for Jews

Argentina’s new president likely will not change government policies toward the Jewish community.

The victory by current first lady and senator Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner in national elections Sunday will be a continuation of official policies regarding Jewish interests, according to Aldo Donzis, president of the DAIA, Argentina’s Jewish umbrella organization. The government of her husband, Nestor Kirschner, was active in seeking justice for the terrorist attack on the Jewish community building in Buenos Aires in 1994, and initiated projects to fight anti-Semitism, discrimination and xenophobia.

The first lady and now president-elect was active in these efforts, according to Donzis. On Monday morning, with 97 percent of the election results calculated, Fernandez de Kirchner had garnered 45 percent of the vote. She needed at least 40 percent to avoid a runoff. In the capital city of Buenos Aires, where most of the Jewish community resides, she received 23 percent of the vote.

Alleged Syrian Reactor in 2003 Photo

A 2003 photo shows the alleged nuclear reactor Israel bombed in Syria last month under construction. The Sept. 16, 2003 photo, released by GeoEye, an aerial image archive in Dulles, Va., and published in Saturday’s New York Times, suggests that Syria’s nuclear weapons program long predates the Sept. 6 Israeli attack. Initial reports suggested that the reactor Israel allegedly targeted was in its nascent stage. Israel, Syria and the United States will not confirm the nature of the attack.

Rabin Killer Can’t Attend Brit

Yitzhak Rabin’s jailed assassin lost an appeal to be allowed to attend the circumcision of his first son. Israel’s High Court of Justice on Tuesday turned down a petition by Yigal Amir for a special furlough on Nov. 4, when his son is to be circumcised. Amir had argued that he should not be denied leave rights granted to other convicted murderers in Israel.

Amir’s wife, Larissa, became pregnant during a conjugal visit to the prison where Amir is serving a life sentence in isolation. She gave birth on Sunday. The fact that the circumcision will take place exactly 12 years after Amir gunned down Prime Minister Rabin at a Tel Aviv peace rally has stoked the ire of Israelis opposed to seeing the assassin enjoy any jailhouse leniency.

Terrorism Led Portman Into Activism

The anguish of a friend grieving over a terror victim in Israel led actress Natalie Portman to become an activist.

“When I was at Harvard, a very close friend lost someone to the violence in Israel,” the Israeli-born movie star says in a first-person essay that appeared this weekend in Parade magazine. “I felt so helpless watching her pain. I really wanted to do something, but I didn’t know where to begin. Coming from Israel, I know how polarized that part of the world scene can be.”

Portman called Jordanian Queen Rania, a Palestinian, who told Portman about the Foundation for International Community Assistance. The group, Portman says, “grants loans, mostly to women, to start small businesses. Rather than donate food, it helps people earn the money to buy their own food and gives women the opportunity to better their lives.”

Portman has since traveled to Central America and Africa for the foundation.

“It’s impossible to know the outcome of anything,” she writes. “You have no idea whether the life you impact will go on to bring peace to the Middle East or will go blow up a building. All you can do is act with the best intention and have faith.”

Israeli Film Takes Top Prize in Kiev

An Israeli film took the top prize at a Kiev film festival. “The Band’s Visit” received the Grand Prix and $10,000 at the 37th Molodist (“Youth”) International Film Festival on Sunday.

It was the first feature-length film by 34-year-old Israeli filmmaker Eran Kolirin. The whimsical tale, which has won other awards, follows the iconoclastic adventures of a band of Egyptian musicians who are lost in a small town in Israel’s Negev Desert. Ukrainian President Viktor Yuschenko participated in the festival’s opening.

‘The Tribe’ Hits No. 1 on iTunes

A documentary about Jewish identity is in the No. 1 spot of most downloaded short films on iTunes. Tiffany Shlain, director of “The Tribe,” a humorous look at American Jewish identity through the lens of Barbie, says she launched her film on iTunes Oct. 2, hoping to crack the top 10 list. It is now the first independent documentary to hit No. 1, Shlain notes.

“This says there’s an audience that wants to watch documentaries about American Jewish identity,” says Shlain, who lives in Mill Valley, Calif. “This opens the doors for other filmmakers and expands the options of what is available to download.” The other films in the top 10 are all by major studies such as Disney and Pixar, except for the indie “West Bank Story,” in the No. 7 spot, which won this year’s Academy Award for Best Short Film.

“The Tribe,” released in December 2005, was shown at 75 film festivals, including Sundance and Tribeca, and won nine awards. It is available at

Possible Oscar at stake in Israeli film fight

Beaufort trailer
The story of two movies vying to represent Israel in the Oscar race is full of intrigue, confusion, backbiting and alleged skullduggery.

The films themselves are also quite interesting.

The brouhaha comes at a time when the Israeli film industry is gaining increasing international recognition and awards and for the first time in 23 years seems to have a serious shot at being nominated — and even winning — an American Academy Award.

So tension was high last month when the Israel Film Academy passed out the Ophir awards, Israel’s equivalent of the Oscar, with the best picture winner automatically becoming Israel’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film honors at the American Academy Awards.

There were two frontrunners, quite opposite in mood and tone. One was “The Band’s Visit,” described by the Jerusalem Post as “a charming, bittersweet comedy about an Egyptian police orchestra that gets lost and ends up spending a night at a tiny development town in the Negev.” [CLICK FOR ‘THE BAND’s VISIT’ TRAILER]

By contrast, “Beaufort” is a searing drama about the last Israeli unit to leave Lebanon in 2000. Its director is American-born Joseph Cedar, whose “Time of Favor” and “Campfire” were two of Israel’s previous Oscar entries.

When the votes had been counted, “Band’s Visit” won hands down for best picture and best directing honors for Eran Kolirin.

“Band’s Visit” had already been picked up by prestigious Sony Pictures Classics for distribution in North America and much of the rest of the world. Life was good, and then the plot thickened.

Although the Oscar category defined by the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is often called “Best Foreign Film,” the actual title is “Best Foreign Language Film.”

The rules clearly spell out that an entry’s dialogue must be “predominantly,” or more than 50 percent, in the language of the submitting country.

Hebrew and Arabic are the official languages of Israel, but since the Israeli and Egyptian characters in “Band’s Visit” converse in (broken) English, the American Academy disqualified the Israeli entry and left the next move up to its Israeli counterpart.

The decision was hardly unprecedented. In the past two years, the Academy has rejected nine foreign films on the same grounds. One recent example was the Italian entry, “Private,” which was ruled out because none of the characters spoke Italian, though the producers claimed the film was turned down because of its pro-Palestinian slant.

How the Israel Academy slipped up on reading the rules is another question, which is now being debated in the Israeli press.

In recent days there were various reports that Israel would appeal the disqualification decision. However, on Tuesday, Marek Rosenbaum, president of the Israel Academy, told The Journal in a phone call from Poland that “Band’s Visit” has been withdrawn and “Beaufort” was now the official entry.

But that’s hardly the end of the story. Once the qualification of “Band’s Visit” was called into question, blogs and some print columns started reporting that the producers of “Beaufort” had stealthily lobbied the American Academy to disqualify “Band’s Visit,” knowing that “Beaufort” would then become the Oscar contender.

In a phone interview, Michael Barker, co-president and co-founder of Sony Pictures Classics, said that “from the beginning there was aggressive behavior looking to disqualify ‘The Band’s Visit,'” which his company is distributing.

Barker added that in his 26 years in the film industry, “I have seen sour grapes, but this goes way above normal.”

He termed the film’s disqualification “a tragedy,” vowed to enter the movie in other Oscar categories, and predicted it would be a success when released in theaters in the middle of February.

Asked to specify his charges, Barker referred all such questions to Ehud Bleiberg, head of Los Angeles-based Bleiberg Entertainment and producer of “Band’s Visit.”

Bleiberg did not respond to repeated requests for comments.

The “Beaufort” filmmakers have remained publicly silent on the controversy, but at The Journal’s request, producers David Zilber and David Mandil e-mailed a statement from Tel Aviv.

They categorically denied that anyone connected with “Beaufort” had ever approached the American Academy regarding “Band’s Visit.”

Taking off the gloves, the producers wrote that “the false accusations leveled at ‘Beaufort’ by the producers and distributors of ‘The Band’s Visit’ are merely an attempt to escape liability for their own misleading of the American and Israeli academies and to find a scapegoat.”

Furthermore, “The producers of ‘The Band’s Visit’ and its distributors [Sony and others] will do well to take responsibility for their failure in this matter and cease making accusations against ‘Beaufort.’ Any such accusations will meet a suitable response and they will be obliged to take responsibility for their declarations.”

Ending on a sarcastic note, Zilber and Mandil wrote, “We applaud the producers and distributors of ‘The Band’s Visit’ on the media spin that no doubt will bring publicity viewers to their film. We are only sorry that such spin is at our expense.”

Although potential box office receipts and egos may have fueled the face-off between the two films, the very different moods of the two films also illustrate contrasting takes on how to garner the national prestige attendant to an Oscar nomination or win.

No Israeli film has ever won an Oscar, and the last to be among the five finalists was “Beyond the Walls” in 1984.

So what can be done to brighten the picture?

In many recent years, Israel Academy voters have favored films highly critical of Israeli society and practically devoid of sympathetic characters. Examples are last year’s “Sweet Mud,” a downbeat picture of kibbutz life, and the previous year’s even more depressing “What a Wonderful Place,” which featured an array of Israeli pimps, lowlifes and corrupt cops.

It has been argued that Hollywood Jews, who are heavily represented on the foreign pictures selection committee, are turned off by such negative portrayals.

So the light-hearted “Band’s Visit” might have been a welcome antidote to the previous gloomy films.

On the other hand, Israeli film critic Hannah Brown speculates that Oscar voters may more easily relate to Israelis portrayed in a military drama than the apolitical “Band’s Visit.”

Stay tuned for the Jan. 22 Oscar nomination announcements.

The Six-Day War changed Israel’s film industry forever

Consider Thorold Dickinson’s 1954 film, “Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer,” and Baruch Dinar’s landmark 1960 drama, “They Were Ten.”

Each film has a tragic ending in which the death of Zionist patriots is a necessary prelude to the founding of a Jewish state.

Then look at Uri Zohar’s “Every Bastard a King” and Joseph Millo’s “He Walked Through the Fields,” both made late in 1967 (although the latter is set in 1948), both guardedly upbeat, with heroic protagonists who cheerfully rush through shot and shell to victory.

That, in a nutshell, is the difference that the Six-Day War made to some Israeli filmmakers.

Of course, this is a gross oversimplification that does an injustice to both Zohar and Millo, but in essence, the remarkable and swift victory of Israeli forces in 1967 tore a veil of insecurity off the standard cinematic discourse around issues of Zionism and personal self-sacrifice and gave the nation’s filmmakers the right to a certain heroic panache without-guilt. It was a sunny day that lasted only a short while, ended by the storms of the Yom Kippur War a mere six years later, but it was quite real.

Amy Kronish, in her useful book, “World Cinema: Israel” (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1996), offers those two films and Gilberto Tofano’s “Siege” as primary examples of the treatment of post-war issues in films of the period. As she observes, “These three dramas, produced in the wake of the war, are thematically dissimilar — one portrays a swashbuckling Israeli hero, one is a psychological study of the loneliness of a war widow and one examines the pioneering generation of the War of Independence. However, all three reflect the post-war obsession with military and security issues and the societal need to come to terms with the new feelings of both euphoria and ambivalence, which were a result of the war.”

It would take the disaster of the Yom Kippur War, compounded by the trauma of ministering the occupied territories and the increase in levels of terrorist violence against Israelis at home and abroad, to change the tone to something darker. A film as bleak and as pointedly anti-violence as Ilan Moshenson’s “The Wooden Gun” probably couldn’t have been made before 1979, just as a triumphalist action film like Menachem Golan’s “The Big Escape” (1970) would have been inconceivable 10 years later.

However, there was another, less noticeable, effect on Israeli film in the aftermath of the war, one with a longer-lasting impact. With Israel suddenly looking like the greatest upset winner in the history of modern warfare and, for the moment, a vastly more secure nation, foreign filmmakers came to shoot in the country in abundance.

While the political winds were still favorable, Susan Sontag, Claude Lanzmann and Frederic Rossif each made documentaries about the future direction of the Jewish state. Hollywood, Cinecita and Paris rolled in their big guns, shooting Westerns like “Billy Two-Hats” and “Deadlock” or biblical epics like “Moses the Lawgiver” and “Jesus Christ Superstar” in Israel.

The overwhelming majority of these films are rightly forgotten. On the other hand, John Flynn’s underrated 1972 thriller, “The Jerusalem File,” is probably worth another look, and its assistant director, Yitzhak Yeshurun, would go on to direct one of the best Israeli films of the 1980s, “Noa at 17,” 10 years later.

Clearly, having professional crews with the best available technology working in Israel had to be an eye-opener for a lot of young men and women who were thinking about a career in moviemaking, and a few of them even found work on those sets. In addition to Yeshurun, there is Dov Seltzer, who composed the music for dozens of Menachem Golan’s films, wrote dance music for “Moses the Lawgiver,” and Ken Globus, who wrote several of Golan’s films, was a dialogue director on that miniseries. Eli Yarkoni was a boom operator on the sound crew of “Jesus Christ Superstar;” today he runs sound on dozens of Israeli films every year and has won four Israeli Academy Awards.

Perhaps the most important change in the Israeli film industry to follow in the wake of the Six-Day War, however, was not directly caused by that event but followed quickly on its heels: the establishment of Israel Television (ITV). In fact, Alan Rosenthal, an Anglo-Jewish documentary filmmaker who subsequently made aliyah and was instrumental in the formation of ITV, believes that its creation was a direct result of the war.

David Ben-Gurion had been a consistent and powerful opponent of a state-run television network, but with the Arab nations watching the war unfold in their living rooms (and the footage being used as a blunt instrument of propaganda by their governments), while Israelis were relying on radio, print and gossip, it became inevitable that even the most old-fashioned of Israeli leaders would have to bow to the inevitable technological change. With the war creating a hunger around the world for footage of the Middle East, independent production companies sprang up in Israel to fulfill that desire; the result was that Israelis were rapidly dragged into the last third of the 20th century.

Inevitably, for better and worse, television has become both a training ground for young talent and a source of employment for the veterans. If you look at the list of actors, directors, writers and technicians working on any major Israeli TV series, you will find the very top of the industry on display, more so than in most of the major film and television industries around the world. That is a function of the relative smallness of the Israeli industry compared to, for example, Italy’s or France’s, rather than a reflection of the comparative quality of Israel’s film and television productions.

Regardless of the cause, however, it is not at all farfetched to say that without the changes brought about by the Six-Day War, the glorious explosion of Israeli film in the past decade would not have happened. The winds of political change blow constantly, especially, it seems, in the Middle East, but there is no substitute for building an infrastructure, as Israeli filmmakers have found.

Trio of Israeli student films shine on the French Riviera

Asaf Korman rushes into the Quinzaine Des Réalisateurs, Directors’ Fortnight pavilion on the Cannes Croisette.

“I’m sorry I’m late,” he says, explaining that he’s just come from a screening of “The Banishment,” a Russian film by Andrei Zviaguintsev in Official Competition and described as a modern Adam and Eve story. “In my wildest dreams, I never imagined I’d be walking into screenings like this,” he says.

Korman has every reason to be excited. Only 25, he, too, has a film making its world premiere at the Cannes Festival’s Directors’ Fortnight, a parallel and noncompetitive section noted for its innovative films. His movie, “The Death of Shula,” his graduation project from Tel Aviv’s Minshar for Art school, is the first Israeli student film ever selected for this category, and Korman has come to Cannes for all 12 days of the festival.

Korman’s 25-minute short is one of three Israeli student films at Cannes this year. The other two were selected for the Cinefondation category, a competition exclusively for short films produced by film school students.

Dressed in a black suit and maroon T-shirt, a knit cap atop his head and black bag strung over his shoulder, Korman looks the part of a director. And he’s learning to take advantage of the concomitant perks.

“Let’s go upstairs to the private bar,” he suggests. “It’s quiet and the drinks are free.”

On the Noga Hilton’s rooftop patio, Korman requests a beer but is told it’s too early. He settles for an espresso and removes his cap as he takes a table overlooking the Croisette, which is jammed with shorts-clad tourists, as well as women in full-length satin dresses and men in tuxedos.

In the distance is the Mediterranean Sea, awash with what appears to be a flotilla of multisized private yachts. Up and down the coast, the bright sunlight reflects off the light-colored hotels and condominiums hugging the beaches and the villas ensconced on the hillsides.

The free coffee is more than a side benefit. The high cost of Riviera living is a reality for this young filmmaker, who’s been given 500 euros by the Directors’ Fortnight officials but finds himself in a city where, during the festival, hotel rooms go for 740 euros a night, with a 12-night minimum, and where an espresso can set you back 5 euros. To save money, he’s staying with friends and eating a lot of pizza.

Korman’s film, which debuts on May 25, chronicles the demise of his family’s dog, a Labrador mix, and his father’s attempt to bury it. Driving around with the dog in a cardboard box tied to the roof of his old VW, his father seeks the assistance of family members. But they are all busy, and he ends up doing the job himself.

Korman is careful to say that the story is based on reality, more than truth, though the image of his father driving the dead dog around stems from his childhood. But the journey is actually the father’s, as he moves from being strong and independent into more fragile older age.

“It’s really depressing,” says Korman, describing both the feedback he’s been receiving and his own attraction to somber subjects.

Korman hopes to meet with producers to find funding for a feature film. In the meantime, he’s thrilled that all Directors’ Fortnight films will also be shown in Paris, Brussels and other cities, giving “The Death of Shula” additional exposure.

Pathways still

“Pathways” was written and directed by Korman’s friend and fellow Minshar graduate Hagar Ben-Asher, 28, who also stars in the film. It depicts the story of a young, sexually provocative woman who returns to her Israeli village and begins acting out. In the end, she brings on her own punishment in the form of a rape.

Ben-Asher wants her films to confront people, to make them think about subjects they otherwise wouldn’t consider. At the same time, she says she feels guilty about doing this. She spent a year working on this “very personal” 20-minute film. “It was hell, but it was great,” she says.

“Pathways” will be shown on May 25, and, afterward, Ben-Asher hopes to meet with producers interested in funding her next project, a feature film.

“It is the same character only 15 years later,” she says. “Now she is a mother.”

Your Younger Daughter Rachel still

The third Israeli student film, “Your Younger Daughter Rachel,” is by writer/director Efrat Corem, 28. The movie, a 30-minute graduation project for the Negev’s Sapir College, chronicles 24 hours in the life of 16-year-old Rachel. The teenager lives in Ashkelon with her mother and father, an unemployed housepainter who becomes increasingly violent the longer he is not working.

The film, which was screened on May 23, is shot more documentary style, mixing fiction with reality and employing nonactors. Corem is committed to making movies about the people in her southern community who are surrounded by unemployment, poverty and crime.

“I feel responsible to them,” she says. “They are the forgotten people of Israel.”

Corem hopes to make contacts at Cannes to enable her to finance her next project, a feature film she is already working on. It’s about different people but concerns the same point of view. “It’s like you go next door,” she says.

Two other Israeli films premiered in Cannes in top competitions. “The Band’s Visit,” written and directed by Eran Kolirin, is about a small Egyptian police band that comes to Israel to perform at an Arab cultural center’s opening but mistakenly finds itself lost overnight in a small, almost forgotten desert town. The film, still seeking distribution, was screened in the Un Certain Regard competition.

Making its international debut in the Official Selection was “Tehilim,” by French director Raphael Nadjari. The film, shot in Hebrew, tells the story of an observant Jerusalem family that must cope after an automobile accident in which the father mysteriously disappears.

For student filmmaker Korman, the rooftop bar finally begins serving alcohol and he drinks a beer.

“I am thrilled like a 3-year-old to be here,” he says. “Every day I am entering theaters, and I am shaking.”

Korman then makes his way back down to the Croisette, putting on his knitted cap as he joins the throngs and heads off to a screening of the French feature, “Dreams of the Night Before.”

Three Israeli entries vie for honors at 60th Cannes International Film Festival

With three Israeli films competing at this year’s 60th Cannes International Film Festival, running May 16-27, as well as several Israeli student films, Israel Film Fund director Katriel Schory credits the country’s success to the “strength and power of our stories.”

The number of Israeli works in the competition this year is a major accomplishment, considering that more than 1,650 submissions were vying for a screening. Schory believes the credit goes to the stories and directors, as well as to the reputation gained by Israeli producers as professionals able to deliver films on budget, on time and with a quality threshold.

Israel will be represented in the main competition — alongside movies by filmmakers such as the Coen brothers and David Fincher — with “Tehilim,” from French Israeli director Raphael Nadjari. Made at “the last minute with little money,” the film tells of 17-year-old Menachem Frankel, who is eager to leave his Jerusalem home and experience youthful adventures, despite the disapproval of his father, who wishes to mold Menachem into a serious, devout adult. But when his father disappears after an accident, Menachem, who thought he could forge his own way in the world, struggles to deal with the loss — and in the process is forced to grow up.

The film stars Israeli actors Michael Moshonov, Sasson Gabai and Ronit Elkabetz.

Competing in the Camera d’Or category is Eran Kolirin’s “Orchestra Visit,” a film initiated by Schory’s Film Fund from a five-page synopsis. Also starring Gabai and Elkabetz, “Orchestra Visit” is set in the late 1990s and tells the story of an Egyptian police band invited to give a concert at the dedication of an Israeli-Egyptian cultural center, but as a result of several misunderstandings, ends up spending the night at a remote Israeli desert town, hosted by a local kiosk owner.

“It’s about human relations; it’s very heartwarming,” said Schory, who helped shepherd the film over the course of three years. “Two sections in Cannes wanted it and fought for it because it’s a beautiful, small, sensitive film.”

“Jellyfish,” or “Meduzot” in Hebrew, from hip Israeli writer Etgar Keret and his wife and actress, Shira Geffen, tells the stories of three different women in Tel Aviv: a waitress lost in life, a newlywed and a Filipino caretaker brokering a difficult family situation. The film offers a “very special and different flavor” of the city, said Schory. “Each woman is in her own world, with a bit of loneliness and melancholy.”

“This country is full of stories, some of them very powerful, with tremendous energy,” said Schory, who has been producing films for more than 30 years. “That, with the talent of young Israeli directors who really mastered and learned how to tell their stories in a way that communicates with the audiences.

“It took a long time to re-introduce Israeli cinema,” Schory said. “Six or seven years ago, I had to chase all the directors of the festival in the corridors and beg them to come and see Israeli movies. Now it’s the other way around.”

‘Beggars’ Can Be Choosers

The scene and the babel of voices was half Tel Aviv and half Hollywood at the Writers Guild Theater last Sunday for the world premiere of “The King of Beggars.”

One notable aspect was that “King” is not only a new Israeli film, but the first to open not in its homeland but in Los Angeles, which is also known for producing occasional movies.

There were some other firsts, as Israeli Consul General Ehud Danoch and Public Affairs Consul Gilad Millo proudly announced. “King of Beggars” has the added distinction of being the first Israeli film post-produced in Hollywood and the first world premiere to be hosted by the local Israeli consulate.

Based on the character of Fishke der Krumer (Fishke the Lame) created by the great Hebrew and Yiddish writer Mendele Mocher Sforim, the film follows the adventures of Fishke from humble bathhouse attendant in a 16th century Russian shtetl to leader of a fighting brigade of Jewish outcasts.

Fishke is a reluctant warrior who would rather study Torah than fight. But goaded by Polish and Cossack pogroms, he organizes his ragged band into a fierce fighting force.

There are some fine set scenes of battles, a la “Braveheart,” with Fishke wielding the tree branches used to whip bathhouse customers like a sword and spear.

Attending the premiere were rugged, long-haired actor Shahar Sorek, who triples as star, co-producer and fight choreographer, and director-writer Uri Paster. Co-executive producer is Jerry’s Deli owner Ike Starkman.

Joining the hundreds of guests at the cookie-laden refreshment tables after the show was Israeli American actor Oded Fehr, soon to star as a Muslim terrorist leader in the Showtime TV series, “Sleeper Cell.”

For additional information about the film, visit www.kingofbeggars.com.