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Jerusalem Film Festival Opens, Offering a Bit of Sanity in a City on Edge

From surfing in Gaza to the New Wave in France, plenty of offerings help Israelis escape reality for a spell

Tal Kra-Oz
July 18, 2017
Still from the film 'Born in Deir Yassin'
Still from the film ‘Born in Deir Yassin’
Still from the film 'Born in Deir Yassin'
Still from the film ‘Born in Deir Yassin’

The Book of Jeremiah tells us that the Valley of Hinnom in Jerusalem, just south-west of the Old City walls, is where idolaters would “pass their sons and daughters through the fire”, in worship of Moloch. The Valley of Hinnom, Gei ben-Hinnom, Gehenna: in Jewish tradition, the site and origin of hell. Jerusalem remains a city of needless sacrifice, but since 1981 the Valley of Hinnom has been the picturesque home of the Jerusalem Cinematheque, a sanctuary of normalcy and, to the city’s dwindling secular population, as sacred a site as any mosque, church, or synagogue. During the ten days of the annual Jerusalem Film Festival, Gehenna becomes heaven on earth. The festival’s 34th edition kicked off last Thursday.

I spent the past weekend at the festival. Escaping the humidity of Tel Aviv for the crisp coolness of evenings in the Cinematheque’s garden may seem odd when you consider that it is barely half a mile from the Temple Mount, where two Israeli policemen were shot and killed on Friday morning. That attack led to a lockdown on the entire Old City, which is still under way as I write this. So if you’re looking for escapism, try Cannes, Venice, or Berlin. The Jerusalem Film Festival offers something far more important: sanity.

Take Born in Deir Yassin, for instance. Saturday afternoon marked the Israeli premiere of this haunting, sobering documentary by Neta Shoshani. In April 1948, Deir Yassin – an Arab village to the west of Jerusalem – was the site of an assault by the underground militias Irgun and Lehi. The precise details of the attack are debated to this day, but it is virtually undisputed that scores of unarmed men, women and children were killed there, alongside armed fighters. In the film, former militiamen, now in their eighties and nineties, recount what they saw and did at Deir Yassin; some with self-satisfaction, others with despair. Many seem to suffer from some form of PTSD. In her research Shoshani uncovered plenty of heretofore unknown information, but her film is not an attempt to reveal the truth about Deir Yassin. That village is no more: it has become Kfar Shaul, a psychiatric hospital. “Victims left and victims arrived,” as someone says in the movie, and the stories of both groups echo each other throughout. Born in Deir Yassin forgoes finger pointing in favor of a deeply moving exercise in empathy.

Despite my best efforts, I can only graze the surface of the 180-odd films in the festival program. Still, it has already provided me with a wealth of unforgettable images, from movies both Israeli and foreign. One such image: the indefatigable entrepreneur played by Shady Srour, perched at the top of Nazareth’s Mount Precipice, bottling holy air, which he then peddles to Christian pilgrims (Srour also wrote and directed the film). Holy Air, which is mostly in Arabic, is as loving a portrait as one could hope for of this place.

I know I won’t forget Menashe, the eponymous hero of the new Yiddish-language drama, played by Menashe Lustig, walking the streets of Brooklyn with his son Rieven. Menashe, a hassid, is newly widowed, and refuses his rabbi’s entreaties that he remarry. The price Menashe must pay for his independent streak: Rieven is to live with his uncle. That Menashe avoids cliché and succeeds in sketching sympathetic portraits of all of its characters, are some of its many strengths (it will be released in the United States on July 28).

Perhaps the most surprisingly beautiful film I saw at the festival was Gaza Surf Club, about the young (and the not-so-young) men and women of Gaza with a passion for surfing, circumstances–fundamentalist rule, poverty, operation Protective Edge–be damned. The Endless Summer, but with rubble and rebar foregrounding the magnificent waves of the southern coastal plain. A German production, Gaza Surf Club mainly steers clear of politics, but its uplifting message of redemption through the waves is ultimately a political one.

The festival’s organizers avoided politics altogether on Thursday night’s opening ceremony, at the open-air Sultan’s Pool just west of the Cinematheque. In recent years, the ceremony has drawn more attention for controversial Culture Minister Miri Regev’s trolling of the audience than for the films actually screened. Last year she called the hecklers “a Trojan horse full of hate and contempt for the State of Israel,” and recently threatened Tel Aviv’s cultural institutions that they should prepare to hurt soon, as she shifts government funds to the country’s periphery. This year’s opening night film was Redoubtable, the Jean-Luc Godard biopic by Michel Hazanavicius (Oscar winner for The Artist). Hazanavicius was in attendance, but Regev was not. Instead of speeches by politicians, short pre-recorded vignettes were screened: President Rivlin and his wife Nechama, both festival regulars, greeted the audience, and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat spoke of his childhood favorite, West Side Story. When Miri Regev waxed poetic about Operation Thunderbolt, the Israeli action flick about the raid on Entebbe, the audience reacted as if they’d just heard Haman’s name at a megillah reading. After the crowd had settled down, the French actor Louis Garrel, who plays Godard in the film, quipped, “I hope you will not like the film the way you like Miri Regev.”

The Jerusalem Film Festival runs until Sunday, July 23rd, at the Jerusalem Cinematheque and at venues across the city, including outdoor screenings in both Arab and Jewish neighborhoods.

Tal Kra-Oz is a writer based in Tel Aviv.

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