As dusk fell onto Sultan’s Pool amphitheatre, the venue began to overflow—not with the Herodian waters of antiquity, but with producers, directors, actors, and thousands of cinephiles, who had assembled in the the valley beneath the Old City for the opening night ceremony of the 33rd Jerusalem Film Festival. The obvious advantage of this particular open-air venue is that even if the movie selected to kick off the festival turns out to be a turkey, the views are still stunning. This year’s pick, Pedro Almodóvar’s Julieta, was thankfully no turkey.
The antics preceeding Almodovar’s latest film rivaled its soapiest moments. Miri Regev, Israel’s Minister of Culture and the former chief spokesperson of the IDF who spent much of the past year bickering with the country’s artists and filmmakers, was cheered when she announced a fund designed to incentivize movies shot in the south of the country. (A similar fund has been a smash hit, backing 70 productions over seven years, including Natalie Portman’s A Tale of Love and Darkness.) But Regev’s speech was often punctuated by loud booing, particularly when she invoked, seemingly out of nowhere, the recent terror wave in Israel, and the murder of 13-year-old Hallel Yaffe Ariel. “It’s so easy to tell when you’ll applaud and when you’ll boo,” she scolded the crowd. “You’re so predictable.” Later, on Facebook, she wrote that “it suddenly became clear that this elitist group [of hecklers] is a Trojan horse full of hate and contempt for the State of Israel.”
But the festival was quick to rebound with its rich selection of over 200 films from around the world, which will screen at Jerusalem Cinematheque and other venues around the city through the festival’s closing on July 17.
As has been the case in recent years, this is the festival of choice for Israeli filmmakers looking to premiere their latest offerings. Nadav Lapid, whose sophomore effort The Kindergarten Teacher showed at the festival in 2014 and won high praise from American critics last year, returned with From the Diary of a Wedding Photographer. A quirky, 40-minute effort inspired by Lapid’s film-school years moonlighting as a wedding photographer, it brilliantly lambasts the wedding industry while asking deeper questions about love and companionship.
Two feature-length Israeli films I sampled were similarly impressive. Director Nir Bergman, perhaps Israel’s most distinct member of the New Sincerity movement, showed Saving Neta, a film about a sensitive man going through a rough patch in life who inadvertently changes the lives of four women, with their stories being told in four short vignettes.
Beyond the Mountains and Hills by Eran Kolirin (director of the beloved The Band’s Visit), tells the story of a dysfunctional family living in a Jerusalem suburb and is a sort of Israeli American Beauty. Alon Pdut as a recently retired careerist IDF officer now peddling dietary supplements in a pyramid scheme and Mili Eshet as his daughter who gravitates towards the Palestinians living in the village on the other side of the hill both give stand-out performances.
The selection of Israeli documentaries is just as strong. Pepe’s Last Battle is a film about Pepe Alalu, veteran member of the Jerusalem council for the liberal Meretz party and his ultimately quixotic attempt to run for mayor of Jerusalem against his nemesis Nir Barkat in 2013. I found it to be a deeply moving and entertaining take on family, and the sad state of the Israeli left-wing. The film is irected by Alalu’s son, Michael, and edited by Daphni Leef, who spearheaded the J14 social justice movement exactly five years ago.
Pepe’s Last Battle was an excellent companion piece to Weiner, a film about Anthony Weiner’s failed New York City mayoral run, which had its Israeli premiere in Jerusalem. Photo Faraj, about the Iraqi immigrants who built a photo store empire in Israel’s early years, and the brothers’ subsequent falling out, is a labor of love by Kobi Faraj, a member of the family’s second generation. The screening on Saturday afternoon managed to bring most of the surviving members of the Faraj clan into the same room for the first time in years.
The festival suffered on occasion from the balagan atmosphere that plagued it in earlier years, but most of the guests from abroad did not seem to mind its informalities. Chief amongst them was Quentin Tarantino, perhaps Israel’s favorite foreign director (said status firmly cemented by Inglorious Basterds), who was in town to collect a lifetime achievement award. Though he was one of the few people wearing a suit on opening night (and looking like a slightly heavier Mr. Brown from Reservoir Dogs), he received a round of applause the likes of which Regev could only dream of. And, when the credits began to roll on Julieta, he was whisked away to the Machane Yehuda market, where he sampled the local night life.
The next evening, Tarantino thanked a packed auditorium for coming out to see him on Shabbat, and sat for a Q&A. He’d been refusing selfies and autographs, but had been otherwise approachable to those random Israelis who wanted to tell him about the first time they saw Pulp Fiction and quoted “Zed’s dead, baby,” at him. He had shipped a sharp 35mm print of Pulp Fiction from his archives to the Cinematheque, and stayed to watch it with the audience. As powerful as some of the festival’s events have been, it was a 22-year-old film that received the most enthusiastic reactions of the first half of the festival. The screening ended after 2 a.m., and it was nearly dawn before I finally managed to fall asleep.
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Tal Kra-Oz is a writer based in Tel Aviv.