Michal and I eagerly look forward to the Jerusalem Film Festival, held every summer in Israel’s capital. This year was no exception. When possible, we try to book an extended stay in this unique city, to see many films and to enjoy the cool nights with which Jerusalem is blessed. Yes, it’s hot during the daytime, but each evening the temperature drops to the point that a wrap or a sweater comes in handy.
This year we stayed three nights at the Dan Boutique Hotel, conveniently located between the Cinematheque (where most films were shown) and the Yes Planet multiplex. But our first film was something very special, unrelated to the Festival. We had been invited to visit the studio of JerusalemU, located in the Old City. Friends joined us as we wended our way through the narrow alleys of the Armenian Quarter to the Jewish Quarter, which quickly led to Hurva Square.
There, we waited by a replica of the huge Menorah which stood before the Holy Temple, facing the splendid Hurva Synagogue [Hurva means “ruin”], which is one of the most fascinating buildings in the Old City. “During the War of Independence in 1948, the synagogue was bombed by the Jordanian soldiers. Its reconstruction began after the Six-Day War, when the Jews came back to live in the Jewish Quarter. [Many of you who have visited Jerusalem may remember the lonely arch which preceded the reconstruction and symbolized the Jewish Quarter’s destruction]. However, the synagogue was officially reopened only in 2010 [after undergoing] a major renovation during which the building’s ancient beauty and original splendor was restored.” It’s well worth making a reservation to tour this magnificent synagogue.
Soon we were met by Aaron Rosenberg of JerusalemU. He took us through a circuitous but short route to the organization’s new headquarters in Jerusalem, located in a modernized, several story building which fits 45 young, motivated employees and interns. Their mission: to strengthen the connection of young Jews to their Jewish identity and to Israel, using transformational educational films and media. JerusalemU’s reach extends to Netflix, YouTube, college and high school campuses, community events and film screenings – and more. Look for JerusalemU screenings in your area.
We had already seen several of their efforts, including Beneath the Helmet, Mekonen: the Journey of an African Jew, Hummus, and Crossing the Line, all of which were educational, engrossing, and very professional. After meeting some of the employees and touring the studio, we watched their latest release, When the Smoke Clears. This documentary, which is currently on the film festival circuit around the world, is about the efforts of war-damaged IDF veterans to heal themselves. It was extremely affecting, to say the least.
A review by a young woman in Louisiana states: “I loved getting a new perspective on the Israeli army and what life looks like after sustaining an injury in the IDF. I am always looking to gain more knowledge and strengthen my ties to Israel and these films do just that. [When the Smoke Clears] just displayed one more aspect of Israeli society that I am proud to learn about and stand by.” As to the impact that JerusalemU’s efforts engender, 94% of viewers have more pride in Israel, 93% have a greater sense of pride in the Jewish people, 90% have a greater understanding of Israeli society and values, 88% feel more connected to Israelis, and 81% are more proud to be Jewish. Wow! (www.jerusalemu.org)
After a delicious lunch in the Old City, we saw our first of the festival’s films, made in Kazakstan: The Gentle Indifference of the World. I gave this film a grade of C. It was interesting because of the unfamiliar society in which it took place, but it didn’t make a big impression. (Some of my readers may remember that I was a movie critic in Atlantic City during the late 1970s and early 1980s, before one could look up everything about films on the Internet.)
After a pleasant dinner with friends at the First Station entertainment and eating venue, located in Jerusalem’s original train station, we saw Euphoria, an Italian film about a wealthy, successful, and somewhat decadent businessman’s relationship with his older, more intellectual brother who suffered from a brain tumor. I rate this film a B, engrossing but not compelling.
The next morning we saw an exceptional film, Mirai, definitely rated “A.” It’s a spectacularly animated Japanese film about family life, mostly from the viewpoint of the 4-year-old son who has just become a big brother. Discovering a magical gateway in the family garden, he episodically sees his parents and baby sister at different stages in their lives. The insights he gains through these adventures enables him to learn to love and accept his baby sister, who has necessarily taken away some of the attention he was used to receiving from his parents.
With our friends, we then took a cab to the Mahane Yehuda shuk (market), which was packed with locals and loads of tourists, as is usual every Friday. After waiting for an hour in two different restaurants, we were eventually served in a small, unique establishment where the line to the counter was held up periodically until there was a table available. In the end, we had an economical, delicious lunch, which included kube (dumpling) soup, Israeli salad, pickles, hummus, pita, chopped meat, and stuffed vegetables.
The early evening film was Aga, which I rate a C, again for its setting, this time in the Arctic Circle. There was almost no dialogue and almost no action, but, what can you expect from a story about a couple living scores of miles from anyone, in a hut made of hides?
Our film the next morning was another animated effort, set in a Japanese city: Isle of Dogs. (This film is showing in the US.) Wes Anderson’s entrancing film was a great crowd favorite, which shows the lengths the young protagonist Atari goes to, to find his pet and free the city’s dogs from their exile in the city’s dump. With its A rating, Isle of Dogs was the second animated film we saw which viewers of all ages would enjoy.
Next was a documentary, The Price of Everything. This engrossing, inside view of the art world includes fascinating comments from a delightful, very Jewish “billionaire” collector, a very individualistic older artist, and various art dealers, auction house representatives, and art critics. The filmmaker is Nathaniel Kahn, whose documentary My Architect is now on my “must see” list. Definitely, an A rating.
Later, we saw another great documentary, Hal, this one about the career of filmmaker Hal Ashby, a nonconformist who made some of the greatest films of the 1960s-1970s. He advanced quickly from his first job in Hollywood (obtained through the local employment office), and relatively soon earned an Oscar nomination as the editor of The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming. His big break came the next year in 1968, when he won the Oscar for In the Heat of the Night. With comments by many Hollywood people, notably Norman Jewison (who isn’t Jewish), we learn how his unique style, and his quasi-hippy lifestyle, led to his success and then to his inevitable downfall. Ashby’s list of hits includes The Landlord, Shampoo, and The Last Detail. Another A rating for this inside look at Hollywood.
Sunday morning we saw a German thriller, The State I’m In, which was an interesting drama about a couple on the run, accompanied by their rebellious teenage daughter. The audience never knows from whom they are fleeing or the exact cause of it, but there’s little doubt how it will end, at least as far as the criminal parents are concerned. I rate it a solid B.
Two Israeli documentaries were the final films we attended. The first, My War Hero Uncle, was an affecting story about a nephew’s search to discover why his grandmother, the mother of the eponymous uncle, was not entitled to the usual help extended to parents of a soldier struck down in war. Through extensive research, he discovers the truth behind his uncle’s life and death, which explains the lack of the expected assistance. In the end he spares his grandmother from the disappointing truth, but unveils his own secret (not unexpected in both cases) to her. Another excellent, A-rated film.
We were a little anxious about the last of our films, a documentary about Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu: King Bibi. Why our anxiety? Because of the inclination of Israeli filmmakers to bash anyone or anything in Israel that doesn’t meet their very liberal, sometimes intolerant, expectations. Happily, we found this film engrossing and balanced, with no apparent axe to grind by the filmmaker.
The film documents a fascinating look at Bibi’s career, from the family’s move to the Philadelphia area while he was a teenager, to his brother’s death at Entebbe and Bibi’s own military service, to his discovery by Moshe Arens and his initial political successes, and to his later success as prime minister, now very close to equalling David ben-Gurion’s longevity as Israel’s top politician. A “warts and all” presentation of a very controversial figure. Rating: A.
What was most enjoyable this year was the high ratio of excellent films and the lack of any terrible ones, which is sometimes the case. We love being in Jerusalem, enjoying meals (several at the excellent Cinematheque cafe) in between films with friends, and just soaking up Jerusalem’s wonderful atmosphere. We look forward to next year’s festival, just one of Israel’s many attractions which visitors and locals have the privilege to enjoy.