BiographyBook ReviewsJoin Mailing ListScheduled AppearancesArticlesFeedback


Oh What A Relief It Is!
by Judy Lash Balint
July 14, 2003

Israel's culture vultures are in seventh heaven--the 20th Jerusalem Film Festival has opened, lighting up the summer nights of the capital, and providing relief from the seemingly endless political and economic dramas that consume our lives here.

Every year around this time, the Cinematheque puts on a ten day extravaganza of Israeli and international films, shown on screens all over town from morning to late night. Until the outbreak of the current war, film personalities from all over the world would descend on Jerusalem, offering master classes and mingling with their industry counterparts. This year, a relatively small contingent of some fifty foreign film people have shown up. Most prominent among them is the Sundance Producers Conference group who conduct a two day semninar for local cinematographers.

But overall, the festival sets a tone of lightness and cultural festivity that spreads out from the Cinematheque in the Ben Hinnom Valley all over town. Along with the movies, there are nightly free events in the nearby Liberty Bell Park. Dubbed Moonlight Cinema, every night a different musical group starts the performance. A short dance presentation follows, then there's a short animated film and finally a feature film for those seated around the amphitheater.

Over at the courtyard of the Cinematheque, the free musical entertainment starts at 9:30 p.m. There's jazz, world music, Cuban rythms and reggae to entertain the hundred or so people who sit casually sipping beer and coffee around French bistro style tables and chairs just below the illuminated walls of the Old City.

Strings of orange lights snake down the valley enhacing the festive atmosphere--courtesy of the main corporate festival sponsor, Orange Communications.

The festival opening last week was an outdoor showing of Hero, a Chinese martial arts extravaganza. Six thousand film buffs filled the bleachers of Sultan's Pools to kick off the festival. The screening was preceeded by half an hour of speeches by dignatories, several of whom were booed by the largely left-wing secular crowd. The booing tradition started in 1996 when then Mayor Ehud Olmert showed up after he had gone along with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's decision to open up the exit to the Western Wall Tunnels. This year, it was newly-elected (Haredi) Mayor Uri Lupoliansky and Minister of Education, Culture and Sport Limor Livnat (Likud) who got the treatment.

The festival is good for business for the neighborhoods around all four cinemas used to screen movies. Crowds spill into the street before and after the showings, moving on to cafes and passing by shops that stay open late.

The festival is one of the only opportunities to see the work of Israeli film makers, and many Israeli fims compete for awards during the event. This means that screening schedules are way off, since the Oscar-like speeches from directors and stars alike tend to run over the time allotted.

Last night, James' Journey To Jerusalem, a much-hyped contender for the coveted Wolgin Award was screened. The South African lead actor didn't show, but his four co-stars were all in the audience, lapping up the extended applause for the film that depicts an African pilgrim's quest to reach Jerusalem, and the way he gets sidetracked through Israel's foreign worker world.

Such evenings are the closest thing Israel has to celebrity events. But here, the celebrities just mingle in the crowd--in such a small country, they're always running into friends and family anyway, so there's no attempt to isolate or protect entartainment personalities. In Israeli movie theaters, seats are always assigned, so having brought tickets early, I found myself sitting in the best seats in the house right behind one of the country's best-known male TV comedians and his companion.

Presiding over it all is the indefatigable and seemingly ageless Lia Van Leer, founder of the Cinematheque. Now well into her eighties, she flits among the guests wearing her trademark flowing linen outifts, white hair perfectly coiffed, conversing in one of the six languages she speaks.

In the halls of the Cinematheque, a photo exhibit of previous festivals is displayed. Lia and her late husband Wim are in almost every shot, along with an array of Israeli personalities. There's Shimon Peres in the 1970s before he became a dapper elder statesman, sporting a flamboyant spotted silk shirt and clashing patterned blazer.

In line for the bathrooms, three young Arab women stand chatting among the crush of people. This year only a few of the Israeli films at the festival deal with aspects of "the conflict."

Oh What A Relief It Is!