Top Israeli films at festival

FORTY-three of the best films and documentaries from Israel, Europe, America and Canada will feature in this year’s Jewish International Film Festival (JIFF), which opens on October 29 in Sydney and on November 5 in Melbourne.

Festival director Eddie Tamir says the festival, now in its third year under his leadership, has become bigger each year and this year will screen a special condensed program in Perth, the Gold Coast and Auckland in November.

“There has been a lot of demand to hold a film festival in Perth, the Gold Coast and Auckland, so we will screen eight or nine films in each city,” he says.

Earlier this year Tamir made his annual trip to the Cannes Film Festival and the Docaviv International Documentary Film Festival in Tel Aviv where he watched hundreds of new films.

“In Cannes there was a record number of Israeli films, which reflects the strength of the Israeli film industry. It’s pleasing to see that the Israeli contingent at Cannes gets bigger every year.”

JIFF’s opening night film is Gett, The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, a divorce drama by Israeli sister-brother co-directors Ronit Elkabetz (who also co-stars) and Shlomi Elkabetz which has just won two Ophir Awards – the annual prizes of the Israel Academy of Film and Television, also known as the Israeli Oscars – for best film and best supporting actor.

The Ophir success means the film is set to become Israel’s official foreign language entry at the 2015 Oscars.

Gett, The Trial of Viviane Amsalem takes place in a rabbinical courtroom where a wife is begging her husband to grant her a divorce. The story unfolds over five years as Viviane Amsalem (Ronit Elkabetz) and her lawyer Carmel (Menashe Noy) try every possible legal manoeuvre to persuade the court to compel her stubborn husband Elisha (Simon Abkarian) to grant her a gett.

Gett, The Trial of Viviane Amsalem won an Ophir Award for best supporting actor for Sasson Gabai for his performance as a rabbi representing his brother before the court.

“Gett has been made with great panache and has received excellent reviews,” says Tamir, who saw the film during the Cannes Directors’ Fortnight.

Also screening at JIFF is the other big winner from the Ophir Awards, director Talya Lavie’s Zero Motivation, a comedy-drama set around a group of young female Israeli soldiers who work in the human resources office of a remote desert base.

Amidst their boredom and clashing personalities, issues of commitment to friendship, love and Israel are handled with humour and sharp-edged wit.

Zero Motivation won six Ophir Awards including best director for Lavie and best actress for Dana Ivgi.

Another film that created excitement in Cannes was The Go-Go Boys: The Inside Story of Cannon Films, a documentary about two Israelis, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, who took Hollywood by storm, producing more than 300 films and turning Cannon Films into a major independent film company.

The documentary examines the relationship between the cousins as they created the Hollywood action-adventure genre through films such as Delta Force, Death Wish and Cobra.

“The Go-Go Boys traces their pathway from the Israeli film industry to Hollywood with typical Israeli energy and chutzpah,” says Tamir.

Golan was in Cannes in May for the film’s premiere, but died in August in Jaffa aged 85.

Steven Spielberg’s sister, Nancy Spielberg, produced the American film Above and Beyond that is set during the 1948 War of Independence when a group of World War II fighter pilots from America and South Africa volunteered to fight for Israel using planes left behind in Europe by the German army .

These pilots became known as the “Machal” and this Israeli film tells the little-known history of the scavenging and deal-making that made the fledgling air force a powerful military machine.

In 1998, six weeks before being crowned Miss World, Israeli beauty Linor Abargil was raped at knifepoint. The documentary Brave Miss World follows her as she tours America, Europe and South Africa to meet other victims of rape, including Joan Collins and Fran Drescher, encouraging women to speak out.

Supported by her family, Abargil tries to find purpose in what happened to her, eventually drifting away from her modelling career to find comfort in religion.

Brave Miss World was nominated for a 2014 Emmy Award.

In 1945 a young soldier came into possession of a suitcase filled with private letters, documents, journals and photographs belonging to Heinrich Himmler, the architect of the Nazis’ Final Solution. The documentary The Decent One uses archival footage of Himmler growing up in the 1920s with Adolf Hitler and divulges the contents of letters to and from Himmler’s wife, daughter and mistress, to provide a chilling insight into the notorious war criminal.

This Austrian-German-Israeli co-production was named best documentary at the 2014 Jerusalem Film Festival.

Nadav Schirman’s The Green Prince, a documentary about the relationship between Mosab Hassan Yousef, the son of a Hamas leader who became an informant for Israel, and Gonen Ben-Yitzhak, his former Shin Bet handler, won an Ophir Award for best documentary. It is a gripping account of two adversaries and the personal toll that their moral choices have on them.

The Dove Flyer, based on a book of the same name, covers the final years of the Jewish community in Baghdad in the 1950s before its expulsion to Israel. The film portrays an Iraqi family that had strong ties to the surrounding Muslim world and Arabic culture, yet at the same time feared for its safety.

Anyone who loves the stories of Sholom Aleichem and his Yiddish characters of shtetl life will enjoy Theodore Bikel: In the Shoes of Sholom Aleichem, narrated by veteran actor Alan Alda, which is a mix of acting, storytelling, music and biography. It features stories, songs and monologues by 90-year-old actor Theodore Bikel, who is regarded as the greatest living performer of Sholom Aleichem’s work.

The Farewell Party is an off-beat comedy about life, death and friendship set around Ezekiel and his friends at a Jerusalem retirement home who build a euthanasia machine to help a terminally ill friend.

When rumours of the machine begin to spread, more and more people ask for their help, and the group is faced with an emotional, ethical dilemma.

Veteran Israeli performer Ze’ev Revach won the Ophir Award for best actor in the film for his role as Ezekiel.

In the documentary Etgar Keret: What Animal Are You?, the celebrated Israeli writer Etgar Keret heads to New York on a whirlwind book tour.

During the trip Keret meets with notable New Yorkers including writer Nathan Englander and Ira Glass, and reflects on his own illustrious career as a writer.

The documentary The Outrageous Sophie Tucker covers the early days of the iconic vaudeville superstar’s career in America in the 1920s. Nicknamed “The Last of the Red Hot Mamas”, Tucker was born into an Orthodox Jewish family. Her blues-infused songs, sexual innuendo, charisma and irreverent humour catapulted her to stardom.

Tamir says there are many new Holocaust-themed films being produced around the world, and while some such as Night Will Fall will screen at JIFF, a large selection will be screened at the Holocaust Film Series (HFS) in March next year.

“The inaugural HFS was more successful than we expected, so we will have more than 30 films and documentaries at next year’s event,” he says.

The Jewish International Film Festival will be held in Sydney from October 29 to November 16; in Melbourne from November 5-23; Gold Coat and Perth on November 15, 16 and 23, and Auckland on November 16 and 23. Bookings:

REPORT by Danny Gocs

PHOTO from the Israeli film, Zero Motivation.