Why We’re in a Golden Age For Israeli Cinema — And Politics Has Nothing To Do With It

Hugging the port of Cannes on either side of the Grand Palais du Festival is Village International, a colony of national pavilions, each promoting their own homegrown fare. This year, for the very first time in the history of the festival, Israel set up its own pavilion, right alongside China’s, whose red flag waged vigorously alongside Israel’s blue and white.

The decision to have a national pavilion clearly has to do with the increasing prominence of Israeli cinema at the festival. While there hasn’t been an Israeli film in competition here since Joseph Ceder’s “Footnote,” which scooped up the award for Best Screenplay in 2011 (that prize this year went to Asghar Farhadi’s intense “The Salesman”), Cannes has launched many hits in Israel’s exciting new wave of films, including Shlomi and Ronit Elkabetz’s “Gett,” Shira Geffen’s “Self Made” and Nadav Lapid’s “The Kindergarten Teacher.”

The 69th installment of the world’s most glamorous film festival, which wrapped up Sunday with the Palme d’Or going to the welfare drama “I, Daniel Blake” by the 79-year-old Brit Ken Loach, known for his kitchen sink realism, featured far more Israeli titles than the 2015 festival.

Of the dozen Israel films — shorts and features — spread over six of the festival’s main and supplementary sections, the highest profile were Arab-Israeli director Maha Haj’s feature debut, “Personal Affairs” and Eran (“The Band’s Visit”) Kolirin’s “Beyond the Mountains and Hills,” which both screened in “Un Certain Regard,” the dressed-down younger sibling to the main competition.

Alas, both Haj and Kolirin walked away empty-handed when UCR announced its prizes on Saturday night (the top prizes went to the Finnish boxing tragicomedy “The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki” and Matt Ross’ “Captain Fantastic”). But there were honors for Israeli films as well. Asaph Polonsky’s debut feature “One Week and A Day,” (Shavua ve’yom) screened in the Critic’s Week sidebar, where it took the Gan Foundation Award for Distribution, a 20,000 euro prize to the film’s French distributor (Sophie Dulac, in this case) to come up with marketing strategies for getting the film a release within the next two years.

It’s fun to brainstorm about how best to market “One Week and A Day” for a French audience. Here are the best taglines I’ve come up with: “Le Shiva était Seulement le Débout,” (“The Shiva was Just the Beginning”), and “La Douleur, La Marijuana et La Guitare de l’Air” (“Grief, Marijuana and Air Guitar”).

Polonsky’s feature length debut is surprisingly not the very first shiva comedy. That distinction belongs to Shawn Levy’s 2014 “This Is Where I Leave You,” which starred Jason Bateman, Jane Fonda, Tina Fey and Adam Driver. Unlike that tepidly received flick, “One Week and a Day” relies on carefully constructed situations and deadpan observations, rather than star power.

As the shiva for his son Ronnie ends, Eyal Spivak and his wife Vicky make a painfully awkward transition back to their regularly scheduled lives. Polonsky never explicitly divulges the son’s cause of death, but the medical marijuana that Eyal inherits when he returns to the hospice to look for his son’s blanket suggests cancer. One of the film’s running jokes is that everyone Eyal asks about the blanket can describe it in precise detail, only to disappoint him by not knowing where it is. The multicolored covering that we hear about but never see may suggest that Eyan is a modern day Jacob mourning his Joseph.

Eyal’s grief takes erratic, unexpected forms, like increasing hostility to his next-door neighbors, the Zoolers. In one of the first scenes, they pay a condolence call just as the Spivaks are getting up from the shiva. They bring a salad, which Eyal brusquely snatches while announcing that he doesn’t eat cucumbers. Without removing the Saran Wrap, he throws the glass bowl into the garbage. A little while later, he screams at the neighbors for having loud sex and, after knocking at Ms. Zooler’s door to confront her about it, slaps the neighbor in her face. At the same time, Eyal unexpectedly bonds with their son, a scruffy lay-about who works as a sushi delivery guy. After proving an utter failure at rolling a joint — a hilarious scene involving papers, pot and a gummy worm — the father recruits Zooler fils to get him high. The two get massively stoned and Zooler reveals his secret passion, Air Guitar, tearing up the Spivak’s living room to the song “Star Quality” by the Tel Aviv heavy rock duo Carusella. In his baked stupor, Eyal neglects to call the cemetery to reserve the two plots next to his son for his wife and himself, preferring instead to play with kittens and go to the beach. Fortunately, however, the film never devolves into a stoner comedy and Polonsky draws things to an unexpectedly poignant close with a graveside epiphany during a funeral that Eyal and Zooler have crashed.

With its offbeat, deadpan tone, “One Week and a Day” is reminiscent of Shira Geffen’s work, so when I met Polonsky at the Majestic hotel along the Croisette for a quick coffee between screenings, I was not surprised to learn that “Jellyfish,” Geffen’s Camera d’Or-winning debut (which she directed with her husband, the author Etgar Keret, in 2007) is one of his all-time favorites. The Majestic lobby was abuzz with the usual festival commotion, everyone so wrapped up in schmoozing than no one noticed Asghar Farhadi as he arrived to check into his suite. Polonsky himself confessed, somewhat sheepishly, that he’s actually into air guitar, having attended the semi-finals in L.A., where he studied directed at the American Film Institute (AFI) Conservatory and currently lives. U.S.-born and Israel-bred, Polonsky has been making film since the age of 15, when he began to learn filmmaking at his high school. He continued during his military service, he was in a film unit. After the army, he worked on music videos in Israel and made several independently produced short films, most recently Samnang, his AFI thesis film, which screened at the 2013 New York Film Festival.

After 10 years in L.A., Polonsky moved back to Israel for a year and a half to film “One Week and A Day.” He told me that he enjoyed writing again in Hebrew and he praised the country’s film scene. “In the last 15 years especially, Israeli cinema is just getting bigger and more diverse,” he said between sips of overpriced espresso. Polonsky has spent roughly equal amounts of time in both countries (his family made Aliya when he was 8), and he seems to embrace both his American and Israeli sides equally. While it’s back to L.A. for the time being (he has a few projects in the works), he said he’d like to make more films in Israel. “It will be difficult to work in both places, but I hope it’s possible,” he said.

One of the refreshing things about the new crop of Israeli films has been the confidence it has shown in not being overtly political. This is a quality that “One Week and A Day” shares with Kolirin’s “The Exchange” (2011) and the above-mentioned “Kindergarten Teacher.” “I’m telling a story about a day in the lives of these characters and how they react differently to grief. It’s a day without politics,” Polonsky explained.

In a similar way, one could say that Cannes this year was a festival without politics, which was a mixed blessing. Unlike its slightly younger brother, the Berlinale, which awarded this year’s top prize to Gianfranco Rosi’s urgent refugee documentary “Fuocoammare,” most of the main films here were about glamor, rock ‘n’ roll or simply fêting the auteurs of world cinema. With precious few exceptions, everyone seemed to be having too much fun to tackle the hot-button topics of the day.

Cannes was founded in 1946, in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War and one of its missions ever since has been to foster understanding between peoples and nations, which is why, although politics often fall by the wayside, political correctness is taken dead seriously. I was thus relieved to learn that the Israeli Pavilion’s inaugural appearance at Cannes was entirely without incident, be it hostility from other national pavilions or calls for boycotting Israeli productions. But Israel’s presence at Village International went blessedly undisturbed by political agitation. (Dismayingly, the Palme d’Or-winning Ken Loach is one of the most vocal supporters of a cultural boycott of Israel; last year, he signed a petition against the London Israeli Film and Television Festival, along with fellow British — and Jewish — filmmaker Mike Leigh).

Dedicated to the actress and filmmaker Ronit Elkabetz, who died earlier this year, the pavilion’s line-up included lectures, presentations and panels on topics such as Israeli documentaries, animation and technology. The pavilion also distributed a promotional glossy with information about the countries’ main film academies, film funds, festivals and cinematheques, as well as profiles of directors as diverse as the Egyptian-born Moshe Mizrahi, best-known for the Oscar-nominated “House of Chelouche Street” (1973) and the Georgian-born Dover Koshashvili, whose 2001 debut “Late Marriage” broke box office records in Israel and has been seen as helping to ushering in Israeli’s new wave.

In his editorial to the festival publication, the pavilion’s artistic director Rafael Barbibay unexpectedly quoted Rav Kook. When asked to consecrate the Bezalel Academy of Arts in Jerusalem, Kook came up with the following benediction, “May the old be renewed and the new hallowed.” In that spirit, I conclude my dispatches from this year’s installment with the words, leshana haba beCannes habenuya.

A.J.Goldmann is a Berlin-based freelance writer.

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Why We’re in a Golden Age For Israeli Cinema — And Politics Has Nothing To Do With It

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