The 66th Berlin International Film Festival, or simply Berlinale as it is known here, unspooled with the international premiere of the Coen Brothers’ “Hail, Caesar!” a star-studded sendup of 1950s Hollywood, which is screening out of competition. After “True Grit” (which opened the Berlinale in 2011) and “Inside Llewyn Davis” (which took the Grand Prix at Cannes two years later), “Hail, Caesar!” is the latest in the string of notably non-Jewishy films that the duo has made since “A Serious Man,” which is a serious contender for the title “Jewiest film of all time” (in my opinion it made “Fiddler on the Roof” look like “Little House on the Prairie”).
But while the illustrious Brothers Coen are taking a break, this year’s Berlinale sees a proliferation of Jewish-themed films as well as Israeli productions. By far the largest of Europe’s major film festivals, the Berlinale hosts roughly 400 films over a dozen sections. After several years of being conspicuously absent, Israeli cinema is back with a vengeance at the Berlin Film Festival, featuring prominently in the “Internationale Forum des jungen Films” (“International Forum of New Films”), perhaps the most quirky and unpredictable of the Berlinale’s sections and “Panorama,” an auteur-driven section that caters more to mainstream tastes than the relentlessly cineaste “Forum.” In total ten Israeli productions feature on this year’s festival slate, representing the country in half of the Berlinale’s sections, including the short film showcase “Berlinale Shorts” and even the food-inspired sidebar “Culinary Cinema.”
Over the weekend, the prolific documentarian Tomer Heymann was back at the Berlinale with his latest, “Who’s Gonna Love Me Now?” about an HIV positive Israeli living in London and his attempts to reconcile with his religious family, who still live on the kibbutz that expelled him decades earlier.
This was his first festival appearance since “The Queen Has No Crown,” his 2011 study of his mother. Like “I Shot My Love,” Heymann’s loving — at times worshipful — 2010 portrait of his German boyfriend, Queen dealt candidly and courageously with uncomfortable issues (recalcitrant Jewish parents accepting their homosexual children and their German lovers), but the films also produced genuine discomfort by seeming both voyeuristic — much of the footage was handheld video — and borderline exhibitionist.
In “Who’s Gonna Love Me Now,” Heymann (co-directing along with his brother Barak) turns his camera away from himself or his family and the result is a stronger and more satisfying film than the director’s two previous Berlinale entries. Saar Maoz is a sweet and somewhat melancholic gay man who traded his intolerant family and kibbutz on the Israeli-Jordanian border for London at the age of 23. Now 40, he works full time at an Apple store and sings in the London Gay Men’s Chorus, whose members have become his surrogate family, supporting him through his illness when members of his Israeli family react with fear, judgment and disgust.
The film darts between London and Jerusalem, where Saar’s father, a former paratrooper, gives tours of Ammunition Hill as Saar and his parents reconnect on his turf or theirs. Sometimes, hilarity ensues, as when Saar takes his father for a coffee in London’s gay district and the father asks, with genuine bafflement, how to tell if the passersby are straight or gay. At others, the encounters are quietly sad, as when Saar cuts himself grating potatoes for latkes when his mother comes to spend Chanukah with him. “You definitely don’t want my blood in your food,” he tells her.
The British Film Institute was among the backers for “Who’s Gonna Love Me Now” and, the extra funding shows in the fluid digital cinematography, especially the slickly-shot performances of the London Gay Men’s Chorus that contribute to the film’s feel-good mood. The editing is top-notch, with memorable juxtapositions reinforcing the film’s main themes and concerns: Saar going for blood work followed by him putting on tefillin in a mitzvah mobile; Saar enduring his brother’s reproaches, contrasted with him marching in London Pride; Israeli soldiers touring Ammunition Hill and the men’s choir singing “Salve Regina.”
In the end, Saar decides to leave the life he has built in London behind and returns to Israel to be close to his large family and to work for an AIDS organization. It’s the sort of ending that would seem too convenient for a non-fiction film were it not for its bittersweet portrayal of Saar’s decision. It does however seem that the film has been a way for Saar to stay close to both his families; after the screening, Saar was joined onstage by his father (his Sabbath observant mother was also in town but had skipped the Saturday afternoon premiere) and a dozen members of the London Gay Men’s Chorus who had flown to the festival to support their former member and serenade the audience with a rendition of “Only You.”
A.J. Goldmann is a freelance journalist based in Berlin.