the israeli film festival, now in its 20th year, is just one chance that new yorkers have to glimpse the new israeli cinema, which continues to make inroads here despite the region’s political and economic upheavals. recent, critically admired commercial releases of the past year include ra’anan alexandrowicz’s biting satire, “james’ journey to jerusalem” — about an aspiring african priest’s religious pilgrimage to the land of traffic jams and shopping malls — and “broken wings,” director nir bergman’s poignant family melodrama.
But from bankrupt kibbutzniks to stateless Druze (Israel’s secretive Arab religious minority) to right-wing rap musicians and Russian-Jewish belly dancers, the 35 features, television dramas and documentaries in this annual event provide a panoramic showcase for that country’s complex and divided culture. Politics don’t dominate every entry here. The stalemated Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has long provided fodder for countless documentaries, doesn’t seem to be inspiring many of the country’s feature filmmakers (though a handful of Palestinian and Israeli Arab filmmakers manage to find plenty of drama in it). Yet the festival’s most compelling films still manage to engage the intense particularity of life in Israeli society.
“Things weren’t so clean back then,” was my in-house Israeli film critic’s comment on the festival’s opening-night feature, “Turn Left at the End of the World,” veteran director Avi Nesher’s nostalgic, rose-tinted look at past waves of immigration. The year is 1968 — Parisian youth are in the throes of revolution, when teenage Sarah and her family, having left their home in India, are plunked by the state in a remote desert location. “This is definitely a step down,” Sarah’s mother moans, noting the unruly kids at Sarah’s school; her handsome husband, forced to take up factory work, immediately dreams of escape. Across the way, their Moroccan neighbors (who arrived a decade earlier) eye them with equal parts suspicion and contempt. But adolescent friendships and sultry romantic entanglements soon complicate matters for everyone.
Released in Israel this past summer, Nesher’s film has proved the biggest box office draw there in the past decade. It’s easy to see why. New Yorkers may miss many of the jokes, mumbled in Moroccan Arabic, which so delighted my viewing companion. But it’s been quite a few years since Israel’s Sephardic minorities, once looked down upon, have come to be celebrated as emblematic of the nation. And the almost naive sense of a land where colorful ethnic conflicts are resolved through good will and the occasional game of cricket must make for a deeply compelling alternative to the grim realities of the present situation.
Those in search of grim realities might try this festival’s documentary section. I’m curious to see “In the Name of God,” director Dan Setton and Tor Ben-Mayor’s Emmy-award-winning journey into the far reaches of radical Islam. And I was moved by “No. 17,” which follows filmmaker David Ofek’s chilling search to identify the anonymous remains of a man who perished in a June 2002 bus bombing. Interviewing the attack’s survivors, enlisting the help of organizations supporting undocumented workers and otherwise scanning the margins of Israeli society, Ofek creates an absorbing portrayal of a people caught between despair and the need to forge ahead.
“The Syrian Bride,” the festival’s closing-night feature, sensitively directed by Eran Riklis, offers a rare portrait of the Druze people. Many Druze living in the Golan Heights maintain an uneasy balance between conflicting loyalties to Syria and to Israel. As the film opens, Mona, a young Druze woman, is about to be married to a Syrian television star, a distant cousin whom she’s never met. But once she crosses the border, she’ll never be allowed back into Israel to see her family. As in so many films of the region — Israeli and Palestinian — the border here acquires a psychological dimension. It’s not just a political boundary but also a mental state of limbo, signifying an impasse in personal relations. In fact, invisible walls preventing the realization of their desires and the recognition of their humanity hem in every member of Mona’s family. Nevertheless, Riklis’s film is infused with gentle humor and ends on a note of guarded optimism. Such, these days, is the privilege of fiction.
Leslie Camhi writes about art, film and books for numerous publications, including The New York Times.