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A Somber Time to Celebrate the Movies

In L.A. for the Israel Film Festival, participants describe the effect of violence and fear on their industry at home.

April 13, 2002|TOM TUGEND | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Israel Film Festival opened this week in Los Angeles during one of the most frightening times in that nation's history--and one that is having a devastating effect on Israeli cinema, according to festival participants.

During the last four months, ticket sales at Israeli movie theaters have plummeted 35%, and the reason is brutally simple: With no break in the intensity of deadly Palestinian suicide bombings, there is a pervasive fear among Israelis of gathering in public places.

"In the cities, most cinemas are in malls, and they are practically empty. Parents are afraid to send out their kids," says Israeli director Dan Wolman, whose film "Foreign Sister" is playing at the festival.

Israel has experienced continual crises throughout its 54-year history, but the present conflict is different. "We always had soldiers fighting at the borders, or the shelling of our border settlements, but now every day civilians are being killed in the heart of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv or Haifa," Wolman says.

Wolman is among 19 Israeli producers, directors and actors participating in the 18th Israel Film Festival, which runs through April 25 at the Laemmle theaters in Beverly Hills and Encino.

The bloody strife between Palestinians and Israelis, known as the second intifada, has been the dominant reality in the Middle East for the last 19 months, yet it is barely reflected in the lineup of 31 feature films, documentaries and television specials screening at the festival.

On opening night, the featured film was "Late Marriage," winner of nine Israeli film awards, including best picture. One reason for the paucity of pictures reflecting the current situation is the lag time between the conception of a movie and its completion, a period ranging from one to two years in Israel. Transmuting the raw material of a powerful historic event into cinematic veracity requires the perspective of many years, filmmakers say.

But more telling than the time constraints are the psychological barriers, Wolman believes. "When such a traumatic thing [as the suicide bombings] happens, it is hard to relate to them right away. It's like survivors of the Holocaust who couldn't speak about their experiences for decades."

But some of the festival films do focus, if not on the intifada itself, on some of the underlying Arab-Jewish tensions and perceptions.

This approach is more noticeable among the documentaries. One is "Ramleh," which explores the religious, cultural and national barriers separating Arab and Jewish women. "Whose Land Is It?" centers on an Arab policeman and artist, who tries to organize an exhibit by both Arab and Jewish painters.

Currently, documentary filmmaker Ronit Kertsner is facing one unusual problem. "I can't line up any film crews and cameras, because they've all been hired by foreign news producers covering the intifada," she complains.

Wolman's feature, "Foreign Sister," examines the relationship of a foreign worker, an Ethiopian Christian woman, and her employer. The theme has an indirect link to the intifada, says Wolman, because it was the growing distrust of Palestinian workers in Israel that contributed to the large-scale importation of foreign men from the Far East and Romania.

"My film has to do with racism and our attitude toward the Arabs," he says. "I think it is my job to break stereotypes and to show Arabs as human beings."

One groundbreaking documentary, which was well-received by Israelis, won't be shown to L.A. audiences. "The Inner Tour," an Israeli-Palestinian co-production actually finished after the outbreak of the intifada, presents a none too flattering picture of Israeli life as seen through the eyes of a group of Arab "tourists."

The film got a positive response at the Sundance and Berlin film festivals this year, but it was not chosen for the current Israel Film Festival by its founder and executive director, Meir Fenigstein. The festival is also presented in New York, Miami and Chicago.

Fenigstein, who has presented difficult subjects and artists in the past, explained that, "under present circumstances, I decided to take a step away from too much controversy" and didn't include the film in the festival lineup.

Similar to most of their Hollywood brethren, Israeli filmmakers are seen as lined up on the liberal side of the political spectrum, and some of their ideas for future films dealing with the intifada may raise the hackles of their more conservative compatriots.

Eli Cohen, a leading Israeli director who is being honored with a retrospective of his works at the festival, is writing the screenplay for a comedy about the intifada. "The most powerful weapon against fanaticism is humor," says Cohen, who is thinking in terms of a "MASH"-like approach, "but a bit more politically oriented."

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