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'Mood isn't right' for Israeli film fest

Annual event, set to begin in L.A. this week, is postponed till May.

March 30, 2003|Tom Tugend | Special to The Times

The annual Israel Film Festival, which had been scheduled to open Wednesday evening at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, has been postponed because of the war in Iraq.

"I think the mood isn't right now for a celebration," said Meir Fenigstein, founder and executive director of the festival, which has now been rescheduled for May 28 to June 8. He also cited the reluctance of Israeli directors and actors to travel outside their country at this time and the media focus on war news as reasons for the delay.

The festival, now in its 19th year, has been postponed only once before, following the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.

"At that time, we delayed the opening by one week to allow people to sit shiva [observe a mourning period]," said Fenigstein. "As it turned out, the 1995 festival became our biggest success ever, with some 20,000 people attending." The festival originated in Los Angeles but has now been extended to New York, Chicago and Miami.

There is no Israeli film fest on a similar scale in Europe, but a shorter one was held in Paris in January. Despite some anti-Israel sentiments in France, triggered largely by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there were no incidents, said Fenigstein.

In Israel itself, there was a drop of about 25% in movie attendance during the first week of the war in Iraq. "People had to carry their gas masks and were worried about being in public gatherings," said Fenigstein. "But with the danger of missile attacks on Israel receding, attendance is picking up again."

For the festival, Fenigstein has scheduled about 35 movie features, television films, documentaries and student shorts for the Los Angeles screenings at the Laemmle Fairfax Theatre and the Town Center in Encino.

Among the features will be an exotic drama, "Return From India," directed by former Hollywood producer Menahem Golan, who has resumed his career in his native Israel.

Of special interest, given the hostile emotions engendered by the intifada, will be "A Trumpet in the Wadi." In it, Alex, a Russian immigrant trumpet player, falls in love with Haida, an Arab woman from a village near Haifa; the anticipated objections from their families and neighbors follow. The film was directed by the Russian husband-and-wife team of Slava and Lina Chaplin.

Israeli Arab director Ali Nassar will be represented by "In the Ninth Month," based on an Arab folk tale and set in an Arab village during the time of the Ottoman Empire.

More mainstream and personal will be the romantic college comedy "Wisdom of the Pretzel" and "Province United," dealing with the individual problems of a group of soccer players.

The documentary "On the Frontline" shows the ethnic diversity among a group of Israeli teenagers performing community service. "Reflections of Women" is a four-part TV series, made by and for women.

Last year about 13,000 people attended the film festival here, and Fenigstein hopes for a bigger turnout this year. He is lining up sponsors for the event in Hollywood and the community, with Arnon Milchan of Regency Enterprises and TV mogul Haim Saban taking the lead so far.

Interest in the New York run of the festival, June 19 to July 3, appears high, with 12 screenings fully booked by various organizations, according to Fenigstein.

Movies on Jewish-Arab relations have long been a staple of Israeli Jewish filmmakers, often with a surprisingly sympathetic viewpoint toward the Arab side. An example was the 1984 Oscar-nominated "Beyond the Walls," in which Arabs and Jews in a maximum-security prison joined forces against a brutal administrator. Amos Gitai's current "Kedma" deals probingly with the first Israeli-Arab war in 1948.

Israeli-Arab directors have come to the forefront more recently. In particular, Elia Suleiman has earned international attention with his darkly comedic "Divine Intervention," which played recently in Los Angeles.

For updates on the festival, phone (323) 966-4166 or go to www.israelfilmfestival.com.

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