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Israeli and Palestinian Films Meet at Sundance 2009, Part 1 of 2

Sundance 2009

Sundance 2009

The Middle Eastern population more than quadrupled in Park City, Utah, last month during the Sundance Film Festival 2009, as filmmakers and graduates of the Sundance Labs, as well as its Near Eastern outreach programs, arrived to screen and watch each others projects. Among the films and filmmakers were:

“Zion and His Brother,” which had its world premiere at Sundance. It is an Israeli drama by Eran Merav (“Underdogs”) , and co-stars Ronit Elkabetz (“The Band’s Visit,” “Or,” “Late Marriage”) as Ilana. In the film Zion (Reuven Badalov), 14, is always fighting with his older brother Meir (Ofer Hayun), 17.

Zion and His Brother

Zion and His Brother

They live in a poor area of Haifa with their mother, Ilana, 35; the brothers wait each week for a call from their estranged father at a neighborhood pay phone. Also present is Ilana’s current boyfriend who is pressing her to choose between him and her children. A train passes through the neighborhood, behind the buildings every 20 minutes. No one from this area waits for it, and it never stops. It is hot and sticky, the sun mercilessly parches the landscape, and one evening, Solomon, 14, an even lower-class son of Ethiopian immigrants, an outsider living among outsiders, is killed in an accident. Zion must decide whether to keep a secret to himself or tell someone.

The coming of age film for both vulnerable brothers created a good amount of buzz for its story and its symbolic cinematography, a scene of rows of similar apartment blocks and sameness which cut the people off from the Sea. What starts as a story about a kid looking for his lost pair of shoes becomes a brutal family drama filled with paranoia and pain. Merav, the writer/director, wanted to recreate the poor area of Kiryat Yam where he grew up, but it has since been gentrified, so the film was shot in a poor area north of Haifa filled with dialogues he heard as a teen. In his first three Sundance Film Festival screenings, no one asked a political oriented question, which was surprising to Merav. He had expected the French/Israel production to generate a question or two on the current situation in Gaza, and was prepared to lend his opinions, but the post screening questions concerned the film, its production, casting, and the relationship of brothers in general.

Merav, Wallach, Vinik at Sundance

Israeli filmmakers at Sundance

Merav attended both the Camera Obscura and Sam Spiegel School of TV and Film schools and is an alumnus of the Sundance Lab, which helped him to hone his screenplay writing and directorial skills. He said that the film tells a universal story of an alienated immigrant society filled with despair and on the edge of economic catastrophe and that, “it has no specific place or language. It could take place in any country of the world. Nevertheless, it draws it relevance from its local Israeli colour. It is a strong, straightforward and cruel story, told with compassion, with love and with humor.”

“Bait,” a 12 minute short by Michal Vinik, was selected to screen with Merav‘s film. Vinik’s film is about a tomboy named Nitzan, living near Ashdod, who plans to go out for a day of fishing. But she instead accompanies her sister to the beach. They hitchhike and are given a ride by a Filipino guest worker who is heading to a nearby moshav. He joins them for an afternoon of swimming, tanning, and more. The audience if left to determine exactly what Nitzan is fishing for.

Scene from Bait

Scene from Bait

Vinik graduated from the Film and Television Department at Tel-Aviv University and she teaches scriptwriting at Tel-Aviv University’s Minshar School of Art and the Beit Berl Academic College. She told me that in addition to her film being selected to appear at Sundance, her second most exciting highlight was skiing and taking a ski lesson on Utah’s powder. Vinik had also prepared for and expected questions on Gaza at her screenings. But none came. She did however have several private conversations at parties and welcomed the political conversations, since it provided more time to discuss issues and get one’s points across in dialogues. With two Israeli films at Sundance, both of which are coming of age stories on Israeli Jewish teens, I asked Vinik if she saw it as a trend in Israel. “No,” she replied. She saw the primary trend as more Israeli women working as writers and directors.

Another Israeli in Park City was Aya Somech, the editor for “Bait.” Somech made the rounds at screenings and parties, but was ready to return to Israel and finish work on her new documentary about a unique woman with five sons, the eldest of which was killed as a soldier in 1968, and its affect on her family and life. Somech is also busy raising funds to complete her other project, a feature film titled, “Damaged Goods,“ about Rafael, 32, an ex-Orthodox Jew who has left Israel for Marseilles. He returns to Jerusalem to ask for financial help, but en route their must steal a black outfit to fit in. The saleswoman who is robbed turns out to be his brother’s fiance. When Somech, the film’s writer/director, was seventeen, she and her twin sister flirted with Orthodox Judaism. Somech ended after four years, but her sister remains entrenched in the Haredi world. (That sounds like an even more interesting documentary film on twins)

While nearly all American Jewish film festival programmers know about the short films from Camera Obscura, the Sam Spiegel School of TV and Film, and the Ma’ale School, fewer are aware of the student films from Tel Aviv University. Rachel Wallach, another Israeli, visited Park City during Sundance in an effort to improve the awareness of her school. Working as the director of the school’s Festivals Office, Wallach distributed screeners and information on TAU’s Yolanda and David Katz school to festival programmers.

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