The summer always brings the Jerusalem Film Festival, an annual event hosted by the Jerusalem Cinematheque, a beloved local art house theater that has long played a major role in promoting the Israeli film industry.
It’s an opportunity for locals to see the best films from around the globe, screened in theaters and outdoor spaces around the city, but it’s also a great way to load up on the most talked-about Israeli films of the year, as they’re part of the festival’s competitive events.
Of course, you don’t have to be in Israel during the film festival in order to get a glimpse of what’s coming out of the local film industry. In fact, if you’re heading to Israel in the coming year, watching a few Israeli flicks is a great way to get a sense of local culture and society.
What’s unique about Israeli films, and the local film industry that has actually been around for decades, is the steady stream of award-winning works produced by the relatively small, low-budget scene.
These are movies that shine a particular light on aspects of Israeli life, from the pervasiveness of the Israeli army experience and its effects on Israeli society, to quirky comedies that attempt to explain and elaborate upon the multicultural world that is Israel.
The local industry’s outstanding films win Ophir awards, the Israeli equivalent of the Oscars, and those are often the selections shortlisted for the Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards.
Here’s a fairly short list of films that are worth watching, movies that will touch your heart and pique your interest. If you get hooked, head over here in July, when you catch at least part of the annual film festival.
You can also head to the local Israeli film festival in your hometown, where enterprising directors often show up to chat about their latest film, shedding light on the hows and whys of the story they chose to tell.
The 2016 entry for the Academy Awards was “Sandstorm,” a drama by first-time filmmaker, Elite Zexer, who made a film about a Bedouin family in Israel’s Negev region, as the parents and daughters deal with the changes being wrought in their traditional society. Zexer isn’t Bedouin, she’s an Israeli woman from the country’s center, but she did an outstanding job of showcasing the cultural shifts of this particular community.
“Through the Wall” is ultra Orthodox director Rama Burshtein’s second feature film about the comic but heartfelt choices made by a single woman looking for love in her religious community. It’s far lighter fare than her first film, “Fill the Void,” a tight, sorrowful glimpse at the other side of marriage in the insular world that Burshtein herself is part of.
New Yorkers — particularly those from the Upper West Side — should surely screen “Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer,” acclaimed Israeli director Joseph Cedar’s latest film, this one offering the story of a New York Jew who does exorbitant favors for an Israeli prime minister. It features Richard Gere — the famed, one-time American gigolo and “Pretty Woman” suitor — as the hapless, frumpy Norman Oppenheimer, the has-been New York fixer, who has some cringe-inducing personality traits.
On the other side of the spectrum, “Gaza Surf Club” is a documentary about a group of Palestinian surfers who use the water sport as a way of escaping the intensity and hopeless situation in which they are mired.
Talya Lavie’s “Zero Motivation” is another debut film that won Lavie the 2014 Ophir for best film, as the then-student director mined her own experiences of a boring army desk job for laughs and truisms.
Check out two other recent Israeli classics: “Baba Joon,” another Ophir winner about a boy who doesn’t want to take over his family’s farm, and “The Band’s Visit,” a rollicking, improbable tale of an Egyptian marching band stuck in a small desert town for a short period.
When you’re in Israel, you probably won’t have much time to catch a flick. But if you do, just know that Israeli movie theaters offer only reserved seating, and there’s no longer an intermission to fill up on popcorn. There are also Cinematheque theaters in Haifa, Tel Aviv and even Sderot, the southern desert town. They’re all worth a stop to see what’s playing.
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