Israeli culture festival to open amid ambivalent atmosphere in UK

When SERET, the first London Israeli Film & Television Festival, launches on June 14, hopes for an open discussion about Israel are high, but police have been invited just in case. A conversation with co-founder Odelia Haroush

A Tel Aviv University student film, 'Ramlod,' one of four student films being shown at SERET. (photo credit: Courtesy)
A Tel Aviv University student film, 'Ramlod,' one of four student films being shown at SERET. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Israeli cinema and television are experiencing a golden age. Following a string of award-winning films — “Footnote,” “Strangers No More,” “Ajami” — remakes of hit television series, namely “Hatufim” and “BeTipul,” appear to be Israel’s new big international cultural success stories. Capturing the zeitgeist, major US networks are busy adapting other shows: The rights to “Pilpelim Tsehubim” (Yellow Peppers) have been bought by US studio Lions Gate, and Fox remade the sitcom “Ramzor” (Traffic Light). In a timely move, SERET, the first London Israeli Film & Television Festival, which launches on June 14, will be showing subtitled episodes from both series.

SERET festival co-founder Odelia Haroush. (photo credit: Courtesy)
SERET festival co-founder Odelia Haroush (photo credit: Courtesy)

Festival co-founder Odelia Haroush is a self-confessed film buff who explains that her interest was primarily piqued by her husband, who comes from “a very cultural, very into-film family, and he got us all into it.” She prefers drama to comedy and mentions that in addition to mainstream cinema from Britain and America, the two watch films from France, Italy and Kazakhstan. Sitting in her bright, tidy, open-plan north London living room, she tells me their home contains thousands of DVDs, in cupboards and on shelves and in a large wooden armoire.

Haroush, an Israeli who has lived in London for 10 years, attributes the strength of Israel’s creative talent to “what’s going on in Israel, the political and cultural atmosphere, its social diversity. In such a small country there’s so much and I think a lot [of these issues] come out in its drama.”

Haroush says regarding the the film selection process for the festival: “Because we are new to this business it was quite organic.” She acknowledges that none of the three founders had any previous experience of organizing a film festival: Haroush had been the UK marketing manager of Ahava and manager of its shop in Covent Garden before it closed last fall; Anat Koren is publisher and editor of ALondon/, a magazine for Israelis living in the UK; and Patty Hochmann, who is based in Israel, is director of a film department at Cinematyp Ltd. As a member of the Israeli Film Academy she was instrumental in advising their film choices.

‘At one point we had films, we had venues but we didn’t have money. We’re still chasing, but we’re now in a position that we know [the festival] is going to happen’

The idea for the festival was first conceived last year. Considering the reasonably short organizational timeline it is not surprising that there have been numerous challenges, but raising the necessary funds proved to be the most overwhelming, says Haroush. At times they were told they had approached potential funders too late and they also learned that “pockets are not very open” due to the economic situation. “At one point we had films, we had venues but we didn’t have money,” she says. “We’re still chasing, but we’re now in a position that we know [the festival] is going to happen.”

She is hoping the festival will attract anyone interested in film, not just  that as well as supporters from the Jewish and Israeli community. Although there is an established Jewish Film Festival in London, she is keen to stress that SERET’s aim “is to focus just on the Israeli” nature of film, whereas the UK Jewish Film (UKJF) promotes awareness of international Jewish life and culture.

SERET’s objective of “cultural dialogue” may bear fruit with a screening of a pre-preview of “Sharaqiya” (2012), a story about a young Bedouin looking for respect. The official UK premiere will take place during the sixteenth UKJF festival, in the fall.

'Off White Lies' by Maya Kenig. (photo credit: Courtesy)
'Off White Lies' by Maya Kenig. (photo credit: Courtesy)

SERET’s website says it seeks to showcase the outstanding contribution that Israeli film and television make to the arts. The five-day festival is screening an eclectic mix of relatively recent dramas and documentaries. These include Dina Riklis’s “The Fifth Heaven” (2011), which is based on a novel by Rachel Eytan set in 1944 Palestine in a girl’s orphanage, and “Off White Lies” (Maya Kenig, 2011), which examines the relationship between an unemployed father and his 13-year-old daughter who has come to Israel to live with him from the US at the beginning of the second Lebanon War. There will also be an opportunity to hear from directors Dina Riklis, Tomer Heymann (“The Queen Has No Crown,” 2011, and “I Shot my Love,” 2010), Roi Werner (“2 Night,” 2010) and Michal Aviad (“Invisible,” 2011) in Q&A sessions that will take place after their screenings.

By coincidence all the founders are Tel Aviv University (TAU) alumni so it is fitting that TAU Trust UK has chosen to showcase a series of four short films made by students from the TAU Film and Television School, as part of SERET 2012. Many of Israel’s well-known writers and directors are graduates of the institution, including Hagai Levy (“BeTipul”/In Treatment), Ari Folman (“Waltz with Bashir”), Gideon Raff (“Hatufim”/Homeland), Yaron Shani (“Ajami”) and Eytan Fox (“The Bubble,” “Yossi & Jagger”).

'2night' by Roi Werner. (photo credit: Courtesy)
'2night' by Roi Werner. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Haroush explains that not only is the festival about watching films, it is about promoting dialogue between the UK and Israel. To support this they have organized an industry day titled My First, My Last, which is scheduled to take place on June 15. It will be an opportunity for film and TV professionals from the UK and Israel (including some of the directors of the films they are screening and actor Adir Miller, creator of “Ramzor”) to participate in a project-sharing workshop moderated by Israeli film consultant, Ruth Lev-Ari.

As far as Haroush is aware this is the first workshop of its kind. “They will sit together and talk about their last project and their next project. Maybe something will come out of it. We’re very, very excited about [this].”

It is inevitable that conversation moves to the UK’s Israeli boycott. Anti-Israel sentiment is strong amongst a minority of people and manifests itself in the form of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement. The condemnation of Habima Theatre’s participation in the Globe’s 37-language Cultural Olympiad Globe-to-Globe Shakespeare festival and the subsequent attempted disruption of Habima’s performances is a recent example. Haroush is clear she does not want anything jeopardizing the film festival and the necessary security precautions have been taken.

‘What was very, very difficult for me to see was that some of the boycotters were Jewish; a group of Jews against Israeli products… that I couldn’t understand’

It was not until she worked for Ahava that Haroush had any direct experience of the boycott movement. There were regular anti-Israel demonstrations held outside Ahava’s store and the landlord chose not continue the lease when it was up for renewal. She says that she attempted to talk to the protesters to try and understand their position but “what was very, very difficult for me to see was that some of the boycotters were Jewish; a group of Jews against Israeli products… that I couldn’t understand. I felt that they used Ahava as a tool. After I closed the shop I felt like I was mourning. I’m a person who meets challenges head on; I don’t shy away.”

An ever optimistic Haroush says she hopes the festival will be an annual event. “We’ve already started thinking about next year. I know so much now, it’ll be much, much easier.”

SERET 2012: The London Israeli Film & Television Festival June 14-18


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