Big Orange cinema comes to the Big Apple

Inaugural event Thursday launches a week of contemporary Israeli films that you won’t find on a big screen in a theater near you

Outside the School of Visual Arts theater for the inaugural Israeli Film Center Festival. (photo credit: Jordan Hoffman)
Outside the School of Visual Arts theater for the inaugural Israeli Film Center Festival. (photo credit: Jordan Hoffman)

NEW YORK — “I’m proud to say we’re the first Israeli film festival to start on time!” So joked director and co-founder Isaac Zablocki at the opening night screening and reception for the inaugural Israel Film Center Festival.

Inside the Israel Film Center Festival. (photo credit: Jordan Hoffman)
Inside the Israel Film Center Festival. (photo credit: Jordan Hoffman)

A packed house at the swank School of Visual Arts theater in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood Thursday thrummed to a mix of Hebrew and English as VIPs hobnobbed with movie fans. There was also a little French, as the night was emceed by Belgian actor/producer Ronald Guttman, whose credits include appearances on “Mad Men,” “The Good Wife,” “Sex and the City” and films like “27 Dresses.” (Yes, if the name doesn’t ring a bell, seeing his face would no doubt inspire a classic “oh! That guy!”)

Guttman read a supportive letter from Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who apologized for not being in attendance, but was proud that New York remains “the center of vibrant Jewish cultural life outside of Israel.” Bloomberg also saluted what he called the “emerging Israeli film industry,” which Guttman jokingly suggested the mayor should have termed the “established Israeli film industry.”

Off-book, Guttman quickly recited the list of recent Israeli films — “Waltz with Bashir,” “Ajami,” “Footnote,” “The Gatekeepers” and “5 Broken Cameras” — which have all been nominated for Academy Awards in the last five years, a streak unparalleled by any other country (as well as grossing north of $10 million dollars.)

The American Friends of Israeli Cinema, a new tax deductible fund that might ‘interest all the hedge fund managers and Wall Street execs in the house’

Other quick speeches came from Irene Pletka of the Jerusalem Film Festival, Steven Greenwald of the American Friends of Israeli Cinema (a new tax deductible fund that, Greenwald hoped, would “interest all the hedge fund managers and Wall Street execs in the house”) and, later in the evening, Ido Aharoni, the Israeli Consul General in New York.

The parade of brief speeches quickly took a back seat to the projector and the quite remarkable comedy/drama “The World is Funny.” Shemi Zahrin’s sharp film, which went over gangbusters, spins a number of tall tales and portrays the northern Israeli town of Tiberias as quirky, charming, full of life and colorful characters all up-in-one-another’s business. Last year’s most successful film at the Israeli box office quickly won the crowd over with its imaginative spirit and story of a troubled family making an overdue reconciliation.

As the audience had its share of Israeli ex-pats, the emotional, closing song from Shaike Levy had a few members singing along. (The Americans in the audience were certainly smiling, at least.) One gentleman, who attended the screening solo, was overheard summarizing on his cellphone in the lobby afterwards: “The whole town was connected in crazy ways, they were all funny, but all a little sad, and it reminded me so much of living in Israel. I couldn’t stop crying, it was embarrassing. Yeah, yeah, I’ll be home soon.”

Actor Assi Levy at the Israel Film Center Festival. (photo credit: Jordan Hoffman)
Actor Assi Levy at the Israel Film Center Festival. (photo credit: Jordan Hoffman)

One of the films stars, Assi Levy, was in attendance and she and festival director Zablocki had a very brief Q&A. Very brief, because there was food and drink in the lobby and by now it was nearly 10 pm.

The Israel Film Center, which works to promote the ever-expanding Israeli film industry in the US, is part of the well-regarded JCC (Jewish Community Center) in Manhattan. This first festival, which will be held annually, has rounded up a number of remarkable Israeli films from the festival circuit that have yet to land American distribution. Films are showing through the 18th at a number of venues in Manhattan and Brooklyn, and titles range from the fable-like musical “The Ballad of the Weeping Spring” to the contentious Gaza-set “Rock the Casbah” which recently made news in southern France when its director was attacked in what appears to have been a bias crime.

For those who can’t make it in person, the center is also hosting free streaming of Israeli titles off their website.

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