Emotional upheaval, loneliness and love at Jerusalem Film Festival

The 32nd annual event opens July 9, with screenings of 200 films over 10 days

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

The 32nd Jerusalem Film Festival, considered the crown jewel of Israel’s film festivals, has had a rocky start, and opening night isn’t until July 9.

It began with the March death of Lia Van Leer, the 90-year-old grand dame of Israeli filmmaking who founded the festival. At the Cinematheque, the revered Jerusalem institution that is the festival’s home and that has struggled to find a new balance after several years of administrative upheaval, the death of its founder has cast a certain pall on the art house cinema.

Then the festival received its first press when it was forced to change the screening of Beyond the Fear, the documentary about Larisa Trembovler, the wife of Yigal Amir, who assassinated prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.

Culture Minister Miri Regev said she would reconsider state funding to the festival if it included a screening of the controversial documentary. The Cinematheque was forced to move the screening to several days prior to the festival.

All that happened before the theater had even screened the major feature films for local movie reviewers.

The 10-day festival always strives to screen a wide range of feature films with mass appeal, as well as carefully selected independent films and documentaries. It is doing the same this year, with an array of 200 films ranging from the highly personal and emotional to the abstract and retrospective.

The festival begins with the opening night screening of the Cannes award-winning Nanni Moretti’s My Mother (a clip from the movie is featured at the top), featuring American actor John Turturro, who will be present at opening night (sitting on Sultan’s Pool’s unyielding stadium seats in the cool Jerusalem night air). That’s the first of the festival’s gala feature films, most of them made in the US.

Gala Films

Love & Mercy is Bill Pohlad’s clear-eyed look at Beach Boys singer Brian Wilson, focusing on his rise to fame in the 1960s and solo career in the 1980s. The best part of this stirring film is the performances by Paul Dano as a young Wilson and John Cusack as the singer in later life, with Paul Giamatti and Elizabeth Banks in supporting roles.

Comedian Amy Schumer will make her on-screen appearance with LeBron James in Trainwreck, Judd Apatow’s latest about a thirty-something writer who’s looking for herself. Her comedic compatriot Sarah Silverman stars in Smile Back, a serious drama about an American housewife and mother struggling with depression and suburban disillusionment. Reviewers have noted that Silverman displays some significant acting chops in this heart-wrenching drama.

Get ready for seat-squirming sex and teenage angst in The Diary of a Teenage Girl, about Minnie, a teenage girl in 1970s San Francisco. The teen embarks on a torrid love affair with her mother’s boyfriend, expressing her emotions through vivid 1970s-style comic book drawings interwoven throughout this Sundance favorite. Starring Alexander Skarsgard and Kristen Wiig, this is a great flick for comic book lovers as well.

There’s also Before I Disappear, a feature film developed by Shawn Christensen from his 2012 Academy Award-winning short film Curfew, about a depressed thirty-something man whose 11-year-old niece sends him on a surreal, night-long journey.

On the documentary front within the Gala films, see Amy, from director Asif Kapadia, a gripping film about the life and death of the phenomenal talent Amy Winehouse, who died of alcohol poisoning at the age of 27. The film has been the subject of some controversy, as her family felt it was misleading with regard to Winehouse’s drug and alcohol abuse. The family helped curate a traveling exhibit about Winehouse that was displayed at Tel Aviv’s Beit Hatfutsot in October.

On the subject of Jewish families, don’t miss Paul Weitz’s Grandma, a brilliant opportunity to watch the sharp-tongued Lily Tomlin as a lesbian who spends one long day trying to help her teenage granddaughter raise $600 for an abortion, meeting up with long-lost friends and loves along the way.

Inside Israel

The Israeli films offer an opportunity to view the country from within, catching a glimpse of the different worlds that reside here. Six of them are competing in the Haggiag Awards for Israeli Cinema.

There’s Yoram and Doron Paz’s Jeruzalem, a horror film about a biblical apocalypse taking place during two vacationers’ travels through the holy city, starring Yael Grobglas (from the critically acclaimed show Jane the Virgin).

A.K.A. Nadia by Tova Ascher tells the story of Maya, a Jewish woman, wife and mother who was born as Nadia, a Muslim, while Hadar Morag’s film, Why Hast Thou Forsaken Me, explores the tale of the son of a Palestinian collaborator who meets a lone ranger type who sharpens knives for a living, and shows a dark side of Arab-Israeli coexistence.

There is also a plethora of Israeli documentaries competing in the documentary category of the Van Leer Awards for Israel Films. They include Badran Badran’s Pennies, which follows two young Palestinian brothers as they are forced to become street beggars in Tulkarem.

Meanwhile, the Israeli street is featured in Hotline by Silvina Landsmann, delving into the world of a small Tel Aviv NGO and its work for African refugees and migrants; and Nirit Aharoni’s Strung Out, which follows young women living rough, with heroin use and prostitution forming the core of their lives. Tomer Heymann’s Mr. Gaga, released last year, delves into the world of Batsheva Dance Company choreographer and director Ohad Naharin, a movie eight years in the making.

From Afar

The debut films, made in countries and cultures far from Israel, tackle subjects and people far less familiar and all the more exotic. Land and Shade is a film about a man returning to his wife and family to care for his sick son, after years away, which premiered during International Critics’ Week at Cannes. A Guatemalan film, Volcano, tells the story of a Mayan girl who longs to escape her family’s coffee plantation, while Chloe Zhao’s Songs My Brother Taught Me offers a portrait of life in a Native American reservation, using untried actors and remote territories.

There are competing films from the In the Spirit of Freedom category, made by filmmakers the world over and focusing on those seeking independence. Look out for May Allah Bless France! about a teenager who excels at school and earns a living picking pockets and selling drugs, or The Pearl Button Patricio Guzman’s homage to Patagonians told through the secrets of the Chilean Sea.

There are also the Masters, cinematic masterpieces made by beloved directors. Terence Mallick’s Knight of Cups features Christian Bale as a self-absorbed screenwriter, observed from within the Hollywood system. Ulrich Seidl’s In the Basement marks the director’s return to documentary filmmaking with a look at Austrian basements and secrets kept under ground. French director Arnaud Desplechin offers up My Golden Years, a prequel to his 1996 My Sex Life, about two teenagers in Paris. The Assassin is Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s foray into the martial arts genre, telling the story of a general’s daughter abducted by a nun and turned into an elite assassin.


The list goes on, with kids’ films, cult films in the making, documentaries about cinema, classic films, a tribute to late American filmmaker Albert Maysles, Jewish films, a separate program featuring movies from the Munich Film Festival, international documentaries and international shorts. That’s without mentioning the master classes, lectures and workshops taking place throughout the festival. See you at the movies.

For more information, times and ticket sales, go to the Jerusalem Film Festival site.

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