CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts — All tickets sold out in advance of the opening night of Boston’s first Israeli Film Festival last Thursday.
Despite a drizzling rain and newly-thawed roads, moviegoers managed to arrive on time to the festival’s opening screening at the Harvard-adjacent Brattle Theater in Cambridge.
At least for the next two hours, the audience would be transported to sunny Jerusalem, the setting of a drama about a divorced couple on a mission to prevent their daughter from marrying a religious, drug-addicted musician.
Before the film rolled, various personalities, including Israeli Consul General to New England Zeev Boker, took to the stage to tout the success of Israeli films at other international film festivals.
“People were begging for tickets,” said festival artistic director Ariana Cohen-Halberstam, a glass of red wine in hand during the post-screening reception. “It was amazing to see the turnout. I’m expecting in the next few days more films will be sold out.”
Although Boston has put on a Jewish Film Festival for 30 years, this year saw the launch of a separate event dedicated specifically to Israeli cinema. A festival exclusively for films from Israel makes sense now because of the growth of the Israeli film industry, Cohen-Halberstam said.
“Boston is a place that has a Palestinian film festival, an Iranian film festival, a French film festival – but it never had an Israeli film festival before,” she said. “So the point of the festival is to showcase Israeli film. Israeli film is becoming a leader in the film industry and for such a small country this is amazing.”
The organizers, who also put on the city’s Jewish Film Festival, sought to attract an untapped audience with this new iteration — in particular, Israelis who work in Boston’s tech sector and Israeli students studying in Boston’s famous universities.
“There is enough of an Israeli community here in Boston that Israeli cultural events have a place here,” Cohen-Halberstam said. “A lot of them come to Boston and expect to stay for a few years, and end up staying [longer.] So it’s an obvious thing to bring Israeli films here.”
Compared to the Boston Jewish Film Festival, which presents more than 60 screenings at venues throughout the Greater Boston area, the first annual Israeli film festival started out relatively small. However, organizers later said that the weeklong festival, which was scheduled to run from February 7-14, but held extended screenings due to snow cancellation, is set to see nearly 2,000 attendees.
The program listed nine films to be screened in five locations, with venues including various theaters, the Museum of Fine Arts, and the Jewish Community Center of Greater Boston.
The films were mostly love stories, but also included a comedy about a rare egg stolen from an Israeli zoo to make a winning dish on a cooking show (“Operation Egg”), and a fictionalized account of the creation of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Sephardi Shas party (“The Unorthodox”).
One of the two featured documentaries, “You Only Die Twice,” is a North American premiere that is so bizarre that “if it wasn’t a documentary, it would be unbelievable,” Cohen-Halberstam said.
The film tells the story of a Jewish man who took the identity of another Jew during the Holocaust and then survived the war in hiding thanks to the sister of an SS soldier. The film also sold out days before the screening.
Boston is one of a handful of cities that recently launched Israeli Film Festivals. Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, began organizing an Israeli film festival in 2017, and in Santa Rosa, California, an Israeli film festival was launched in 2015 – despite the fact that the city has had a Jewish Film Festival for years.
According to the festival’s website, the Israeli Film Festival in Santa Rosa was also established because of the growth of the Israeli film industry, which meant not all of the great Israeli films could be screened during the Jewish film festival. An Israeli Film Festival was also launched in Dublin, Ireland, in 2011.
In Boston, the film selected for the festival’s opening night was “The Other Story” by Avi Nesher. Organizers chose it because of how prominent the city of Jerusalem is on the screen, Cohen-Halberstam said — and because of the film’s inclusivity. The film portrays many of Jerusalem’s diverse inhabitants: religious and secular Jews, Christian tourists, Arab youths and even Catholic nuns.
After an interview with the director via Skype, snacks and drinks were served at a bar across the street from the theater. As the television screens broadcast a Boston Celtics basketball game and rap music played from the speakers, the moviegoers munched on vegetarian pizza and discussed the film.
Joseph Melnicove, a 26-year-old Israeli who studies flute at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, said that seeing an Israeli film made him miss home.
“This is the first Israeli movie I saw in two and a half years,” he said. “I really liked it. I kind of felt like I was still in Israel.”
His friend, Niv Harnam, who is from the suburbs of Jerusalem, said that it was special to see his hometown on the screen here in Boston. When he found out that Boston also has a Palestinian Film Festival, he said he’d be interested in seeing a Palestinian feature film too, since he’s never seen one.
“It’s very good that there is a Palestinian film festival and it’s important that there will be an Israeli film festival because cinema is a great art,” Harnam said. “Everyone sees Israel as a complex place. We have art, we have musicians, we really, really don’t care about war and politics. And I believe 90 percent of Palestinians in Israel [feel the same.]”
According to its website, the Boston Palestine Film Festival is 10 years old. Interestingly, the Palestinian film festival, the Iranian film festival and the Jewish film festival all screen movies at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. (The organizers of the Palestinian festival did not respond to an an email from The Times of Israel.)
Not everyone who came to the opening night of the Israeli Film Festival was Israeli.
Henry Leitner and his wife Catalina Lasarna, who is not Jewish, said they also liked the movie. They had been to the Jewish Film Festival many times, but at first they couldn’t recall seeing a single Israeli film. For now, they were busily discussing whether the characters in the evening’s film would end up getting married in an imaginary future.
“I think they’ll get married,” Lasarna said.
“Yes, I think so too,” her husband agreed.
Cohen-Halberstam said that in the near future she is also interested in organizing a weekend of Russian-Jewish film. Boston has a large Russian-speaking Jewish community, but there were no Russian films at the Jewish Film Festival this year.