“Cinema Rex” came away with the CANAL+ Youth Award on June 19, marking the first time that an Israeli film has won a prize at the annual event founded in 1960.
Running six minutes long, the film about a Jewish boy and an Arab girl who become friends through their discovery of the magic of films, is a proof of concept for a full-length animated feature currently in production, according to co-director Eliran Peled.
“We plan on expanding the story of the famous Cinema Rex and Jerusalem of the period from the perspective of just two children to that of a larger group of young friends,” Peled, 28, told The Times of Israel.
Princess Mary Street, Jerusalem between 1940 and 1946. Cinema Rex can be seen on the left in the distance. (Library of Congress via Wikicommons)
“Cinema Rex” is named for a movie theater that operated between 1938 and 1940 on Princess Mary Road (now Shlomzion Hamalka Street) on the seam line between Jewish West Jerusalem and Arab East Jerusalem. While there were other cinemas operating in the city during the British Mandate era, Cinema Rex was the only one co-owned by an Arab and a Jew.
“It was a tense time in Jerusalem. People would fight all day, then come together to see films at Cinema Rex in the evening. It served as a bubble of sanity,” Peled said of the theater.
Business partners Yusif Alpina and Yona Friedman saw their establishment — which shared a wall with a British police station — bombed by the Irgun, a Jewish underground organization, less than two years after its opening. The cinema was partially rebuilt, but it eventually closed for good in 1947 after it burned down.
“Cinema Rex” is the first project that the award-winning producer and director Peled undertook with co-director Mayan Engelman, an accomplished independent visual development artist specializing in character design and concept art for animation. Engelman, 34, is currently working on visual development for an unannounced animated feature for Netflix.
Mayan Engelman and Eliran Peled (Mikel Peled)
Engelman and Peled opened their own studio specifically for the making of “Cinema Rex.” Their team employed 2-D classic animation to create a nostalgic look reminiscent of animated films from the 1930s through the 1960s.
“It has a sort of Disney feel to it,” Peled noted.
Peled became fascinated with the history of Cinema Rex upon reading about it in a newspaper article. After bringing on board Engelman, who has a BFA in animation from the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, the two did extensive research on the theater and the period in which it operated.
“We delved into a variety of different archives to learn more about Cinema Rex and gain different points of view about the era. We even tracked down the children and grandchildren of the original owners, and interviewed people who remember going to the movies there when they were young,” Peled said.
Originally, the idea was to create a film about Cinema Rex from an adult perspective. However, the directors pivoted toward telling the story through the eyes of the Hebrew-speaking boy Mouize, and the Arabic-speaking girl Ranin. (The film has English subtitles.)
“We believe in the power of film and in coexistence, and we felt that we could express our optimism better through the perspective of children,” Peled said.
Ranin offers Mouize popcorn in ‘Cinema Rex.’ (Courtesy of Mayan Engelman & Eliran Peled/Cinema Rex)
Indeed, the adults characters in the film — the boy’s father (who is the theater’s projectionist) and the girl’s mother — do not interact with one another at all.
The children spend time together enjoying films and imagining themselves partaking in the adventures they see on screen. But later, the girl’s mother forbids her from entering the projection room again.
The boy’s father tells him that he cannot be friends with the Arab girl, and that he will understand why when he is older. The father tells him that for now, he must simply listen to what he tells him.
Mouize and Ranin introduce themselves to one another at the end of ‘Cinema Rex’ (Courtesy of Mayan Engelman & Eliran Peled/Cinema Rex)
Mouize and Ranin refuse to listen to their parents, and at the end of the film they run back to one another and shake hands and introduce themselves. A love of movies is their shared language.
It will be exciting to see what Mouize and Ranin and their friends get up to in the feature film Peled and Engelman hope to realize. Whatever happens, one would expect the new creation to be — like “Cinema Rex” — a love letter to historic Jerusalem, and to the power of art to bring even so-called enemies together.