Promised films

Six movies not to be missed at the Israel Film Center Festival in New York

Beginning June 5, the annual celebration features eight crazy nights of sabra cinema in what is a canny predictor of which Israeli films will mesmerize US moviegoers this year

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 — Adventuresome film-goers in New York City rarely have to worry about a lack of options, but starting June 5, this week brings special treasures from the Mideast. For a typically Jewish eight nights, the Israel Film Center hosts its annual festival, showcasing the largest collection of sabra cinema to unspool in one spot.

This is the 6th annual Israeli Film Center Festival so we figured it was a good idea to check back in the chief programmer, Isaac Zablocki of the Upper West Side’s Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan.

“We have a very good list this year,” Zablocki boasts. “I keep looking them over and, wow, these are good films!”

Some of the titles will eventually get a US theatrical release, but not all of them. “Last year was extremely strong, I counted at one point 10 Israeli films played theatrically in New York,” Zablocki tells me.

Upper West Side’s Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan Isaac Zablocki at the 2015 Other Israel Festival. (Facebook)

So what’s on the menu this year? Opening night, in addition to fêting actor Sasson Gabai (whose face you surely remember from world class Israeli triumphs like “The Band’s Visit” or, if not that, at least “Rocky III” and “Delta Force One: The Lost Patrol”), is the local premiere of prolific Israeli director Eran Riklis‘ “Shelter.”

Riklis, whose previous work includes “Lemon Tree,” “The Syrian Bride” and “Dancing Arabs,” is on firm footing here.

Neta Riskin — who appears in no less than three films during the festival and is “probably” making an appearance for some post-screening Q&As — is a semi-retired Mossad agent on a special and allegedly simple assignment in Germany. But simple assignments do not great cinema make! Her “babysitting” gig, to look after a Lebanese informer (the ubiquitous Golshifteh Farahani) while she recovers from a plastic surgery fix, naturally goes to unexpected places.

The two women bond as they wait for Fate in their apartment, and then there’s a twist you don’t see coming, followed by a second twist you don’t see coming. It’s all very gratifying. Plus Lior Ashkenazi has a small roll.

French-Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani poses on May 16, 2016 during a photocall for the film ‘Paterson’ at the 69th Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, southern France. (Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP)

The other films are a little less Hollywood. There’s “The Cakemaker,” a heartbreaking story about a gay German baker who falls in love with an Israeli businessman who visits Berlin every month. When he “goes ghost,” as the kids say, it’s discovered that he died in an accident. The lovesick German visits Jerusalem, getting entwined with his ex-lover’s wife and child.

“It takes place in Jerusalem, but I don’t think you ever see the Old City, or anything else normally highlighted in movies,” Zablocki gushes. “It’s showing a reality in Israel; real people in real life, which makes it completely universal.”

Another winsome tale, “Longing,” is set in the rarely seen (but extremely cinematic) city of Akko (Acre). “You never see stories in Akko, and it’s a beautiful place. Most Americans will say ‘Where is this place?’ It’s not even on Birthright!” Zablocki jokes.

“Longing” is probably my favorite film in the selection, a strange, surreal story about a middle-aged, successful man who, in the first five minutes of the film, learns that an ex-girlfriend secretly gave birth to his son 19 years ago. Just as this sinks in, there’s a cruel twist: the kid just died in a car accident. There follows an unpredictable path as this man tries to adjust his behavior to his new awareness.

Another strong title is “Scaffolding,” which premiered a year ago at a Cannes Film Festival sidebar, and is finally making its New York debut. The lead actor, Asher Lax, is retelling his own story as a short-tempered and peculiar young man prone to outbursts in his “special ed” class.

His prickly father is not very emotionally supportive, wanting him to focus on his career in construction. But he’s got a teacher who, well, doesn’t exactly embrace him with the warm and fuzzies, but suggests that more opportunities exist. Any notion of a typical student-professor melodrama is dashed, though, when an unexpected incident occurs that changes everything.

I didn’t have the heart to tell Zablocki, a hard-working champion of Israeli film and all around mensch, that the movie he loved most was one I admired but ultimately didn’t love. So I’ll let him pitch the fest closer, “Outdoors,” to you.

“The director is releasing it independently, so it’s not like coming from the typical engines. The acting is perfect, and the idea of telling a story through the architecture of a home as it is being built, was like nothing else. And also so universal,” says Zablocki.

Okay, now I feel guilty. “Outdoors,” is a well-observed, smaller film, and Zablocki’s right. It could take place in France or New Jersey or anywhere. But since it is about people building a home from nothing, and the unforeseen hardships that arise, it benefits from the special flavoring that accompanies any Israeli movie. Maybe this is some grand metaphor about the Jewish state?

“That’s the beauty of it,” Zablocki chuckles, but then continues, “what you’re seeing here is the third generation of Israelis. They’re not millennials, but they are a new generation of this modern world. They’re not the ones who were fighting for their existence or fighting to build the country. They don’t have that in them. And they can’t afford the crazy prices in Israel.”

Not everything that’s screening is so heavy. There’s a celebratory documentary about author and filmmaker Ephraim Kishon (called, simply enough, “Kishon”) that has a great sarcastic flair, in keeping with the writer’s style. There’s also teen comedy “Almost Famous” about a televised singing contest and a kid-friendly picture called “Operation Egg” set at a zoo.

And there will be receptions. “We always serve too much food,” Zablocki sighs.

Each screening will be accompanied by a Q&A, which means, as you’d expect, the occasional lively disagreement. But also some rewarding conversation.

“I work at a community center,” the longtime JCC staffer tells me. “My job is to create community. The films are just a tool.”

The Israel Film Center Festival runs from June 5 – June 12 at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan. Tickets and schedule can be found at the festival website.

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