Thousands of film fans poured into Jerusalem’s Sultan’s Pool on Thursday night for the opening of the 35th Jerusalem Film Festival — an evening hosted by actor Lior Ashkenazi, marked by the absence of Culture Minister Miri Regev, and dominated by the sparkling world premiere of a Jerusalem filmmaker’s barely fictionalized account of the rise of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party.
Regev, a minister deeply unpopular with much of the film community for her efforts to impose her political preferences on the local industry, has been booed at previous events. And she was booed again Thursday, in her absence, when she appeared on the huge screen in a pre-filmed segment in which she, Mayor Nir Barkat, and mayoral candidate Zeev Elkin, the current minister for Jerusalem affairs, and Jerusalem Foundation head Anat Tzur talked about the importance of Israeli cinema and chose their favorite film.
Barkat plumped for Gone with the Wind. Regev opted for Casablanca. Tzur picked Someone to Run With. Elkin didn’t cite a preference.
The 11-day festival started earlier Thursday and features screenings of 180 films from 60 countries — along with competitions, workshops, meetings with filmmakers, and even a truck-borne mobile movie theater touring Jerusalem neighborhoods.
Thursday’s night’s gala opening film was the first showing of “The Unorthodox,” a warmly applauded movie written and directed by Eliran Malka.
Deftly scripted and supremely acted, it is a close-to-reality account of the founding of the Sephardi Haredi Shas political party, the injustice and discrimination it sought to challenge, its first successes in the early 1980s, its ultimate achievement in winning 17 of the 120 Knesset seats in 1999, and the in-fighting and corruption behind the scenes.
For much more on the 35th JFF, read: Jerusalem of gold turns to silver screen as film festival comes to town
Starring Shuli Rand as Yaakov Cohen, the presumably fictionalized bereaved Jerusalemite who was the party’s founding force, the movie managed to unify a well-mixed Orthodox and secular crowd, and keep them in their seats even as the evening ran late and turned chill.
The film is so sympathetically written and played, indeed, that the crowd shared the characters’ relief when they manage to get Shas registered with minutes to spare in the 1983 local election. Many laughed empathetically at unlikely adoring references to the Bee Gees (Jewish, who knew?). And there were even some delighted noises when a fax came through from an Ashkenazi rabbi providing a vital endorsement.
Unsurprisingly, it all turns a little sour — no spoiler there for anybody much familiar with Israeli politics in general, and Shas in particular. But the movie is sweetly and expertly told, and Rand, himself ultra-Orthodox, is immensely likable and authentic.
“The Unorthodox” is a morality tale, both loving and critical, and the applause when the credits rolled was heartfelt.
Rand and director Malka — who is also the creator behind “Shababnikim,” an award-winning HOT television drama about too-cool-for-school yeshiva students in Jerusalem — both spoke briefly before the screening, and hailed the festival for placing its faith in local talent by selecting “The Unorthodox” for opening night.
An inspired choice, indeed.
The Jerusalem Film Festival runs July 26 through August 5 at the Jerusalem Cinemateque and throughout the city.