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Front row seat

This year’s Haifa Film Fest is all online, with 95 films to choose from

Feature films from international festivals, Israeli documentaries and even horror films available for home viewing

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

The 36th Haifa Film Festival is taking place this Sukkot, as usual, but amid the pandemic, it is all online.

The annual film event began Saturday night, October 3, and will run through October 10, screening 95 films from Israel and around the world, in addition to the Israeli documentary competition, student film screenings, a pitching session for Israeli feature films, and a TV series conference.

It’s a smaller festival this year, said festival director Yaron Shamir, given that there were fewer Hollywood films to choose for screening, a result of the changes wrought upon the industry by the coronavirus.

“We had to choose from what was available, and the big feature films weren’t out there this year,” said Shamir. “Usually it’s which Hollywood movie is out and which stars are in which movie, especially for the opening film. This year, the decisions were based on what the staff liked, which made for a very quality selection.”

The festival staff worked hard to create a festival experience, said Shamir.

“It’s not like going to the theater, but it’s not just video on demand, either,” he said.

Films can be chosen according to the festival schedule, and once chosen and paid for, viewers have 24 hours to watch the film.

The schedule is far shorter than usual, said Shamir. He is concerned that the older audience will have a tougher time with the online version, and won’t tune in.

“Maybe we’ll get the younger crowd this year, or the people that can’t usually get to Haifa,” he said, noting that the festival usually sells around 70,000 tickets. “We’ll be happy to go back to a normal festival next year.”

The 95 films being screened in the festival include the best of this year’s international film festival selections, such as Sundance’s “Exile,” by Visar Morina, about immigration and discrimination, and “Summertime,” by Carlos Lopez Estrada, a spoken word production. Note that all foreign films have subtitles in Hebrew only.

There’s also Israeli-American filmmaker Boaz Yakin’s “Aviva,” a romance about gender fluidity and dance, and “The Big Hit” from Emmanuel Courcol, which wowed audiences at Cannes.

The eight Israeli films premiering in the documentary competition include sharp, smart storytelling about different aspects of Israeli life and history.

Director Lina Chaplin’s documentary, “In Secret,” tells the stories of several former ultra-Orthodox Jews who have either left their Haredi communities or are preparing to do so.

The film offers a kind of backstory to the TV shows that have made such an impact in recent years, including the Emmy-winning “Unorthodox” series, and “Unchained,” the TV series about a Haredi rabbi who helps women whose husbands refuse to give them a divorce, and in the process, learns more about his own marriage.

Hearkening back to a piece of Israeli history, “Susita,” by Avi Weissblei, is a tight, well-researched, hour-long film about the fiberglass car made in Israel in the 1960s and 1970s, shedding light on the company and industry.

“Bitter Honey” offers a depressing but lyrical look at the environment, Israeli agriculture, and the bee industry, from directors Udi Kalinsky and Revital Oren.

In “Scattergories,” director Yakie Ayalon shows the story of three teens, born in Israel to migrant parents from Nigeria, who are sent back to Nigeria, but yearn for their Israeli lives.

“Heroine” is Smadar Zamir’s feminist film essay devoted to Israel’s female feature film directors, told through their monologues and essays, and “The Church” is Anat Tel’s deep dive into the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.

Horror film fans can take advantage of two different films in Midnight Madness, and there are also several selections for kids and families throughout the week-long festival.

The audience was waiting for the festival, said Shamir.

“There’s lots of interest,” he said. “People are at home and this is what they can do culturally.”

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