Monday, August 31, 2009

TIFF09—A History of Israeli Cinema / Historia Shel Hakolnoah Israeli

Raphaël Nadjari’s A History of Israeli Cinema / Historia Shel Hakolnoah Israeli, Pts. 1 & 2, played at the Berlin Film Forum, then screened at this year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (SFJFF), where Janis Plotkin wrote in her program capsule: “Israel as a nation is far younger than motion pictures; in fact, its modern identity has been formed in parallel with the medium of film. Israeli films, when seen unfolding over time as they do in this engrossing retrospective documentary, reveal a cinematic national identity that encapsulates the emotional reality of a country often torn by ethnic, religious and political conflicts.”

A methodical albeit sprawling three and a half-hour inventory, I was at first put off by this documentary’s somewhat nationalistic intensity, though—upon a second viewing—I could more easily digest its voluminous information, and came to appreciate—as Plotin has contextualized—how the history of Israel and the history of cinema have, in effect, grown up alongside each other. That being said, however, an appetite is required for this feast. This is one of the few instances where I will admit that watching a film on screener proved advantageous, allowing me the opportunity to take a break now and then when oversatiated. As an in-cinema experience, I’m not quite sure how comfortably this will play (which is not to say that a film’s efficacy should be determined by its comfort). At
Variety, Alissa Simon found it “fascinating and frustrating” and complained the film was “structured using a dialectical method that denies a satisfying synthesis of ideas.” At the San Francisco Bay Guardian, Dennis Harvey compliments that the “hazy” narrative of how the Israeli cinema industry got to where it is today “clears up quite a bit after three and a half hours.” “Its epic length,” Thom Powers writes succinctly in his TIFF capsule, “is earned by having a lot to say.” As Powers further attests: “The documentary's two halves are as distinct from each other as the historical periods they represent. Each part can be viewed independently, but a taste of one will surely give you the appetite for the other.” If I had to play Solomon, however, I’d probably recommend the second portion over the first, simply because the profiled films are more current if not relevant and reflect my own vested participation in SFJFF’s programming of the last decade.

I’m definitely glad I caught A History of Israeli Cinema at SFJFF because—in solidarity with John Greyson’s boycott of TIFF’s CTC (City to City) program—I doubt I would have caught it in Toronto. In fact, were it not for the boycott and schedule conflicts, I would have likewise been interested in Assi Dayan’s Life According to Agfa (1992), highlighted in the documentary. Hopefully, along with several of the other referenced films, these will become available through revival screenings here and there in less contentious atmospheres. Cameron Bailey’s official response to John Greyson’s open letter of protest suggests that—by Greyson’s reasoning—“no films programmed within this series would have met his approval, no matter what they contained.” Greyson had complained: “Why are only Jewish Israeli filmmakers included? Why are there no voices from the refugee camps and Gaza (or Toronto for that matter), where Tel Aviv's displaced Palestinians now live?”

Bailey has made a respectable effort to defuse Greyson’s insinuation that exclusion of the Palestinian perspective implicates TIFF in Israeli propaganda. He points to other programs at TIFF that feature Palestinian, Egyptian and Lebanese filmmakers; but, again, these are not the programs to which Greyson objects. As the programmer of CTC, Bailey defends his focus on Tel Aviv: “I was attracted to Tel Aviv as our inaugural city because the films being made there explore and critique the city from many different perspectives. Furthermore, the City to City series was conceived and curated entirely independently. There was no pressure from any outside source. Contrary to rumors or mistaken media reports, this focus is a product only of TIFF’s programming decisions. We value that independence and would never compromise it.”

Despite Bailey’s assertion of the independent conception and curation of TIFF’s Spotlight on Tel Aviv, he does not substantively address Greyson’s concern that Israeli Consul General Amir Gissin openly expressed in an interview with the Canadian Jewish News that TIFF’s Spotlight is the culmination of his year-long Brand Israel campaign, which has included bus/radio/TV ads and an exhibition of the Dead Sea Scrolls at the Royal Ontario Museum. Gissen said Toronto was chosen as a test-city for Brand Israel by Israel's Foreign Ministry, and thanked Astral, MIJO and Canwest for donating the million-dollar budget. Greyson reminded that Astral is a long-time TIFF sponsor, and Canwest owners' Asper Foundation donated $500,000 to TIFF. Gissin boasted in the Canadian Jewish News article: "We've got a real product to sell to Canadians... The lessons learned from Toronto will inform the worldwide launch of Brand Israel in the coming years.”

“[M]any questions remain for me about its origins, its funding, its programming, its sponsors,” Greyson stated to the TIFF heads of programming. “You say it was initiated in November 2008 ... but then why would Gissen seem to be claiming it as part of his campaign four months earlier? You've told me that TIFF isn't officially a part of Brand Israel—okay—but why haven't you clarified this publicly? …Why is TIFF accepting and/or encouraging the support of the Israeli government and consulate, a direct flaunting of the boycott, with filmmaker plane tickets, receptions, parties and evidently the Mayor of Tel Aviv opening the spotlight? Why does this feel like a propaganda campaign?”

As cogent as Greyson’s critcisms might be, in all fairness to the CTC program and A History of Israeli Cinema specifically, its second volume poignantly references Palestinian concerns as inflected through cinema. In fact, I would say the documentary accurately informs how these concerns have been ongoing and evolving for some time, often with films guiding government policy and public opinion. Cultural boycotts within the cinematic community itself might merely be a next stage.

Equally, though not specifically referenced in A History of Israeli Cinema, Eytan Fox’s The Bubble—which has been included in the CTC lineup—recontextualizes the naïve “Romeo & Juliet” (i.e., Jewish & Arab) romances popular in Israel during the ‘80s by queering the conflict as a “Romeo & Romeo” romance. Interestingly enough, when The Bubble screened in San Francisco at our 2007 Frameline Festival, I asked director Eytan Fox his thoughts regarding the protests staged against Frameline's acceptance of financial contributions from the Israeli Consulate to secure his attendance at the festival. He answered at that time: “I can understand why people got upset that it was sponsored by the Israeli consulate. I see that happening again and again with people who are upset with Israel, with its policies. They don't like the fact that it's a formal thing, that Israel the country, the state, whatever, is supporting [the film]. It's usually Palestinians or people connected to Palestinian causes or just people who are critical of Israel's policies. I understand where these people are coming from; but, in this case, in a film like The Bubble, they should read what the film is about, and realize it can support their cause.”

Israeli filmmaker
Udi Aloni—who supports the Canadian protest and is calling on Israeli artists to take the same steps—addressed a letter to Eytan Fox and Bubble co-creator Gal Uchovsky, asking: “Are Israeli artists [Foreign Minister Avigdor] Lieberman’s new foreign service cadets?” At Haaretz, Tahel Frosh reports: “According to Aloni, Israeli artists need to rethink their participation in the festival. ‘Wherever they appear they must decide if they are representatives of the Foreign Ministry or of an uncompromising opposition to occupation and racism in Israel,’ he said. ‘Israeli directors don’t have to be defensive and ask “Why are they attacking us?” but say to the Canadian directors: “We're with you on this. We don’t represent Lieberman; we represent the opposition.” There are only two options. It’s no longer possible to shoot and cry.’ ”

Eytan Fox’s hope that audiences will focus on the content of his film tracks with Bailey’s defense that—despite the absence of a Palestinian filmmaker in the CTC program—content and form do matter to the TIFF programmers. He encouraged audiences to see the films before passing judgment; to not denounce the series before seeing the films. Timing, however, seems to be trumping content in this particular instance. Bemoaning the fate of the films with their festival audiences does not sufficiently distract from what feels like ill-conceived and mistimed programming. The films will survive and be seen elsewhere but—at the 2009 Toronto International—they might have to weather diluted enthusiasm.

Cross-published on