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Jerusalem presents 'fresh' documentary stories

A trip by Israeli reggae producers to Jamaica, Final Solution architect Heinrich Himmler, new immigrant angst and a pit ball rescue centre are among the many worlds explored in this year’s Israeli Documentary Competition.

“We were focused on both the film language and the subject matter. We wanted films that were both fresh in the way they were shot but also challenging socially or intellectually,” says filmmaker Anat Zuria, who was on the festivals four-person selection committee for documentaries.

The 15-title selection kicks off today with a sold-out premiere screening of filmmaker and journalist Uri Misgav’s Life of Poetry: The Story of Avraham Halfi [pictured].

Combining interviews with friends and archive footage, the picture explores the life of the publicity shy late poet, described by Misgav as an “anonymous hero”, whose work Adorned Is Your Forehead formed the basis for one of Israel’s most popular Hebrew songs.

Other contenders include Yossi Aviram’s The Polgar Variant, Tor Ben-Mayor’s Fringe Story, Michal Kaphra and Deva Oz Melman’s 36 Views of Fukushima, Robby Elmaliah’s The Unwelcoming, Hilla Medalia’s The Go-Go Boys and Vanessa Lapa’s The Decent One.

36 Views of Fukushima is an incredibly intense yet quiet exploration of the catastrophe and the suffering it caused… it has beautiful cinematography and is quietly moving,” says Zuria, whose own women’s rights-focused documentaries include Black Bus and Purity: Breaking The Codes of Silence.

The Unwelcoming is an unusual tale about a Tunisian Jewish family that moves to Israel but misses the Arab world it left behind. Another film which was voted in unanimously was Pit Bulls Flesh & Blood, it’s a sort of thriller about an outsider who risks his life to save dogs caught up in the fighting world,” she adds.

The Polgar Variant charts the tale of Jewish Hungarian chess prodigies Judit, Susan and Sofia Polgar who were part of an educational experiment by their parents in 1970s and went on to become grandmasters.

It marks Aviram’s first feature-length documentary after his fiction feature debut The Dune, starring Niels Arestrup as a police officer investigating the identity of mysterious mute Israeli man discovered on a French beach, which premiered internationally to critical acclaim at San Sebastian last year.

“Yossi is happy to move between the two medium,” says producer Amir Harel of Lama Films, the Tel Aviv-based production house also behind fiction films like Paradise Now, Jellyfish and $9.99.

“The film draws a heavily on archive material from across Europe, especially the Hungarian state archives, to build up the story,” he adds.

Emmy Award-winning Ben-Mayor’s Fringe Story, which also gets its world premiere at the festival, follows the Israeli Orto-Da fringe theatre group on a European tour with a show inspired by a sculpture of the Warsaw Ghetto Fighters.

Hilla Medalia’s The Go-Go Boys captures the rise and fall of legendary Israeli producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus while Vanessa Lapa’s The Decent One is an in-depth portrait of Himmler based on letters, photos and notebooks which mysteriously ended up in the hands of a holocaust survivor and came to light in 2011.

The Go-Go Boys and The Decent One premiered internationally at Cannes and Berlin, respectively, following a long-line of Israeli documentaries to do well on the global stage.

“The film went down really well in Berlin,” says Philippa Kowarsky of documentary sales company Cinephil, which is handling The Decent One.

The two pictures follow a long-line of Israeli documentaries with a high profile on the global stage.

“Yes it’s amazing that a small place like Israel makes so many films and so many good films. Why that is it’s difficult to say… it’s not just the place, it’s also that Israeli filmmakers deal with difficult issues straight on - not just about the conflict but also Israeli society, looking at everything from orthodox societies to gay rights to the gulf between Sephardi and Ashkenazi communities, ” says Osnat Trabelsi, head of the Israeli Documentary Forum, the professional body gathering all local doc-makers.

Respected producer Trabelsi has nothing in competition at Jerusalem this year but has spent the past nine months touring festivals with Keren Shayo’s Sound of Torture about kidnapped Eritrean refugees who are held in terrible conditions in the Sinai Desert.

Alongside the competition and sidebars such as In The Spirit of Freedom and The Jewish Experience, documentary films will also be at the heart of a conference entitled Cinema as Rumour, revolving around films about filmmakers.

It is being held in memory of actor and filmmaker Assi Dayan, who passed away in May, and will feature a screening of the autobiographical documentary Life as a Rumor about his life.

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