Other winners include Ivan Marinovic, Amikam Kovner and Assaf Snir.

Ethiopian-born, Israeli filmmaker Alamork Marsha’s Fig Tree, based on her experiences as a child in war-torn Addis Ababa in 1991, has won the $50,000 top prize at the pitching event of Sam Spiegel school’s Jerusalem International Film Lab.

It was an apt choice as fighting escalated between Israel and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip, some 70 kilometres down the road, where more than 160 inhabitants have died in Israeli air strikes over the past six days, launched in response to a barrage of rocket attacks on Israel. (In fact air sirens were heard in Jerusalem just 15 minutes before the awards were announced.)

In her pitch, Marsha revealed how Fig Tree was inspired by her childhood, living with her grandmother on the outskirts of the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa during the civil war and her Jewish family’s decision to move to Israel. She said one of her aims was to capture the surreal nature of life amid war.

“Our house was located in a community of different tribes and religions and this special mixture made my childhood very happy,” said Marsha.

‘Through this film I want to go back to my grandmother’s house in Ethiopia to describe life in the war and express the dissonance between two conditions, the war that brings death with it and the human lust for life.”

“One of my clearest memories is that I am playing chase with my friends and the next minute I am trying to avoid the soldiers’ crazy looks as they are dragging boys into trucks in order to send them to fight in the frontline. This surreal moment keeps repeating itself. I am playing and the war around me is kicking.”

Saar Yogev and Naomi Levari of Black Sheep Productions are producing the film which they plan to shoot in Ethiopia.

More awards

The event’s second prize of $20,000 went to Montenegro director Ivan Marinovic’s The Black Pin about a priest who finds himself at odds with the other inhabitants of his small, rural parish when he opposes a large property sale. Serbian Mina Dukic is co-producing alongside Croatian Jelena Miseljic and Macedonian Robert Jazadziski.

Israeli directors Amikam Kovner and Assaf Snir won the third $10,000 prize for their debut feature Echoes, about a man trying to decode his relationship with his wife, following her death in a car accident just after his discovery she was cheating on him. It is produced by Tel Aviv-based Keren Michal whose recent credits include Shira Geffen’s Self Made, which premiered in Cannes Critics’ Week this year.

Jury chairwoman, French producer and distributor Michèle Halberstadt of ARP Selection, said they had awarded the prizes “to passionate director-writers with a special urgency, a unique voice, originality and artistic courage.”

A total of 13 scripts were developed at the third edition of the six-month lab run by the Jerusalem-based Sam Spiegel Film & Television School. The final pitching event took place on the fringes of Jerusalem Film Festival on Friday (July 11). The Beracha Foundation donated the prize money.

Tense setting

Most scheduled participants, industry guests and jury members — which included Cannes Critics’ Week artistic director Charles Tesson, ARTE France Cinéma deputy CEO Rémi Burah and Berlin-based filmmaker Pia Marais — attended the event in spite of the uneasy atmosphere in Jerusalem amid the recent flare-up in the conflict, triggered by the murder of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank last month.

As participants pitched on Friday in the Mishkenot Sha’ananim cultural centre on the hillside overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem, clashes broke out 10 minutes down the road between East Jerusalem Palestinians and Israeli police over a decision to restrict access to the Al-Aqsa Mosque ahead of Friday prayers.

Beyond the general conflict, local tensions have also been running high in the city following the revenge kidnapping and burning alive of a Palestinian adolescent last week by Jewish extremists.

In the backdrop, Jerusalem was also on missile alert as Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip continued to fire hundreds of rockets into Israel, a handful of which have hit the outskirts of the city.

In Gaza, 80 people had died in Israeli air strikes by Friday morning. The death toll had risen to 121 by Saturday morning.

“If you hear an air-raid siren we ask you stay in the auditorium. This is the centre’s designated safe room, ” said moderator Dorit Rabinyan as she kicked off the pitches.


Beyond the winners, other projects pitched on Friday included Lunchbox director Ritesh Batra’s Photograph, new Israeli cinema star Talya Lavie’s The Current Love of My Life, Icelandic Asa Hjorleifsdottir’s The Swan, Polish Joanna Jurewicz’ Sweet Home Tennessee, Kyrgyzstan Aygul Bakanova’s Drifting Snow, French Gaelle Denis’ Shadow Land, Armenian Nora Martirosyan’s Territoria, Greek Gregory Rentis’ Lignite and Sanjeewa Pushpakumara’s Burning Birds.

Batra’s Mumbai-set Photograph revolves around the unlikely romance between a 40-year-old street photographer and a lonely rich girl, who has spent her adolescence at crammer schools, both nostalgic for an irretrievable bygone period in their lives.

He said that beyond being a love story it was also an exploration of “how the past looks from the present” and “a tour of Bombay with two funny, ugly people”.

Disputed Territories

A number of the projects were set against the backdrop of disputed territories.

Armenian director Nora Martirosyan presented Territoria, which unfolds against the backdrop of Stepanakert airport in the breakaway region of Nagorno- Karabakh, which was seized from Azerbaijan by Armenian-backed separatists in a bloody war in the 1990s. Martirosyan said, however, that the film would not necessarily allude directly to its location.

A drama with a wry comic touch it revolves around three characters desperate to either leave or stay in the region.

Swiss actor Carlo Brandt has signed to play an engineer who has been hired to do final checks on the refurbished airport, ahead of a grand opening, which never takes place because of the geo-political tensions in the region.

The other two lead characters are a small boy desperate to stowaway on the first plane to fly out and the daughter of an exiled dissident who has a ticket to leave but wants to remain.

Based on his personal experiences, Sri Lankan film director Sanjeewa Pushpakumara’s Burning Birds is set against the backdrop of his country’s devastating 26-year civil war between the state and the Tamil Tigers and revolves around a woman left to raise her eight children alone after her husband is killed in the conflict.

The director is currently living in exile after his previous film Flying Fish, also set against the backdrop of the war, prompted a riot when it was shown in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo last year as part of a French-backed film festival and was subsequently banned by the government.

In sign of just how polarised Israeli-Palestinian relations have become in recent years, there were no Palestinian projects in the selection, mainly because Palestinian filmmakers are boycotting Israeli cultural events in a response to the on-going conflict and Israeli occupation of Palestinian land.

“We have a responsibility to support and develop Palestinian projects but it seems an impossible dream at the moment but in the light of recent events its even more our responsibility,” said Rennen Schorr, founding director of the Sam Spiegel School, who is a driving force behind the lab, in his opening remarks.

Launched in 2012, six projects developed at the lab have already been completed including Philippe Lacote’s Run and Nadav Lapid’s The Kindergarten Teacher, which both premiered at Cannes in May, and Malik Vitthal’s Imperial Dreams which won the Audience Award at Sundance this year. Three more projects are due to be shot this year.

The lab is a joint venture between the Jerusalem Film and Television Fund at the Jerusalem Development Authority, The Beracha Foundation, Israel National Lottery Fund, The Jerusalem Foundation, The Israel Film Fund and The Sam Spiegel Estate.

Other supporting organizations include the Israeli Ministry Of Foreign Affairs and the Goethe Institute in Tel Aviv.