The 31st Jerusalem Film Festival gets underway today with a new management team determined to present a world-class event despite the escalating troubles in the region.
Aside from postponing the opening-night open-air premiere of Dancing Arabs (see full story here), the team is hoping for business as usual as much as possible.
“No doubt about it, the festival takes place as planned,” said CEO Noa Regev yesterday. “We are continuing our lives in the best way possible with the situation around us.”
She added: “The escalation in the security situation over the past few days saddens us all, and we hope for days of calm. The Festival will proceed as planned, in accordance with the instructions of Homeland Command and the police. The staff of the Cinematheque hopes to see the Festival venues full with the thousands of film lovers who attend the Festival every year.”
More than 200 films from around 50 countries will screen at the enlarged event, which will host industry heavyweights including Spike Jonze, Park Chan Wook, Ulrich Seidl and David Mamet as well as showcase a host of fresh and established local talent.
Regev and artistic director Elad Samorznik are at the helm for the first year – Regev taking over from former Sundance executive Alesia Weston who departed the post after one year - and are driving changes: “We’ve added some sections in a bid to bring new, younger audiences to the festival,” explains Regev, the former head of the Tel Aviv Student Film Festival who also serves as the director of the Jerusalem Cinematheque.
Former Haifa programmer Samorznik expands: “We have a Midnight Screenings section with horror, zombie, action films and comedies; Cinemania is a new section for cinephiles about filmmakers; we have a new competition strand for children; the debut section has become competitive; we have new outdoor screening venues in the Old City with Arabic subtitles, and we have introduced new competitive section Fringidair for Israeli independent cinema.”
Despite the spirit of renewal, Regev is also keen to stress continuity with the festival’s history as a forum for intelligent debate and a platform for classic filmmaking: “We’re not making a revolution here. It helps that we have some young staff with a lot of passion, energy and new perspectives on cinema and how a festival should play out, but that staff also has great appreciation for the history and heritage of cinema and of this festival.”
Continuity is also ensured in the shape of revered festival founder Lia van Leer who continues to be a strong influence. “Lia is very much involved,” explains Regev. “She visits the Cinematheque every day and cares deeply about every decision made”.
The new team is placing Israeli cinema at the heart of the festival:
“We are putting a great focus on Israeli cinema,” says Regev. “We have made sure to put the most important and prominent Israeli films in selection. Even though we are an international festival this festival is made by its local cinema.”
Eran Riklis’s locally filmed Dancing Arabs gets its world premeire and there are also berths for acclaimed Israeli directors Shira Geffen (Self Made) and Nadav Lapid (The Kindergarten Teacher) among others.
“We want to make Jersusalem the leading place for showcasing Israeli cinema in Israel as well as a hub for creative dialogue with the global industry,” adds Samorznik.
A dash of Hollywood glamour is provided by the likes of Clint Eastwood’s Jersey Boys and Rob Reiner’s And So It Goes while industry are well served with a promising lineup at this year’s Pitch Point event and a host of workshops.
There is also optimism in the number of women filmmakers screening at the event: “Approximately 30% of the films we screen are by women,” explains Samorzik. “That percentage rises to around 70% for the Israeli films. That is very important for us.”
The new focus is refreshing after a period of turbulence within the festival’s ranks. This year, encouraging support from local government and new and returning sponsors has seen the festival’s budget increase to around $1.2m.
Drawing Arab filmmakers to the festival remains a challenge, however: “It remains practically impossible,” says Regev. “As much as we would like to collaborate we understand that from the other side it is impossible. We met Palestinian filmmakers, for example, who were happy to talk to us but they said they couldn’t officially be part of the festival. It’s a great shame because we see the festival as an open platform.”