Perhaps befitting the volatile nature of Israel itself, the Jerusalem Film Festival this year stirred up heated divisions for its films and its jury.
I got caught up in a minor controversy as a member of the Israeli competition jury at the Jerusalem Film Festival last week. Our jury of five people watched 11 new features over the week and at week’s end, after much heated discussion, gave the prize for best first or second film to Hadar Friedlich for Beautiful Valley, a contemplative study of aging set against the decline of the Kibbutz ideal.
Friedlich attended the prizegiving last Friday and graciously collected her award which came with a cheque for NIS 35,000. A day later, however, the festival withdrew the award from Friedlich, after it emerged in the press that jury member Michel Reilhac, the much-respected executive director at ARTE France Cinema, was indirectly involved in the financing of the film.
It’s no secret that Reilhac has been closely involved in Israeli cinema for some years and ARTE France sponsors the prize for best project at the festival’s project market Pitch Point; Reilhac himself had presided over the Pitch Point jury in 2008 that gave cash awards to the development of projects like Restoration and Policeman, which both played in competition this year [Restoration won the top prize]. The festival knew this when it invited Reilhac to sit on the jury, and he said subsequently that he was offended that his impartiality was called into question.
I can attest that the discussions were frank and honest. There was no doubt that going into the festival, Reilhac knew the projects, or at least the scripts, in competition better than us, and the other jury members would have appreciated full disclosure from the festival on what ARTE’s role was in each of the films, but Reilhac, who is a man of integrity, measured the films on a purely personal level and certainly not with a corporate bent influencing his opinion.
The prize finally was shared between Beautiful Valley and Policeman, Nadav Lapid’s portrait of a crack counter-terrorist squad working within the Israeli police force.
Ironically for all the storm (in a teacup) that broke over this prize, I was more interested in the divided response to Policeman. I found this film the most exciting in the festival. It’s a visceral slice of action cinema which asks some potent questions about contemporary Israel and marks the arrival of a confident new cinematic voice. Local audiences however were decidedly mixed on it, and some reacted vehemently against it. The jury was similarly polarized.
It cemented a theory of mine that local perspective on homegrown films is often markedly different to foreign. We’ve seen countless instances of this trend – compare the rancour of some critics and industry in Spain towards Pedro Almodovar, who is considered one of the world’s great auteurs outside his native land; look at Ken Loach’s struggles to finance his films in the UK and the receptive backers and audiences he finds in France; see how Woody Allen has found a new groove making his films in Europe when support dried up in the US.
Policeman will probably be far better received in Locarno where it has been selected to play in competition than it did in Israel where its hard-boiled style and confrontational subject matter hit a nerve.
Sometimes, the films which stir up uncomfortable emotions in their home markets will find a warmer reception from foreign eyes.