The Sixteenth Jerusalem Film Festival

July 7-18, 1999

Watabe Minoru

(Film critic and chair, Israeli Film Festival organizing committee)

A Film Festival for
Surveying Contemporary Israeli Films

Contemporary Israeli films produced in the 1990s have been introduced to Japan on several occasions. Besides the four Israeli Film Festivals, Japanese film fans may be familiar with the first Israeli Documentary Film Festival, the four Sukagawa International Short Film Festivals held in Fukushima, and retrospectives of films by Israeli directors Amos Gitai and Aron Bar.

In particular, Israeli films have won two Grand Prizes in the International Competition of the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival. The award-winning films are Choice and Destiny (1995) and Fragments Jerusalem (1997). In the first film, the director depicts her parents’ life, from wartime experiences in a concentration camp to their immigration to Israel after the war. The second film chronicles the lives of a family who have lived in Jerusalem for generations. In terms of land area, Israel is about the same size as the Japanese island of Shikoku, and is not large. However, in the films above, one can see that these works overflow with individuality, and in this lies the color and interest of Israeli films.

This individuality stems from the tendency of Israeli films to directly reflect their society. Events in Israel—the country’s dramatic founding through the Zionist movement, the Middle-East War that broke out with Palestinians and the neighboring Arab countries as a result of the founding of Israel, the invasion of Lebanon, the peace agreement, problems with the jurisdiction of Jerusalem—cannot help but attract attention around the world. Happy Birthday, Mr. Mograbi (Avi Mograbi, 1999), shown in the Interna-tional Competition section of the sixth Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival last year, questioned with unique composition and content what the relationship between nation and individual means for the Israeli people. Those who viewed Happy Birthday, Mr. Mograbi will notice Israel’s historical, social, and cultural complexity, and that this complexity is in fact the powerful driving force behind Israeli society. Israeli politics, revolving around the yet-to-be-resolved Palestine issue, are ever fluid, and change rapidly depending on the outcome of the prime ministerial election. One cannot wipe away the impression that the country is in a state of chaos.

What is an Israeli film? What is this Israeli nation that cannot be understood easily? Naturally, it seems that the questions we ask are the questions that the people of Israel ask themselves. Among the films screened at the Israeli Film Festival 2000 (sponsored by the Israeli Embassy and its film festival executive committee) held in Tokyo March 18–19 of this year, such films as Yana’s Friends (Arik Kaplun, 1999), with a Russian immigrant in Israel as its main character, and Borders (Eran Riklis, 1999), a documentary that captures the cultural and political problems which arise on the borders of Syria and Lebanon, depict the current problems that face this nation.

The annual Jerusalem Film Festival (sponsored by the Jerusalem Cinemathèque and Israel Film Archive) shows the current state of Israel through the country’s newest films. I would like to use this opportunity to introduce this film festival.

Last year, the Jerusalem Film Festival, the most prominent large-scale international film festival in Israel, was held for the sixteenth time with Lia van Leer, a cultural figure who resides in Jerusalem and holds a position of leadership in the Jerusalem Cinemathèque, as its executive director. During the festival, Israeli films receive their world premieres, and recent films from Asia, Europe, North America, South America and North Africa are screened in the Cinemathèque and several neighboring sites. Last year, Terrence Malick, Ettore Scola and Paolo and Vittorio Taviani were invited as the main guests, and the festival held a retrospective of these directors’ works, beginning with Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998). From Japan, Afterlife (Koreeda Hirokazu, 1998) and April Story (Iwai Shunji, 1998) were screened. The Israeli people have a great interest in Japan and Japanese films, and there exists a contingent of established fans. In particular, Sleeping Man (Oguri Kohei, 1996), screened two years ago, left a deep impression. Although Oguri’s films are few in number, his fan base is deep-rooted in Israel, and Sting of Death (1990) is highly acclaimed here. As a result, the theater was filled to capacity for the screening of Sleeping Man. The film’s description of Japanese nature, grasp of questions of life and death from an Eastern perspective and excellent performances by the actors made the film a topic of conversation. Israeii director Ron Havilios commented after viewing this film that it reminded him of Carl Thodor Dreyer’s masterpiece Ordet (1955).

The Jerusalem Cinemathèque houses a collection of classic Japanese films, and many Israeli audiences know these classics. This is another reason why many people show great interest in the newest Japanese films. Moreover, Israeli filmgoers seem sensitive to the awards Japanese films have been receiving at various international film festivals in recent years.

In the domestic section, the annual Jewish Experience feature screens classic films and works with historical importance to Israel. Amy Kronish, in charge of the domestic section, organizes this feature. Memorable films from this feature in recent years include The Long Way Home (Mark J. Harris, 1997), which recorded the footsteps of the Jewish people from the Holocaust to Zionism during the Second World War, and The Phenomenon Hitler: Deception and Reality (Irmgard von zur Muhlen, 1994), which portrayed the hidden side of Hitler, one different from that of the mass murderer, through the use of private footage shot in his mountain villa after he came to power. The festival also has a special feature of independent film and video, filled with works that are overflowing with the directors’ individuality. This feature is organized every year by Vivian Ostrovsky, herself a filmmaker.

The festival shows many foreign films such as those described above, and eagerly invites various guests. Most importantly, however, brand new Israeli films which have not been shown even in Israel make their debuts here. For example, the festival screens new films and television dramas starring Moshe Ivgi, an international star of Israel. A glimpse of these works is enough to understand the standard of quality of film culture in this country.

Moshe Ivgi is of small build and does not stand out at first, but after careful inspection, it’s clear that his characters speak very naturally about civil society in this country. The civilian Ivgi played in Day after Day (1998), directed by Amos Gitai (one of the judges for the international competition at YIDFF ’99), and his portrayal of a father in the television drama On Air (Isaac Zepel Yeshurun, 1999) gives the audience a sense of familiar reality. The television drama Begin (Uri Inbar), shown at JFF ’98, cannot be forgotten for showing the breadth of Ivgi’s acting range. In this drama, Igvi portrays the last years of prime minister Menachem Begin, a long-time prime minister known for his shrewdness. The use of makeup transforms Igvi into Begin, and Igvi’s trademark hoarse voice adds individuality to Begin’s character. Through the figure of the old withering prime minister, Igvi vividly depicts the loneliness of a man in power and his attachment to the past that does not fade with time.

If, in the near future, the Israeli Embassy were to sponsor or support a film festival devoted to Moshe Ivgi in Japan, there is no doubt that the Japanese people would feel closer to Israeli films.

Spirited Student Films

It goes without saying that the young generation is the most sensitive to ever-changing Israeli society. Student films in Israel differ slightly in nuance from those in Japan. Israel has a universal conscription system, and both men and women must serve in the military from the age of eighteen for several years. Therefore, those who have completed their military service are already twenty or twenty-one years old. Even though they were busy with military service, their social awareness has developed from their teens.

After returning to society, most youth find jobs in the civilian sector, but those who have been interested in film since their teens enter film schools or the film departments of universities. In this sense, the films they produce are already at a semi-professional level both in terms of technique and content. In addition, the Jerusalem Film Festival has founded a competition, the Wim van Leer Award for High School Students, for films produced by high school students who have yet to enter military service, and this competition exhibits great energy every year.

In recent years, short films by Israeli students have been shown in the Sukagawa International Short Film Festival, held every year in Fukushima Prefecture. At the 1999 festival, a film entitled Sea Horses (Nir Bergman, 1998) was shown. The film tells a story of a ten-year-old boy whose parents are on the verge of divorce and depicts in detail the delicate psychology of the main character who is becoming vaguely aware of his parents’ situation. This impressive home drama was produced by the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School in Jerusalem, which receives many awards at international student film festivals around the world for the high quality of its films every year.

At the 1999 Jerusalem Film Festival, I saw another beautiful film from this school entitled Locomotive (Oded Lotan, 1999). This film, which will be screened at the 2000 Sukagawa festival, is a performance piece without any dialogue, in which a young man and woman break into modern dance as they wait for a train at a station. The dance performances by the young man and woman were absolutely stunning. I heard later that the male actor is a prominent Israeli dancer. Many first rate actors such as Moshe Igvi take part in student films for no fee. This too should give a sense of the high quality of Israeli student films.

It is my undying hope that cultural exchange between Israel and Japan will continue actively and constructively through film.


I would like to thank the Cultural Section of the Israeli Embassy in Japan for their promotion of Israeli films in Japan. Ms. Carmela Barr who returned to Israel last July after completing her term, her predecessor Ms. Idet Amihai and the newly-appointed Mr. Zir Nevo Kulma are all diplomats who truly understand the essence of cinematic art. This is very encouraging, and they have provided me with their utmost support.

—Translated by Itosa Toru