Pitching, Hitching and Ditching

For as long as I can remember, Israel's axis has been tilted toward the United States. It's the place talented Israelis want to go and study; its culture and language are default for Israelis, after their own homegrown culture; more flights leave Ben-Gurion for New York than any other destination.

The film festival, however, has a real European flavor to it, and many of the out-of-town guests wandering around between screenings, and who showed up to a glittery dinner party at the Tower of David Museum on Sunday night, can be heard speaking French, not English - though being Europeans, most of them know their way around that language as well.

One important extracurricular event at the festival with European, not American, participants (and there have been a number of such events in 2008, the "European Year of Intercultural Dialogue"), is the "Jerusalem Pitch Point," at which producers of 14 different Israeli films in the making were given a chance to pitch their projects to potential investors from the states of the European Union, including Arte France Cinema and Bavaria Film International.

Last year's Pitch Point led to five Israeli-based productions receiving funding from European firms. This year's pitches so far led to cash awards being distributed to two productions, "Fidelman," directed by Joseph Mandmoni, and "The Policeman," whose director is Nadav Lapid.

Most European countries, like Israel - but unlike the U.S. - also provide public funds for filmmaking, and this means that sometimes artistic factors can win out in investment decisions even if a film has limited commercial potential, something that is ultimately good for both filmmakers and audiences.

With all this in mind, yesterday I attended a screening of the 13 movies nominated for last year's European Film Academy Short Film Competition, none of which was longer than 15 minutes.

They ranged from slick, funny and sexy ("Le Diner," about a dinner date between a good-looking couple who despite their different social statuses and education levels, seem very attracted to one another, but which goes inexplicably awry - only when the woman arrives home do she and we discover what was going on); to highly disturbing ("Dad," an eight-minute but powerful drama about an aging English couple who maintain an active sex life, and their middle-aged son, who doesn't); and enigmatic ("Plot Point," a Belgian production shot in midtown New York, where images, and a soundtrack supplied by Moby, create a strong sense of dramatic anticipation, and which, when nothing obvious happens, serves to makes us aware of how sensitive we are to cinematic cues).

Though some of the shorts had an experimental quality that made them far from accessible, viewed together they provided a stimulating and also entertaining experience, something I'm unable to say about a Filipino feature called "Serbis," which screened at Cannes this past spring. Brillante Mendoza's movie about a Manila cinema specializing in sex films, and the family that owns and runs and lives in it, certainly has an interesting premise, and the acting is so powerfully natural it feels like a documentary. But even documentary films have a plot, and certainly a message.

"Serbis" - the word is a corruption of the word "service," local slang for the wares offered by the male prostitutes who operate out of the "Family" theater - is a raw production about an extended family that is unhappy, and truly unlike any other. The cinema has several sets of staircases, and characters spend a lot of their time, and at least half of the movie, running up and down the steps.

Combined with a soundtrack that causes the busy street outside to be more audible than characters' dialogue, it makes this gritty picture claustrophobic, and overly oppressive. There's no redemption, and not much of a point either.