As on every Sukkot holiday, this year Haifa will once again become a pilgrimage destination for culture vultures and film enthusiasts across Israel. The Haifa Film Festival is hitting screens for the 28th time, and as usual, it offers an abundance of films and events that are well worth a trip up north.
The festival opens on Saturday, September 29, with a screening of Ben Affleck’s film, Argo, which has already garnered positive reviews and won over audiences at the 60th San Sebastian International Film Festival’s Official competition in Spain earlier this month. The film tells the story of a CIA "exfiltration specialist" who concocts an interesting way to save six Americans trapped in Iran, by having CIA agents pretend to be the production team of a sci-fi film.
The Haifa festival will close ten days later with Won’t Back Down, starring Viola Davis, which is about the power of the human spirit.
The films at the festival will be screened at five venues in Haifa, with the central venue being the Cinematheque, which has a spacious theater, the lovely new Rappaport Hall and a smaller, more intimate space. Not far from there, about a seven-minute walk along Hanasi Boulevard, on the top floor of the Tikotin Museum of Japanese Art, is the Raphael Auditorium. Several minutes’ drive south is the Kriger Auditorium, where the Ophir Awards ceremony was recently held.
The Haifa film festival is a bustling event that also presents free outdoor screenings of classic films, such as the best of Charlie Chaplin and Jacques Tati, and a complex with various booths, performances and events at the nearby Gan Ha’em in Haifa.
If you find the jam-packed program confusing, let us help you decide.
Israeli competition: More than Fill the Void
Eight films are competing for the title of best Israeli action film. Although six of them have already tried their luck at the recent Ophir Awards, they have not yet been released to the general public. Of them, Fill the Void is the best-known, having won seven Ophir Awards and clinching the spot as Israel’s candidate for the Oscar Awards. Its star, Hadas Yaron, also picked up an an Ophir Award, and recently won the award for best actress at the Venice Film Festival. It will be no surprise if all the tickets are sold out already.
Several other Israeli films that have been screened at other international film festivals will also be making an appearance in Haifa. The Cutoff Man by Idan Hubel, starring Moshe Ivgy and the city of Nahariya, is beautiful and unusual, while The Inheritance, directed by actress Hiam Abbass, has also been making headlines. Both films were screened at the Venice Film Festival.
Meanwhile, two additional films that were screened in Toronto are also taking part in the Israeli competition: Igor and the Cranes’ Journey, directed by Evgeny Ruman, and Out in the Dark, directed by Michael Mayer, about a complicated relationship between an Arab student and an Israeli lawyer. Room 514, directed by Sharon Bar-Ziv, received a special jury mention at the Tribeca film festival, and Jonathan Gurfinkel’s debut film, Six Acts, was screened at the San Sebastian Festival in Spain. The eighth film in the competition is Aner Preminger’s Present Continuous, starring Chagit Dasberg in an excellent performance as a mother who decides to protect her family in an original, if somewhat extreme, way.
International films: Norwegian excellence and Italian reality
Whatever you do, do not miss Oslo, August 31st, directed by Joachim Trier, which describes a day in the life of a young man who wrestles with the ghosts of his past mistakes, hoping to create a new future for himself. One of the best films of 2011, it will certainly be one of the festival’s top choices as well. Also recommended is A.C.A.B. – All Cops Are Bastards, a fascinating, if not always easy to watch, portrait of a unit of Italy’s riot police.
Other films worth seeing include Gayby, an independent American comedy about a young woman who wants to have a baby and enlists the help of her gay friend to do so; The Iceman, a thriller featuring Michael Shannon (Boardwalk Empire), Winona Ryder and James Franco; and the satirical comedy Reality, directed by Matteo Garrone, winner of the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival.
Headed to the Oscars
This year, the festival places less of a spotlight on American films than usual, which provides a golden opportunity to take a peek at some of the most fascinating films that have been made throughout the world in recent years. For example, Greece, which became a focus of interest with its candidate for best foreign film at the Oscars in 2011, is well represented at the festival with three excellent films. Alps is the most intriguing of the Greek films, because it comes from Yorgos Lanthimos, who directed the excellent, if disturbing, Dogtooth, which brought Greece to the Oscars two years ago. But this year, Filippos Tsitos was selected to represent Greece and will try his luck with Unfair World, which will also be screened in Haifa. Boy Eating the Bird’s Food, the first film by director Ektoras Lygizos, is also recommended: It's like a coming-of-age film that combines the Japanese film Nobody Knows and Ken Loach’s Kes.
Even though the roster for the Haifa festival has been decided for some time, quite a few countries’ entries for the next Oscars have found their way to the festival. Hungary’s entry Just the Wind, directed by Benedek Fliegauf, is being screened along with these other contenders: Romania’s entry Beyond the Hills, directed by Cristian Mungiu, the director who brought Romanian cinema back to center stage with 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days in 2007; War Witch, from Canada, describes the journey of a teenage girl's survival in a way that is reminiscent of director Claire Denis' work; Germany’s entry Barbara, which has garnered a great deal of praise, and also the prize for best director at the Berlin film festiva; Mexico’s entry After Lucia, and Pieta by Kim Ki-duk, which was chosen as South Korea’s entry after it won the Golden Lion award for best picture at the Venice Festival.
The classics: new prints of old films
The Haifa film festival also offers visitors a great gift in the form of new prints of several film classics. Among them are Lawrence of Arabia; Journey to Italy, starring Ingrid Bergman; and a retrospective of the brilliant director Theo Angelopoulos, who passed away this year. His 1988 film, Landscape in the Mist, is a must-see.
Despite all the names and superlatives, one of the best things about a film festival is the gamble involved. Try to choose films you've never heard of or those that you will never get another chance to see. Who knows? One of your all-time favorite films could be hiding in the program, just waiting for you to discover it. At the Haifa film festival, the odds are in your favor.