BDS or Not, These Are the Gems to Watch at the Haifa Film Festival

The events on Israel's borders might be keeping some guests away, but those who show up can catch current and older classics that take you from America's death row to France's wine country

Patrick Fugit, Ryan Gosling, and Shawn Eric Jones in First Man (2018)
Universal Pictures

It’s hard not to connect the slim guest list at this month’s 34th Haifa International Film Festival and Israel's political and security situation. People haven't stated clearly that they’ve canceled their visit because of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, and no one has been stopped for questioning at Ben-Gurion Airport because of their left-wing tendencies, God forbid.

Still, in recent years the list of guests for the festival – similar to that of other Israeli film festivals – has been thinning out.

Those invited to Haifa who politely turn down the invitation will almost never say they’re doing it for political reasons, says the festival’s artistic director, Pnina Blayer. But for the festival that runs from September 22 to October 1, the subtext is hovering in the air.

“There’s definitely a feeling that guests who were invited and asked for us to get back to them passed and in the end decided not to come,” Blayer says. “You don’t need BDS for that; the pictures they see on television abroad about what’s happening on our borders and in neighboring countries is enough. Today it’s harder to bring in guests from overseas.”

>> What Netflix's thriller 'The Angel' gets wrong about the Mossad and its top spy

Nonetheless, in the bubble in the center of Mount Carmel everything is going on as usual. The 34th festival will be held during the week-long Sukkot holiday as usual.

It opens Saturday night with the new film by Avi Nesher, “The Other Story,” about a young nonreligious woman whose parents are trying to prevent her from marrying a newly religious man. The festival closes on October 1 with Damien Chazelle’s “First Man” about Neil Armstrong.

Around 280 films will be shown at the festival; the following are Haaretz’s recommendations.

“Dead Women Walking”

The trailer for 'Dead Women Walking'MontrealBlackFilmFestival

Hagar Ben Asher’s first American film is a series of nine punches in the soft underbelly of human compassion.

The film, which was first created as an internet series, is made up of nine episodes, each following a woman in her last days on death row in an American prison. Each is at a different stage of preparations for the end, and each is equipped with a unique story.

Still, all the stories unite into a single narrative that comes together under the shadow of a ticking clock. It brings the women nearer to the lethal injection.

“Ayka”

A clip from 'Ayka'The Upcoming

This is the film that won Samal Yeslyamova the best-actress award at Cannes this year. It’s a tough and heartbreaking drama that joins a long list of films in recent years addressing the refugee problem that has rocked many countries.

Ayka is an illegal immigrant from Kyrgyzstan who fled a hospital in Russia soon after she abandoned her newborn son there; she had no way to support him and give him a chance for a decent life. She is drowning in debt, exploited by her employer and homeless. Despite her hard work and determination, she can’t break out of the horrors that labor migrants find themselves in.

Sergey Dvortsevoy, who also directed the award-winning “Tulpan” in 2008, has put together an intense and claustrophobic drama that sheds light on a world without hope in Moscow.

“Burning”

The 'Burning' TrailerTIFF Trailers

The new film by South Korean director Lee Chang-dong, who directed the award-winning “Peppermint Candy” (1999), is a mystery that develops slowly and cautiously. It’s a well-thought out work that brings the audience in as part of the main character’s attempt to understand the murky events around him. In the end, Lee’s effort flows into a fascinating thriller.

In the film, a shy young man meets a young woman who he went to school with; the two start a relationship. When she’s about to travel abroad, he agrees to watch her cat, but when she returns with a wealthy new boyfriend with a dubious hobby, the love triangle gets complicated.

This movie was South Korea’s entry for best foreign language film at the Oscars and was an audience favorite at Cannes this year. It’s based on a short story by Haruki Murakami.

“Sunday’s Illness”

The trailer for 'Sunday's Illness'CINEGardens

Director Ramon Salazar’s film premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival; it requires patient viewing and a willingness to proceed at a modest pace. But the experience is worth it.

In this magnificently acted story directed with sensitivity, two women meet after not having seen each other for 35 years. Anabel is married to a very rich man, lives in a luxurious manor, dresses elegantly and takes part in high society.

When the daughter she abandoned at age 8 appears at her home one day and asks her mother to spend 10 days with her in her village, Anabel agrees. She doesn’t know why her daughter has appeared in her life just now, but she agrees to cut herself off from her present life and deal with her guilt feelings – and a slew of other emotions – that sweep her away in this meeting.

“Cold War”

The trailer for 'Cold War'Movieclips Indie

Polish-British director Pawel Pawlikowski’s new film stirred great interest before its premiere at Cannes, after Pawlikowski’s previous film “Ida” won an Oscar.

The new effort is an epic in black and white that begins during the Cold War in the early ‘50s with a theater troupe that wanders around Europe. The manager is looking for new talent, and an affair that develops between him and a young Polish singer who joins the group becomes a long-term love story. It also becomes a struggle to survive the tragic upheavals in Europe during this period.

The cinematography is spectacular and the music is stirring. And even if the love story seems a bit too dramatic sometimes, for almost all the film it both breaks your heart and delights it.

“The Kindergarten Teacher”

The trailer for 'The Kindergarten Teacher'ONE Media

Nadav Lapid directed this 2014 film, and its premiere at Cannes was received warmly by critics. Now we have the American remake.

This independent film, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and Gael Garcia Bernal, features a kindergarten teacher in New York who loves poetry. When she discovers among her charges a boy with an exceptional talent for poetry, she’s determined to help him reveal his talents to the world.

The film premiered at the Sundance festival this year, received enthusiastic reviews and won its director, Sara Colangelo, the festival’s prestigious prize for directing. The two producers of the Israeli version of the film, Talia Kleinhendler and Osnat Handelsman-Keren, helped produce the American remake.

Tribute to Agnes Varda

In a welcome move, the Haifa festival is paying tribute to one of France’s greatest directors, Agnes Varda. (She was born in Belgium but since age 18 has lived in France.) Her works are spread out over more than six decades, are wide-ranging, and include both short and full-length features, many of which touch on social issues from a feminist point of view.

The Haifa festival has chosen to celebrate the director’s 90 years by screening 11 of her films, including two of her most famous works. The first is “Cleo from 5 to 7” (1962), considered one of the outstanding examples of the French new wave. It’s about a singer waiting for her doctor to tell her if she has fallen ill with cancer.

The second is “Vagabond” (1985), about a young homeless woman, played by Sandrine Bonnaire, who wanders through the wine country in southern France in the depths of winter.

It’s a shame Varda won’t be attending the festival, but this is a golden opportunity to watch a number of her films.

Chamber music concert conducted by Zbigniew Preisner

The list of guests isn’t the strong side of the Haifa festival this year, but one name does stand out, Zbigniew Preisner, the Polish composer who became famous for his creative cooperation with director Krzysztof Kieslowski.

Preisner wrote the hypnotic music for Kieslowski’s films “The Double Life of Veronique” and his color trilogy: “Three Colors: Blue,” Thee Colors: White” and “Three Colors: Red.” Some parts of his works will be included in the vocal concert scheduled for September 29, where he will conduct the Israeli Opera Choir as segments of Kieslowski’s films play in the background.

Three new Israeli biographical documentaries

In addition to the competition for Israeli documentary films, three new films will be screened as part of Yair Qedar’s wonderful project for biographical documentaries of outstanding writers in Hebrew and Jewish culture.

The three new documentaries include “Alone – The Legend of Miriam Yalan-Shtekelis,” directed by Reuven Brodeski, about the Jerusalem poet who was the first winner of the prestigious Israel Prize for children’s literature.

The second is “Mori – Shabazy’s Riddle,” directed by Israela Sha’ar Meoded, which focuses on Rabbi Shalom Shabazy, the greatest of the rabbis and poets of Yemen who wrote more than 800 poems and songs – and killed two of his children.

Finally, the film “Vogel Lost Vogel,” directed by Ayelet Ofarim, presents the story of the author and poet who despite his wonderful command of Hebrew lived for only one year in Israel and earned recognition only after his death.