Russia Celebrates Feminist and Queer Films Made by Israeli Women

The Moscow International Film Festival is hosting a tribute to Israel’s women filmmakers, praising the diversity of ages, backgrounds and worldviews present in their work

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A scene from 'Joe + Belle.'
A scene from 'Joe + Belle.'Credit: Ron Haimov

Russia’s film industry is experiencing contradictory news reports. On one hand, the authorities’ political persecution of the directors of the Artdocfest documentary film festival reached a new peak this month; the organizers were forced to cancel their film screenings in St. Petersburg and Moscow due to homophobia. But on the other hand, the Moscow International Film Festival will open today (Thursday) with plans to screen movies with explosive potential in the conservative country, including a major tribute to female Israeli directors.

The festival website praises the Israeli filmmakers, with an emphasis on the diversity of ages, backgrounds and worldviews present in their work. They write that Israeli women’s cinema is “always talented, striking and controversial,” adding that the tribute is “an attempt to present the female face of Israeli cinema.”

The retrospective, taking place at the initiative of the Israeli Embassy in Moscow, marks the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Israel and Russia. The films were curated by cinema historian Ariel Schweitzer, who writes for the French magazine Cahiers du Cinema, in addition to his many Israeli writings and books. He wasn’t afraid to select films with LGBTQ themes, nor is he afraid of censorship; he’s looking forward to the reactions the screenings will elicit.

“I considered it particularly important to present a program like this, particularly in a country as traditional and conservative as Russia,” he tells Haaretz.

A scene from 'Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem.'Credit: Amit Berlowitz

You heard what happened at Artdocfest. Do you expect similar reactions?

“I’ve heard about the attempt at censorship at other festivals in Russia, and I’m definitely curious to see how the screenings will go. But as far as the festival itself is concerned, we received full support. The festival directors didn’t impose any censorship, not even on films dealing with LGBTQ content, such as ‘Joe + Belle’ by Veronica Kedar.”

Along with the Israeli program, there will also be a retrospective for Russian women directors. Is there any connection?

“That’s the main theme of the festival this year. Colleagues of mine from the Russian film industry told me that at the moment, several feminist and LGBTQ movements are developing, whose activity is reverberating in the public sphere. I have no doubt that the programs to be shown at the festival will draw fire on the one hand, but will also receive a great deal of support from cultural figures and social activists.”

Cinema historian Ariel Schweitzer.

Asia in Europe

The opening film of the tribute will be “Asia” by Ruthy Pribar. Pribar will be present at the screening, which precedes the film’s release in theaters throughout Russia, which will begin after the Moscow festival ends.

The film tells the story of a mother and daughter (Alena Yiv and Shira Haas), who are seeking an escape from the mother’s burnout and the daughter’s life-threatening illness. “It was only natural to begin the program with a new film, which takes place in a family of Russian origin and is partly in Russian,” says Schweitzer.

A scene from 'Asia.'Credit: Daniella Nowitz

Although “Asia” took home nine statuettes at the 2020 Ophir Awards, including the one for best Israeli film, it has yet to be shown commercially in Israel. Its screening in Moscow and distribution in Russia will join a year of global successes since the film’s premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York last April, where it garnered three major awards.

The rest of the tribute will consist mainly of films from the past decade, all by Israeli women and about the feminine experience in Israel. Schweitzer says “Space will be devoted to the pillars of Israeli women’s cinema: Ronit Elkabetz (‘Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem’) and Keren Yedaya (‘Mami’), and to younger directors like Hadas Ben Aroya (‘People That Are Not Me’).

A scene from 'People That Are Not Me.'Credit: Meidan Arama

“It was also important to me to give a place to documentary work,” he says, “and I chose Moran Ifergan’s wonderful film ‘Wall,’ due to its cinematic and political daring.”

Other films will include “Close to Home” by Vidi Bilu and Dalia Hager and “Voices from the Heartland: Slaves of the Lord” by Hadar Friedlich. Short films will also be screened, including “Grief” (also by Friedlich), “Pathways” (Hagar Ben-Asher) and “Lost Paradise” (Mihal Brezis and Oded Binnun). “It was important to me to show several short films along with the full-length ones, because short cinema sometimes allows for experiments that aren’t always possible in full-length films. That’s why Brezis and Binnun’s film will be screened, which in my opinion is an outstanding example of short film.”

Did you suggest focusing on female directors, or did the festival directors suggest it to you?

“The cultural attaché of the embassy, Yana Kotlyar-Gal, came to me because I curated a retrospective of the history of Israeli film in 2019 at the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. She proposed that I also curate this event, and I suggested a focus on women’s cinema. It’s one of the most fascinating phenomena in contemporary Israeli film, and I already devoted a program to it in Paris in 2018. The proposal was accepted with great enthusiasm by the management of the Moscow festival.”

A scene from 'Wall'Credit: Moran Ifergan

How were the films in the tribute chosen?

“I put together a program of about 20 films, with the main criterion being my personal love and admiration for the films and the filmmakers. I was happy that the festival directors, who demanded so see all the films in advance, shared my taste completely. Nevertheless we were forced to choose just about 10 films, most from the past decade, with an emphasis on films that combine political and feminist concepts with aesthetic daring.”

How rare is it for the Moscow festival to open its doors to world cinema?

“According to the festival management, this is the first time in its history that it’s devoting a comprehensive program to films from a specific country. The festival was established in 1935, and from 1946 to 1993, during the period of the Soviet Union and the Iron Curtain, it was held alternately one year in Moscow and one year in Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic. So that this is supposedly its 43rd event, but in fact it’s much older.”

The Moscow International Film Festival will end on April 29, and additional Israeli films will be screened there. Among them are Roy Krispel’s “Abu Omar,” with Kais Nashif in the role of a father who wants to bury his toddler son, and Ran Tal’s “What If? Ehud Barak on War and Peace,” which is competing in the documentary category, and has already been shown in Israel in theaters and on television.

The tribute to women directors is supposed to attract most of the attention, and it will be interesting to see whether it will draw ire or praise. Until then, we can mainly envy the Russian audience that will get to see Israeli films in movie theaters, while we in the homeland do not yet know when we will be able to do the same.

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