Hunting Elephants and Protecting Dogs in Iran: Jerusalem Film Festival 2013

There's plenty to see, but one of this year's highlights is Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, who will attend the screening of “The Gardener,” a documentary he filmed in Israel, together with his son.

This year’s Jerusalem Film festival, which opens Thursday with Israeli director Reshef Levi’s “Hunting Elephants,” features dozens of fascinating films from around the world. So which movies do we recommend?

One of this year’s most important guests will be the Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf. He will attend the screening of “The Gardener,” a documentary he filmed in Israel, together with his son Maysan Makhmalbaf. The style of this beautiful, simple yet complex film is familiar from the director’s fictional works, the best-known of which include “Kandahar” and “Gabbeh.”

“The Gardener,” most of which was shot in the Baha’i Gardens in Haifa, examines the Baha’i faith, which originated in Iran; many of its adherents still live in Iran, where they are persecuted by the regime.

Researching the Baha’i religion and documenting the beauty of its Haifa gardens serve as the foundation for the creation of the film, in which the father and son examine the essence of religion − any religion − and even the essence of moviemaking. The result adds up to a kind of self-portrait of Makhmalbaf that is revealed through his attitude toward the religion he is examining.

Israeli viewers will no doubt enjoy the criticism of Iran in the film, but its power lies in its being a dialectic that avoids fanaticism. It is the movie’s openness that gives it its human dimension and its poetic essence.

In 2010 the Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, director of such excellent films as “The White Balloon” ‏(1995‏), “The Mirror” ‏(1997‏) and “Offside” ‏(2006‏), was arrested. After being convicted of offenses against Iran’s national security and of propaganda against the Islamic Republic, he was sentenced to six years in prison and a 20-year ban on leaving Iran or making films. But Panahi, whose arrest and sentence was widely censured abroad, continues to make movies covertly. In 2011, in collaboration with the Iranian filmmaker Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, he made the documentary “This is Not a Film” ‏(2011‏), which depicts a day in his life in prison, while awaiting the outcome of his appeal.

This year, in cooperation with the director Kambozia Partovi, Panahi made “Closed Curtain,” a complex allegory that moves among layers of reality in order to represent Panahi’s existential situation.

Partovi plays the main character, as a screenwriter who shuts himself up in his seaside home in order to protect his dog, in a country where keeping dogs is banned and the regime kills them en masse.

The entire film takes place within the confines of this isolated house. The first thing we see the protagonist do is to put up dark curtains on the windows. Various invented characters, and eventually Panahi himself, come to the house. Are we watching a movie within a movie? Does this have any significance? These are only some of the questions provoked by this unique, demanding work, which while being somewhat remote and alienating is also filled with emotion on account of its exposed, exhibitionistic nature.

It is already a cliche to be amazed time after time by the great Portuguese filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira, now 104, and the fact that he continues to make films at a pace that would exhaust much younger directors. But he really is unique, mainly because his films determinedly follow his cinematic path. Even if the result isn’t always accessible to the general public, his films are always worth watching.
Two of de Oliveira’s most recent efforts will be shown at the festival, one a long feature and the other a short comedy.

Like the French filmmaker Alain Resnais, 13 years his junior, de Oliveira often injects theatrical elements into his films. This is true for “Gebo and the Shadow” ‏(2012‏), based on a 1923 play by the Portuguese playwright Raul Brandao. It is set around the turn of the 20th century, in the home of a poor family in a coastal town in Portugal. The family is waiting for the return of the son, who has been missing for eight years. This is the shadow that hangs over it. His parents have concocted a romantic fantasy surrounding his disappearance, but the reality turns out to be different.

De Oliveira directed the film with his characteristic expressive meticulousness, with the help of the excellent cinematographer Renato Berta. As in most of his films, he makes no concessions to the audience, which must respond to the movie’s special tempo and its essentially static nature. For viewers who give themselves up to his cinematic vision the result is hypnotic. Part of the enjoyment comes from the impressive cast.

De Oliveira’s short film, one of four stories, each by a different director, making up the “Historic Center,” is very different from “Gebo.” This entertaining little satirical comedy is aimed at the contemporary tourist.

The four films focus on the Portuguese city of Guimaraes. De Oliveira’s colleagues in this endeavor are the Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki, who made an entertaining comedy in his unique style; the Portuguese director Pedro Costa Fredo, whose film is most demanding of the four; and the Spanish director Victor Erice, who made the exemplary “The Spirit of the Beehive” in 1973, the only one of the four who made a short documentary.

The result is a diverse reflection of each of the four important creators who were partners in the project.

Three films that won awards at this year’s Cannes Festival will be screened in Jerusalem.

“A Touch of Sin,” by the Chinese director Jia Zhang-ke, won the award for best screenplay. The film is extremely violent, and has some impressive scenes. It depicts four real-life stories, each illustrating the growing gaps between rich and poor in contemporary China.

“Heli,” by the Mexican filmmaker Amat Escalante, took the prize for best direction at Cannes. In a style that moves between restraint and flickering images of extreme violence, it tells the story of a family that falls victim to the drug trafficking that dominates the area where it lives.

“The Missing Picture,” by the French-Cambodian director Rithy Panh, won the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes. Using clay figures, the film recreates his memories of the atrocities inflicted on Cambodia in the 1970s by the Khmer Rouge and the Pol Pot regime.

As always, not all the films to be screened at this year’s festival are contemporary. Here are a few worth watching.

The Japanese director Shohei Imamura is one of the few directors to have twice won the Palme d’Or at Cannes ‏(for “The Ballad of Narayama” in 1983 and “The Eel” in 1997‏).

In 1967 he directed the impressive documentary “A Man Vanishes,” about the many people who disappear in Japan every year. It follows the story of a 32-year-old salesman who simply disappeared one day. The film, in the style of a dry but fascinating factual investigation, interviews the investigating police officers as well as the the man’s colleagues and family, including his fiancee. These interviews create a “Rashomon”-style variety of stories and possibilities, which together comprise a portrait of contemporary Japanese society and its troubles.

In the era of silent movies, as in the first years of the talkies, it was common to remake American films using non-American actors. This was the case with “Dracula,” Tod Browning’s classic 1931 horror film in which Bela Lugosi portrays the vampire count from Transylvania. A Spanish version of the film was also produced. At the end of every filming day the crew, led by director George Melford, who did not speak a word of Spanish, reshot the scenes using Spanish-speaking actors.

The Spanish version, starring Carlos Villarias as Conde Dracula, is more entertaining than the original. It will be screened at the festival, with musical accompaniment by the American guitarist Gary Lucas, who composed a new score for the film.

Two of the historical documentaries stand out as worth watching. One is “La Maison de la Radio” by the French director Nicolas Philibert, about the goings-on in the headquarters of the public broadcaster Radio France. As a documentary the film is rather pedestrian, but the media life it portrays makes it rewarding to see.

The other, more impressive film is “Bad Boy,” by the Polish director Janusz Mrozowski. It depicts, with stylish gravity, the routine of a convicted bank robber, who has been in solitary confinement for two years.

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