Children from poverty-stricken families in Brooklyn who become chess champions, a young American woman who must cope with breast cancer, a Mexican boy who tries to cross the border into the United States to find his mother — those are only a few of the protagonists of the films that will be screened next week in Tel Aviv. Devoted to independent American films from the past few years, the new States of Minds festival opens Sunday. Surprisingly, the person behind the project, Lysbeth Sherman, is not American but French. Sherman, who was born in Toulouse, has been living in Washington, D.C. for the past few years.
What motivates Sherman, a film curator from France, to manage an Israeli-American film festival? “Israel was always a part of me,” she says. “My parents are French. My mother came from Morocco and my father came from Poland. But we have a large extended family in Israel.”
Sherman, who divides her time between the United States, France and Israel, has a unique life story that made her aware of the need to strengthen connections between communities of artists all over the world. “During my visits to Israel, I attended many film festivals, but I saw that Israelis weren’t very familiar with independent American film — movies that were made with lower budgets and outside the mainstream,” she says. “Like in most of the world, American film is identified here mainly with Hollywood.”
Sherman knows a thing or two about the relationship between film, community and diplomacy. After she moved to Washington, D.C. with her American husband, she set up and ran the French film festival there. Over the past few years, she has been president of States of Minds, a non-profit organization that “seeks to foster and promote positive social impact and a greater understanding of diverse societies among countries of cultural similarities and differences.” About two years ago, Sherman contacted the American ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, and began discussing the idea of establishing a new film festival in Israel called States of Minds. The festival, which includes the screening of 12 American films, panel discussions and special events, will be held for four days at the Lev movie theater in Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Center. Some of the films will be screened at the Cinematheque theaters in Jerusalem and Holon, at the Beit Hagefen Arab Jewish Cultural Center in Haifa, and in the Galilee Park in Carmiel. “From a budgetary perspective, it’s a collaboration between States of Minds, the U.S. Embassy and individual donors,” says Sherman. “Other people and I invested in the festival from our own pockets because we felt it was a long-term investment, not a one-time event. We have a long-term vision that’s built on the desire to provide Israelis with a current and varied picture of what’s happening in American independent film. So anyone who worked on the project worked out of a powerful passion for film. It was an amazing experience for me.”
From Tribeca to Holon
The films chosen by Sherman and New York film director Amos Poe provide a glimpse into the works of independent, young filmmakers whose films have been screened at the Tribeca, Sundance and Cannes festivals. Poe - who made feature films and documentaries and collaborated with musicians such as Patti Smith and Iggy Pop and actors and filmmakers such as Kevin Spacey, Gina Gershon and Philip Seymour Hoffman - curated a program that included Celine Danhier’s film “Blank City,” a documentary about the underground film scene in New York during the 1970s, Matt Creed’s “Lily,” a narrative feature film about a young woman who gets breast cancer, Jaffe Zinn’s “Magic Valley” about a murder that takes place in a small town in Idaho, and “Putty Hill,” a well-received feature film directed by Matthew Porterfield, one of the most prominent and admired directors in American independent film.
Alongside the feature films and documentaries, the festival also provides a look into the current independent film scene. “Blank City,” for example, combines rare archival footage with interviews with New York legends such as Jim Jarmusch and Buscemi in its attempt to document the convention-breaking atmosphere that swept the New York art scene in the 1970s. The first day of the festival features a conference on media and technology that will examine the relationship between digital technology, independent film and media as a tool for social change. Jan Van Voorn, a representative of the Motion Picture Association of America, and Tiffany Shlain, the founder of the Webby Awards (the Oscars of the Internet), will come to Israel as guests of the festival to participate in a special panel discussion about film and digital media.
“It was important to us to emphasize the way technological developments provide more freedom to artists,” Sherman says. “As technology becomes cheaper and more available, more artists can get educational and community processes going. I found it fascinating to examine the relationship between technological change and global political change. At the same time, we chose to screen films that deal directly with addiction to technology — the feature film ‘Disconnect’ and the documentary film ‘Connected’ [directed by Tiffany Shlain]. That’s something many artists have been dealing with over the past few years: what will happen to us when the visual content is everywhere? What’s happening to us even now, in an age when we can see films on our tablets, cellular phones or in movie theaters? How do these changes affect the way people relate to each other? These questions are particularly relevant to the community in Israel and in the U.S., two countries that are hi-tech superpowers and rapid adopters of technological innovation.”
Women are represented fairly highly at the festival. Is that intentional?
“Definitely. Since I believe this is the start of a long tradition, I decided to highlight different topics each year. This year, along with the relationship between digital technology and independent film, there will also be a panel discussion devoted to women in the media industry. Unfortunately, there are very few women directors today. In the U.S., the biggest obstacle women face is the way the film industry is funded. In the end, the big money comes from studios or from businessmen, which is a very masculine world. So more women are doing documentary films, which are not as expensive [as feature films]to produce.”
Barak Goodman’s film, “Makers: Women Who Make America”, will be screened as part of the discussion about film as a tool for empowerment and social change. Goodman’s film is actually the first in a three-part documentary shown on PBS last February. In the film, successful women such as Hillary Clinton, the writer Judy Blume and Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, talk about the feminist revolution of the 1960s and 1970s and the inequality that still exists in American society. On Tuesday a conference entitled “Film Diplomacy,” will take place at the Jerusalem Cinematheque. Director Katie Dellamaggiore will speak with Dr. Noa Regev, the head of the Holon Cinematheque, about film as a tool for social and community change. Tension between classes and races is another major theme that marks the films to be screened. Dellamaggiore’s award-winning film, “Brooklyn Castle,” depicts tensions between pupils from underprivileged neighborhoods in New York and those from wealthier backgrounds, against the backdrop of a chess championship.
As a person who divides her life among several countries, do you feel there are differences between Americans and Israelis?
“Yes. Israelis’ emotional responses are very different from Americans’. In Israel, because it’s so small geographically, it’s easier to keep in touch. But in America, most Americans go away to college at 17, and that’s it — from that moment, they don’t live with their parents anymore. They’re very independent and smart, but many times that comes at the expense of emotional development. I think they’re different models of human development and of relationships. That doesn’t mean one is better than the other — they’re just different.”