Haifa Blooms as Film Fest Offers Array of Local Pickings

With Israeli cinema attracting worldwide attention, the feature film competition is the centerpiece.

Tobias Hochstein

The 30th annual Haifa International Film Festival opens on Thursday under rather good circumstances, this year highlighting a wide range of films, including a tribute to humorist Ephraim Kishon.

The event has blossomed in recent years, unlike its counterpart in Jerusalem, which has recently faced crises involving both management and money matters. By contrast, the Haifa festival has demonstrated stability and its artistic director, Pnina Blayer, notes that ticket sales in recent years have been rising consistently.

The Haifa municipality reduced its financial support for this year’s festival, but Blayer and her associates managed to recruit commercial sponsors that have made up the difference. This summer’s war dealt a particularly major blow to the Jerusalem Film Festival, which took place during the hostilities, bringing with them a number of cancellations by overseas guests. Although the fighting ended in August, it has also affected the Haifa festival. The management of the Haifa event chose not to extend invitations while the war was still ongoing, but when potential participants were approached after the war, for some the invitations came on overly short notice. The highest-profile guest is Russian film director and actor Andrey Zvyagintsev, whose works include “The Return” and “The Banishment.”

A scene from Suha Arraf's 'Villa Touma.' Photo by Rabia al-Salfiti

The tribute to Kishon marks 10 years since his death, and will include open-air showings of his classic films “The Policeman,” “Sallah Shabati” and “Blaumilch Canal,” all offered free of charge, to be projected on a giant screen in Haifa’s Gan Ha’em park. The festival also features a showing of a new digitalized version of Kishon’s film “Ervinka” with Haim Topol, who will be on hand for the screening. There will also be an evening moderated by Yaron London devoted more broadly to Kishon’s writing and film work. Among those in attendance will be Topol, actress Gila Almagor, Hebrew linguist Avshalom Kor and Kishon’s son Rafi.

As in prior years, the Israeli feature film competition will be the centerpiece of this year’s festival. Nine movies will be competing for the honor of best film. Three of the films were directed by women – Sophie Artus, Tamar Yarom and Tal Granit (who co-directed “Mita Tova” with Sharon Maymon). Another woman of note is Liron Ben-Shlush, who wrote and stars in “At Li Layla” (“Next to Her” in English), directed by Asaf Korman.

This year it looks like the Israeli feature films on offer will be of particular interest. Two of the nine films have already received an enthusiastic reception at international film festivals, and therefore come to Haifa as leading contenders. One of the two, “At Li Layla,” earned Dana Ivgi the Ophir award – the Israeli equivalent of the Oscars – as best supporting actress. “Mita Tova,” (“Farewell Party” in English), an intelligent dark comedy that manages to deftly deal with such sensitive subjects as euthanasia while remaining positively funny, is a second favored entry. The film has already been shown at film festivals in Venice and Toronto to great acclaim and provided Ze’ev Revach with an Ophir award for best actor.

A scene from 'Leviathan,' directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev.

Seven other Israeli films will have their world premiere at the Haifa festival, and it’s certainly possible that they might present a surprise upset for best film. “Emek” (“Valley” in English), Sophie Artus’ first full-length feature, is the story of three sensitive young people from the northern town of Migdal Ha’emek who are forced to contend with violence at home and at school. And Mushon Salmona’s film “Shkufim,” (“The Invisibles”) could provide a similar surprise, as his prior film “Vasermil” did seven years ago at the Jerusalem Film Festival. His latest offering is the story of a young Bedouin who finishes his service in the Israel Defense Forces and then returns to the Negev village where he grew up.

Nir Bergman’s new movie “Yona” recounts the story of the interesting life of provocative female poet Yona Wallach. “The Pracht Inn,” directed by Tamar Yaron, whose films garnered two prizes at prior Haifa film festivals, is a particularly interesting adaptation of Israeli writer Aharon Appelfeld’s book “Night after Night.” The plot line is set in the 1960s and follows a relationship between a man and a woman that develops at a Jerusalem guest house for Holocaust survivors.

When it comes to social commentary, perhaps the most strident offering will come in Noam Kaplan’s “Manpower,” which consists of four stories all relating to the lives of migrant foreign workers in Tel Aviv: There is the highly-regarded policeman who is ordered to expel them, the young Filipino who longs to enlist in the Israeli army, the taxi driver whose son marries a foreign migrant woman and decides to leave the country, and the longtime foreign worker who faces a particularly difficult dilemma.

From 'Life of Riley,' directed by Alain Resnais.

“Apples from the Desert,” directed by Arik Lubetzky and Matti Harari based on a screenplay that they wrote with author Savyon Liebrecht, is about the only daughter of an ultra-Orthodox couple who despairs of her life and runs away with a young man to a desert kibbutz. Riki Shelach’s “Tuviansky” is based on the true story of Captain Meir Tuviansky, who was accused in 1948 of spying against Israel, convicted and summarily executed, only later to be found innocent.

“Tsili,” Amos Gitai’s film based on another Appelfeld book, had its premier at the Venice film festival. It was due to be shown at the Haifa festival as well, but Gitai ultimately withdrew it from the festival.

On the other hand, “Villa Touma,” which was written and directed by Arab Haifaite Suha Arraf, will be shown as an international offering. Arraf sparked a storm of protest in Israel this year when she had the film listed at the Venice festival as Palestinian rather than Israeli. “Villa Touma,” which received funding from the Israel Film Fund, was later listed in Venice without a nationality. Arraf asked that it not be shown at the Haifa festival as part of the Israeli film series.

Although not part of the Israeli feature film competition, Dani Menkin’s “Is That You?” will also be presented in Haifa. Starring Alon Aboutboul and Rani Blair, it tells the story of a 60-year-old movie projectionist who is dismissed from his job and embarks on a trip to the United States in search for the sweetheart of his youth. The festival will also feature 12 films competing for best documentary.

The Haifa International Film Festival runs from Thursday, October 9 through Saturday, October 18.

A scene from 'Olivier Assayas’ new film Clouds of Sils Maria.