The Academy Awards have barely rolled up the red carpet and already a new slate of Israeli films are logging some serious air miles and mugging for the camera in hopes of being the next big thing in international cinema. Festival season is well underway: Sundance is behind us; Cannes is coming up in a month. Berlin has already bestowed its Golden Bear for the year and Venice will hand out its Golden Lion at the end of the summer.
This week on the Upper West Side, the Israel Film Centerpremieres its own film festival, while downtown the well-respected Tribeca Film Festival launches its 12th installment. Tribeca, the fest co-founded by Robert De Niro, presents an eclectic mix of big and small, domestic and international films, including an intriguing selection of Israeli offerings this year – from sweet to terrifying.
"Big Bad Wolves"
FilmmakersAharon Keshales and Navot Papushado are considered the Israeli kings of horror – they're the team who made the Holy Land's first slasher flick, "Rabies." Somewhat surprisingly, that was only two years ago. The film, which screened at Tribeca in 2011, introduced Israelis to their first homegrown cinematic serial killer.
Now audiences get to meet another one. The deadly duo is back with a grisly follow-up, "Big Bad Wolves," about a vigilante cop and vengeful father who capture a serial killer accused of a horrific crime against a child.
"A revenge thriller with teeth, 'Big Bad Wolves' delivers on its raw tension with operatic drama," writes Loren Hammonds for the Tribeca Film Festival.
The film stars Lior Ashkenazi, one of the country's biggest actors, who previously appeared in "Rabies" and the Oscar-nominated film "Footnote." Perhaps he'll be a good luck charm to carry this dark and disturbing tale to broad audiences around the world.
"Dancing in Jaffa"
For something a bit lighter and much more inspiring, "Dancing in Jaffa" is a documentary that follows international ballroom dancing star Pierre Dulaine as he returns to Jaffa, the city where he was born and raised, after decades abroad.
Shocked by the racial tensions that poison the population, he starts a ballroom dance program at three Jaffa schools, pairing Palestinians and Jews and challenging the children – and their parents – to reconsider how they think about their neighbors.
"'Dancing in Jaffa' is a sweet and incredibly moving tale filled with moments of truth, poignancy and humor, offering a glimmer of hope in the intractable conflict," writes Liza Domnitz for the festival.
It's kinda like if "Ajami," the gritty drama about life in a violent neighborhood of Jaffa that was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2010, met "Mad Hot Ballroom," the adorable 2005 documentary about kids in inner-city New York who find their rhythm – and themselves – in a ballroom dancing afterschool program. The potent combo of social significance and cute kids may be a winning formula along the lines of the 2010 Oscar-winning documentary short "Strangers No More," which shined a light on the children of refugees and foreign workers in South Tel Aviv.
Think of it as the anti-"Fill the Void," last year's acclaimed film about love and marriage in the Haredi community that swept the Ophir Awards (Israel's equivalent of the Oscars). "Six Acts," the film from first-time director Jonathan Gurfinkel, is a raw look at a teenage girl discovering the power of her sexuality, testing its limits and finding herself lost in a gray area between being in control and losing it.
"'Six Acts' is an edgy and perceptive portrait of an average girl increasingly consumed by oversexed teenhood," writes Cara Cusumano for the festival. "Gurfinkel questions conventional ideas of consent, exploitation and complicity in this intelligent and provocative debut feature."
Screenwriter Rona Segal, in an interview with Indiewire, compared the film to the 2009 Academy Award Best Picture winner "The Hurt Locker," about an American bomb disposal team during the Iraq war. What could possibly be the connection?
"Replace death with sex and you have our movie," she says.
the Israeli film deluge continues with the Israel Film Center's inaugural film festival, which launched last week and continues this week. The center has been part of the Manhattan Jewish Community Center for several years, promoting Israeli film in the United States and working to expand its reach abroad. The festival runs through April 18 at locations throughout Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens.
So you missed all the big hits in Israel last year? The center is bringing them to the Big Apple, screening every film nominated for Best Feature at last year's Ophir Awards plus a few new releases and some gems from a few years ago that have gone under the radar. In addition to the eventual Ophir winner, the aforementioned "Fill the Void," the other three nominees secured their U.S. visas and will be making appearances:
"The World is Funny"
The festival's opening night feature, "The World is Funny" was Israel's highest grossing film last year and garnered a record-breakingnumber of Ophir nominations. The tragicomedy, set in the northern Galilee town of Tiberias, weaves together the stories of estranged siblings and manages to find the humor in life's great challenges.
"Rock the Casbah"
This film may have scored the prestigious International Confederation of Art Cinemas award at this year's Berlin International Film Festival, but it's been making news more recently due to the assault on its director, Yariv Horowitz, after a screening in France. The reports are conflicting and it's unclear whether anti-Semitism was behind the attack. Nevertheless, the random violence and ambiguity surrounding it seem to echo the film's tale of soldiers serving in Gaza during the first intifada.
"The Ballad of the Weeping Spring"
Featuring the most acclaimed soundtrack of the year, "The Ballad of the Weeping Spring" actually crossed the Atlantic in January for the New York Jewish Film Festival – apparently it checked the boxes to be considered both sufficiently Jewish AND Israeli – and is back to join the Israel Film Center party. The story follows the son of a renowned composer of Persian music and a lute player as they journey to play for the composer at his deathbed. Well worth a visit for the musicalone.
Israel Film Center Festival site: http://www.israelfilmcenter.org/festival_films
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