Israeli Cinema Is Into Something Good

One of the most entertaining moments of the opening ceremonies for the Jerusalem Film Festival, held at Sultan's Pool last Thursday, was when Dieter Kosslick, the director of the prestigious Berlin International Film Festival, was invited to officially open Jerusalem's more modest event.

One of the most entertaining moments of the opening ceremonies for the Jerusalem Film Festival, held at Sultan's Pool last Thursday, was when Dieter Kosslick, the director of the prestigious Berlin International Film Festival, was invited to officially open Jerusalem's more modest event. Kosslick mounted the stage with Lia van Leer, the festival's founder and director, and surprised everyone with such a funny monologue that the audience was roaring with laughter. Not only did he relate how he had stayed in the same hotel as van Leer during one of the festivals and gracefully put his foot in his mouth as he tried to explain that they had been on the same floor but not in the same room - he also tickled the audience's funny bone when he said that he had recently written a book about bagels.

The following day, in the lobby of a Jerusalem hotel, Kosslick, 59, admitted that he was captivated by the idea of holding an opening ceremony in an open space, under the stars, with an audience of some 6,500 guests. He probably won't be able to realize such an idea at his own festival, held in wintry Berlin in February. Having served as the director of one of the world's leading film festivals for the past six years, he is well-qualified to offer an opinion of Israeli film. Does he share the excitement of the local industry that something good is happening to Israeli cinema?

"I think so," he concurs. "Not long ago 'Orchestra Visit' was screened at Cannes, and it was well received. The movie was just recently invited to open the Munich Film Festival as well. There is no doubt that this was a great success - of course, it was but one success among many. Other Israeli films were also shown at Cannes. A few months earlier, 'Beaufort' was shown in Berlin. The movie was very successful. If you look closely at the list of films presented at our festival during the past six years, you will see that 54 movies from Israel were screened. That is an awful lot, representing an average of almost 10 films a year, from one single country. All sorts of films are being produced in Israel these days, and it is always an excellent sign for the movie industry when there is a variety of subjects."

Beki Probst, who manages the European Film Market, a professional event held each year alongside the Berlin festival, accompanied Kosslick on his visit to Israel. She agrees with him in his assessment of Israeli film.

"Notice how 'The Bubble,' by Eytan Fox, which was screened in Berlin, was released last week to theaters in France and was also very well received," she said. "Even though this is not the season when people throng to see movies. In the summer people go away on vacation."

Probst notes that the Israeli pavilion at the European Film Market in Berlin has become increasingly important in recent years. "I definitely share Dieter's feeling that there is growing interest in Israeli films the world over," she adds.

When asked if the variety displayed in Israeli films is the reason they succeed in appealing to a more universal audience, Kosslick refers to "Beaufort," the big Israeli success at the last Berlin festival, for which Joseph Cedar received the Best Director's award. "When we saw 'Beaufort,' we did not think of it as a film dealing with a local conflict - the Israeli-Palestinian struggle - or something like that," says Kosslick. "For us, it was simply an excellent anti-war film. That's why it was important for us to show it in Berlin. At the same time, we also presented Clint Eastwood's film 'Letters From Iwo Jima,' and the two movies worked wonderfully together. These two films oppose war and like 'Beaufort,' Eastwood's film is also general, universal. Its subject matter is much broader than one specific war that took place in Japan. The movie is very interesting to watch, because many people do not know this story, just as they do not know what is really happening here, in Israel."

The interview with Kosslick was held immediately after he and Probst had left the conference of the World Cinema Foundation, which was established by the Berlin festival three years ago. The foundation boasts an annual budget of some 500,000 euros to support filmmakers from various countries and assist them in producing movies with a solid cultural identity. When asked whether the trend toward coproduction, which is becoming more common in Israeli cinema, actually encourages filmmakers to deal with universal subjects at the expense of local issues, Kosslick was quick to differ. "We had long discussions on that question," he says. "In the early years of the European Union the policy of several countries was to produce movies jointly. We started making a lot of production lines. We soon realized, however, that we were creating a giant mess - back then we called it Euro pudding: People in French films spoke German, Italians spoke Dutch, and no one wanted to see those films, because they had lost their home audience and had failed to find a new one. So we stopped that practice.

"Today there are many joint projects between Israel and Germany, and with Europe in general. But whoever is really professional will not sacrifice the artistic value of a film for lack of funding - we have already seen that this does not work. I do not believe this kind of mistake will be repeated in Europe. Although both Germany and France were involved in producing the film 'The Syrian Bride,' for example, I don't think anyone would claim that it is a strange, unclear cultural mixture. This means that you are entering such partnerships at an excellent time."

At the end of the interview Kosslick digresses to a discussion of bagels. His book traces the roots of the bagel, and he was amazed to hear of another kind of bagel, sold in Jerusalem at the entrance to the Cinematheque and sprinkled with a green spice (za'atar - ground hyssop) and salt. There is nothing you can do about it: This is a strange country. But at least the film industry has become more interesting.