Israeli Sci-fi's Big Year, Now at the Utopia Festival

Next week’s Utopia science fiction film festival in Tel Aviv presents contemporary international and Israeli cinematic insights into what the future may hold

Utopia: The Tel Aviv International Festival of Science Fiction and Fantastic Film from September 13 through 20 at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion and other venues in the city plays several roles simultaneously. On the one hand, its managers have succeeded in positioning it as an important festival that presents new and significant films that cannot be ignored – and the sponsorship of the Digital Life Design conference network does not hurt either. On the other, the festival also keeps the geek spark alive by allowing a space for reflection for the young futurologist and meticulous cosplayer.

For the first time, the festival will include a competition of Israeli full-length feature films (there are five entrants), together with competitions of Israeli short films, full-length international films and a new category for short international films. The films will be shown in two programs: in parallel with the main competition, which includes mainly science-fiction and fantasy films, there will also be dystopian films containing suspense, horror and action.

The presence of seven Israeli full-length films, six of them produced this year, is a pleasant surprise.

The festival’s guests include Mike Hostench, deputy director of the Sitges International Fantastic Film Festival in Spain (he is working with the Utopia Film Festival for the first time); writer, cyber-analyst and TED speaker Guy Philippe Goldstein; director Jason Wishnow, whose film The Sand Storm, starring Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei, will be screened at the festival; and transmedia entrepreneur Marine Haverland.

The festival is not devoted to cinema only: The Utopia Futurological Congress – a summit of visionaries of tomorrow – will take place at the HEMDA Tel-Aviv Center for Science Education on Sept. 18, presenting various perspectives on the future held by international leaders and renowned cultural and social personalities who will speak about science fiction’s relevance in understanding the present. The event also includes an Idea Bazaar featuring topics such as “psychedelic pop and future music,” “techno-sex,” “the end of the world” and “the third industrial revolution.”

The festival’s opening film is Terry Gilliam’s “The Zero Theorem” (2013) starring Christoph Waltz, Lucas Hedges, Mélanie Thierry, David Thewlis and Tilda Swinton. What could go wrong? Gilliam has directed some of the best science fiction/fantasy films in history (from “Brazil,” which will also be screened at the festival, to “12 Monkeys”), though his record has weakened in the 21st century. His 2005 film “The Brothers Grimm” was a bit disappointing (because it was merely a good film, not an exemplary one), and I do not remember anything from the plot of “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus,” which was aesthetically spectacular.

The latest film by another wonderful director, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, “The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet,” will also be screened at the festival. Starring Helena Bonham Carter and Judy Davis, this is not a science fiction or fantasy film like “The City of Lost Children” (1995, directed by Jeunet and Marc Caro) or “Alien: Resurrection.” But the fact that the film’s protagonist is a 10-year-old cartographer whose science project has won a prestigious award from the Smithsonian Institution makes it more than appropriate for screening at the festival.

There are many more films that make one chew one’s fingernails in anticipation, including a documentary film, “Jorodowsky’s Dune,” which tells the story of a film director who tried to create a film adaptation of “Dune” during the 1970s.