The Reel World / The Good, the Weird and the Ugly

Sometimes, when you see a film that really moves you, you can imagine showing it not only to the people you care most about, but also to those who have made your world - or the world in general - a more miserable place. To the ones you love, for obvious reasons; to the hateful, selfish and destructive (which, after all, is sometimes us, too), because we would like to think that everyone can learn and everyone can change.

I finally caught up, on the Jerusalem Film Festival's last day, with two documentaries I'd been hearing about all week: "Encounters at the End of the World," Werner Herzog's look at some of the brilliantly eccentric people who work out of the McMurdo Sound research station in Antarctica; and Scott Hicks' "Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts," about the composer who has managed to be ahead of the crowd his entire career by not caring a bit (or so he says) what the crowd thinks of him. At one point, Glass is talking to someone who tells him "I read somewhere that you're a Buddhist," to which the composer responds, "I read the same thing." He then explains that he sees himself as Buddhist, Christian, Jewish and more, and has no problem with that, since he's seen no evidence that any single tradition "has a copyright on profound ideas."

Hence we see him exercising with both his qigong teacher and a Buddhist master, as well as walking with his Toltec spiritual adviser in New Mexico - though I was disappointed to see no scene of him studying gemara with even a hip New Age rabbi. Reviewers in Glass' native New York were almost unanimously disparaging of the film, but Jerusalem audiences loved it, and my sentiments are with the latter group.

A compelling portrait

Even if Scott Hicks is far more enamored of his subject than we are by the picture's end, he has created a consistently interesting and visually compelling portrait of the 71-year-old Glass. Maybe, like me, you find Philip Glass's music monotonous and unfeeling when heard in isolation, but it's hard to deny its power when it serves as a soundtrack (Errol Morris, in the film, says that Glass, who wrote the score for his "The Thin Blue Line," "does existential dread better than anybody"), and scenes from the premiere of his opera "Waiting for the Barbarians," in Erfurt, Germany, also come across convincingly in the movie.

Glass possesses a mildly arrogant lack of introspection, and it's on display throughout the film, which helped me understand the obtuse quality of his music and why his fourth wife, Holly Critchlow, confesses, toward the end, that she and her husband have lately moved apart from one another. Still, I appreciated this emotionally closed man's openness to the world, his willingness to learn from different traditions without much concern for labels, and I was frankly impressed by the grace and proficiency with which he performed his qigong exercises.

He reminded me of the eccentrics Werner Herzog traveled to the South Pole to meet - not just scientists, but also philosophers, linguists, professional travelers, each of whom is in some way a "professional dreamer," as the director puts it in the dry and ironic voiceover that accompanies "Encounters at the End of the World." Herzog is a wonderfully morbid guy, and he seems to agree with the scientists who believe that "our presence on the planet does not seem to be sustainable." Can you blame him?

He promises us at the beginning of his movie that it won't be about penguins, but he can't help himself, and includes a wonderful interview with a scientist devoted to their study, eventually finding himself focusing his camera on one lone penguin who heads away from the pack, toward the inland mountains of Antarctica, and certain death. One poetically-minded scientist tells Herzog that the iceberg he's tracking is not only bigger than the one that struck the Titanic, it's bigger than the country that produced the Titanic - and the water it contains could keep the Jordan River running for a century. That iceberg is now heading north (everything on earth is north of Antarctica) - slowly, of course - and we should all be concerned about that. Which is why I want to take polluters - especially polluters - to see Herzog's film.

Although the festival ran through last night, the awards for its various competitions were announced on Friday afternoon, at a ceremony at the Lab, up the road from the Cinematheque.

This 25th festival was outstanding, mainly in terms of content (some 200 different films were screened over its 10 days), but also because such an ambitious logistic undertaking was run with such efficiency and professionalism. The two-year renovation of the Cinematheque is now complete, and this festival marked the opening of two new screening halls, for a total of four.

Breaking new ground

The names of the winning films and filmmakers should appear elsewhere in the paper, so I'll just mention a few of the more notable details from the ceremony - some of them heartening, others not so pleasant. A survey conducted by the festival found that the top three Israeli features screened over the past quarter century were 'Avanti Popolo' (Rafi Bukai, 1986), 'Atash' (Tawfik Abu Wael, 2004) and 'Late Marriage' (Dover Koshashvili, 2001). Bukai, a much-admired filmmaker and beloved human being, died in 2003 at age 46, and his son who doesn't appear to have been born much before that date, was on hand to accept an award in his father's name.

The Anat Pirchi award for best new dramatic TV series was given to "Arab Labor," which broke new ground on Israeli TV this past season by being presented in both Hebrew and Arabic. Director Rony Ninio, producer Daniel Paran, and screenwriter Sayed Kashua were all on hand to pick up their cash prizes. Ninio complained that he hadn't received an official invitation to the ceremony, Paran said that in fact he had (Ninio interrupted Paran to insist that he hadn't), and Kashua said he was happy to get the money.

Limor Pinhaso, speaking for the three members of the Pirchi Award jury, said they felt it was incumbent on them to note that they found the depiction of women in the sex scenes in many of the seven series they viewed to be "humiliating and disgraceful." Actress Hana Azoulay-Hasfari, who won the Wolgin Award for her performance in "Seven Days" ("Shivah," directed by Ronit Elkabetz and Shlomi Elkabetz, which also won for best feature film), was graceful and eloquent in receiving her prize, and noted how far Israeli society had come since she wrote and acted in the film "Sh'khur" 13 years ago, and came upon so much resistance in insisting that some of the Jewish characters speak Moroccan Arabic.

After the announcement that "Seven Days" had won the top prize, while the filmmakers were being photographed, most members of the audience stood and began leaving the hall, and they didn't turn back even when festival and Cinematheque founder Lia van Leer began making closing remarks. It reminded me of how, at every screening I attended, only a handful of those in the audience remained to watch the credits. It's behavior that's rude and provincial, not what you'd hope to find at an international-class event.