Best of the 2004
Israel Film Festival

by Alan Waldman

When the 20th annual Israel Film Festival comes to New York (Oct. 14-28), Chicago (Nov. 3-14) and Miami (Dec. 2-12), it will include a few outstanding films, a number of decent ones and a handful of stinkers. FILMS FOR TWO® sent me to cover the IFF in Los Angeles, back in May, where I saw 16 films. I enjoyed quite a few of them and would like to herein guide you toward the winners and away from more questionable choices. 

At the L.A. festival, IFF founder and director Meir Fenigstein told me “In the last five years the films in the festival are getting more personal and sophisticated. The acting is getting better and the technology is also better.”

I asked him why, and he replied, “One reason is due to the new Film Law that gives more money to the film industry for production. So now Israeli films are achieving higher quality with somewhat larger budgets. There is also more competition with more TV channels—and by law each channel has to produce a certain amount of Hebrew-language hour programming.”

Over the past five years, more people have gotten into the Israeli film industry, and some of these filmmakers are quite talented. As the quality of IFF films has increased, so have the number of Israeli movies are now accepted into more festivals abroad, including Toronto, Moscow, Sundance and the New York Film Festival. 

Feinigstein reports that Israeli film distribution is now at its highest level in two decades. “International distributors are more interested in Israeli films, and I would modestly suggest that the IFF has contributed to this by helping build an audience for Israeli films. Five years ago we added Chicago and Miami to the Festival, in addition to New York and L.A. Partially as a result of this, the amount of Israeli film distribution in the U.S. has tripled over the past three years.” 

Current IFF plans for New York, Chicago and Miami involve replacing four of the films that screened in Los Angeles (one of which I hated) with four new titles (which had not yet been announced at this writing). Fortunately, the six features that I liked best in Los Angeles are still in the mix for the three remaining IFF cities. 

Although the New York, Chicago and Miami schedules have not been finalized yet—check the IFF website for updates—current plans include approximately 11 features, 10 TV dramas and nine documentaries. 

Under Feinigstein’s direction, IFF has showcased more than 500 of Israel’s top films to a cumulative audience topping 550,000. “Over the past 20 years, the themes and topics of Israeli films have evolved,” Feinigstein notes, “moving beyond the Arab/Israeli issue and into daily topics of love, relationships and everyday living.”

The IFF founder believes that his festival selections allow American audiences to see Israel from a different point of view. “They allow Americans to see things they didn’t think were happening in Israel,” Feinigstein explains. “Americans can learn about the political, cultural, educational and social sides of Israel, while even learning a little Hebrew. They will connect with Israeli society in the best way short of going to Israel. And they will emotionally and intellectually participate in the lives of Israelis, rather than just relating to them through the news.” 

Three key things that struck me about many of the six features, eight TV films and two docs that I saw were: 

the consistent use of “schlemiel humor” 

the theme of the dying Kibbutz movement

the widespread plot element of adultery (sometimes extending through three generations in a family) 

Military screw-ups were also frequent.

Much of the comedy is very broad. Humorous characters, though primarily shallow and exaggerated, often have surprising deeper aspects. In these movies, hearts are often found on sleeves, with lots of anger, anguish, and amorous extremes on display. Significantly, some amount of offbeat, schlemiel humor is present in even the saddest and most serious films.

My Eight Favorite IFF Films of 2004

1) ONE SMALL STEP is a very well-made, touching, funny, accurately observed, coming-of-age-film. Although this same type of pic has been made countless times in every country, this one succeeds completely, due to the director’s fresh take on the genre and sensitive approach to character. ONE SMALL STEP is blessed by excellent production values, performances and music. Sensitive and surprising, it deftly combines comedy, pathos and dysfunctional family melodrama. Fourteen-year-old Sahar struggles through a budding romance with a neighbor girl, while watching his parents’ marriage come apart—due to his mother’s love affair and his father’s unrealized aeronautical dreams. Sahar and his friends horse around together, but they also try to find a way to keep a friend, who his battling cancer, from dying a virgin.

2) CAFÉ TALES is a delightfully playful character comedy about a group of poor Tel Aviv oddballs who join together to save their local café from the bulldozer. It is funny, fast-paced, poignant, quirky and quite unpredictable. The characters are lots of fun, and the lively screwball plot careens in several interesting directions. Popular Israeli actor Moshe Ivgy plays a frustrated middle-aged poet who hangs out with his aging bohemian pals at Café Braun, which Leah, a sympathetic mother figure, has kept going for over 30 years. This former home to artists and intellectuals is now a haven for assorted schlemiels, including: a violent Arab painter fresh out of an insane asylum, an alcoholic mama’s boy who stutters, a macho-but-heartbroken musician and an outcast Belgian immigrant photographer. When the evil landlord puts the squeeze on Leah and threatens to demolish her building, her kooky regulars pool their meager talents and find a most unusual way to save day.

3) SILENCE OF THE SIRENS This excellent, gripping, suspenseful political drama—based on actual history—reveals a series of avoidable intelligence screw-ups in the 10 days before the 1973 Yom Kippur War, which needlessly caused thousands of Israeli military deaths. A couple of key figures persuaded Moshe Dayan and Golda Meir to delay defensive measures in the Sinai and Golan Heights and to postpone a critical call-up of reserves. Because some intelligence officials had a hard time deciphering information about troop movements in Egypt and Syria, they disregarded some critical warnings. False alarms had previously been handled badly, so these officials foolishly concluded that there was a low probability of aggression. SILENCE OF THE SIRENS depicts the decisions that led to the lack of preparedness of Israeli forces when the ferocious attack came. This TV movie is very well acted and treats the material intelligently, squeezing out all the drama inherent in the story.

4) COLUMBIA: THE TRAGIC LOSS is a heartbreaking, beautiful documentary based partially on the personal diary of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, which was discovered at one of space shuttle’s crash sites. With great sensitivity, the filmmakers trace the journey of the first Israeli astronaut and his colleagues, based on Ramon’s diary, his e-mails from space, exclusive footage shot on the 16-day mission and his conversations with NASA from space. His family appears in the film, as do his fellow astronauts and the NASA ground staff. Ramon’s funeral, featuring the same song that I want played at my own funeral—John Lennon’s “Imagine”—is deeply moving.

5) MISS ENTEBBE, the director’s first film, won first prize at a Berlin children’s film festival. Set in Jerusalem the summer of 1976, it deals with the actions of 12-year-old Noa and her friends when the mother of a neighbor is a passenger on the plane hijacked to Entebbe. The children kidnap an innocent Arab boy as a negotiating card to get the Israeli government to arrange for the woman’s release. What could be trite or maudlin is handled very well here, due to the richness of character observation and the intricacies of plotting. What appears to be a non-professional cast does a fine job here. 

6) HENRY’S DREAM is well-done film about a filmmaking project gone awry. It bogs down for a while in the middle, but its characters are fresh and unpredictable. The basic story of the cast and crew pulling together to overcome numerous obstacles is a trite one, but great energy and nice performances, plus some surprising bits of humor, help pull it off.

7) NO LONGER 17 starts as a political character drama but degenerates into mopey melodrama. Nonetheless, a strong cast manages to help the many moments of genuine emotion triumph over the segments of weepy treacle. Voted the Best Israeli Film at the 2003 Haifa International Film Festival 2003, it deals with a financially strapped kibbutz that is kicking out the older “unproductive” founders in order to make room for younger new members. Amidst the collapsing system and the stresses of aging, we deal with adultery, long-hidden secrets and family tumult. This is a sequel to the popular Israeli film NOA AT 17, and is must-viewing for lovers of that movie.

8) HALLELUJAH is a broad road comedy about a soldier who tries to cross Israel in time to propose to his girlfriend during the 1979 Eurovision Song Contest (which Israel won). This cute, silly schlemiel comedy is well executed, has an endearing cast and offers some pleasant plot surprises. The soldier’s adventures and mishaps en route—while pursuit by his angry superiors—involve an aging drug dealer, a beautiful Dutch girl and a strange German dancer. It won the 2003 Best TV Drama award at the 2003 Haifa International Film Festival. 


The worst film I saw, by far, was Shay Capon’s RINA AND ARIK FOREVER. Amusing for about five minutes, and then intolerable for the next 45, it deals with a disturbed, browbeaten handyman who ultimately learns some self-respect, after falling apart when his girlfriend leaves for a few days. The character of Arik is extremely annoying—and this “comedy” is not very funny.

VALLEY OF DREAMS—like the vastly superior SILENCE OF THE SIRENS—is a dramatized investigation of an unfortunate military adventure. I promise you that it contains no compelling characters; messy, stomach-churning, hand-held camera work; annoying music and a pretentious, amateurish approach to telling the story. 

An interesting concept fails in PURIM, a slow, pretentious drama which seeks to create a mosaic of characters and events on the day of a terrorist bombing at a Purim parade. Its weak production values, plethora of claustrophobic close-ups, unimaginative music and underdeveloped characters mar what could have been a fascinating film, in more talented hands.

LIFE IS LIFE is a bad, uninteresting, slow-moving film about an adulterous writer. And PRETTY YARDENA is a tepid romantic comedy that just doesn’t work.


When and Where

New York:
October 14 to 28, 2004

November 3 to 14, 2004

December 2 to 12, 2004

The New York IFF will be held at Clearview’s 62nd and Broadway Theatre (1871 Broadway), with some other showings at Clearview’s Ziegfeld (Oct. 14 Opening Night Gala; 141 W. 54th, between Sixth and Seventh), the DGA Theatre (Oct. 28 Closing Night Gala, 110 W. 57th), the Museum of Jewish Heritage (Oct. 17, 56 Battery Pl.) and the JCC in Manhattan (Oct. 19, 334 Amsterdam, at 76th).

Although its screening schedule had not been set as of this writing, the Chicago IFF will be held at two venues: Piper’s Alley Theater (1608 North Wells) and Highland Park Theater (445 Central Ave., Highland Park). 

Venues for the Miami IFF had not been set as of this writing.

Further Festival details and updated information can be obtained at the IFF website: http://www.israelfilmfestival.com

© Alan Waldman (9/15/04)


FF2 NOTE: All photos above are courtesy of IFF.
The photo below is courtesy of the Glendale Home for the Gaga.


Surprise college graduate (his mother still can’t believe it) Alan Waldman (Brandeis, 1968, magna cum mishugas) is the 14th (and second-silliest) of former Babroisk, New York, Chicago and Houston bon vivant Max “Kishkes” Friedberg’s 41 known offspring (including children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, great-great grandchildren and long-term schnorers and hangers-on). A frequent supporter of causes benefiting the morally and mentally handicapped, Waldman is currently active in a charity (moveon.com) which will help send problem children Georgie “Schmendrick” Bush and Dickie “Goniff” Cheney to live on nice ranches in the West. Waldman’s daily polling updates, film and TV recommendations, health tips, favorite jokes and a collection of news articles and opinions of a decidedly liberal bent can be found at his website Frog Blog.