Israel’s first international film festival hits 33

The Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot, a celebration of autumn bounty, cooling temperatures and a rare weeklong vacation for many Israeli families, is also one of the most packed periods of Israel’s cultural calendar. But even on a crowded playing field, the annual Haifa Film Festival — a small but scrappy global cinematic showcase that concluded on Oct. 14, after 10 fevered days of film — is the season’s undisputed gem.

This was the 33rd festival and it kicked off with a sudsy global treat: the Israeli premiere of Denis Villeneuve’s “Blade Runner 2049,” starring Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford in a long-awaited follow-up to the 1982 Ridley Scott classic “Blade Runner.”

Israel has no shortage of film festivals, and Haifa, a quiet third city with stunning seafront hills and a peaceful population that mixes Arabs and Jews, lacks the resources and talent that saturate Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

But despite its humble setting, the Haifa Film Festival has an impressive pedigree: Founded in 1983, it was the first ever international festival established in Israel and today is its grandest, drawing some 300,000 cinephiles from across the country to sample not just the films but concerts, art exhibitions and food stalls that emerge in tandem each year. In a nation best known by its polarity, the Haifa Film Festival is, like its home city, a celebration of diversity, screening both Israeli and international projects, as well as a mixture of drama, documentaries, comedies and films of all budgets.

“The film festival reflects our city,” said Pnina Blayer, the festival’s longtime artistic director, in an email interview with Al-Monitor. “Haifa is Mediterranean, largely secular, characterized by the coexistence of Muslim, Christian, Jewish Arab and Druze neighbors. Our unique and dramatic geography on the sea next to the spectacular Carmel Mountain and our Haifa port — all these radiate on the atmosphere of the festival.”

New programs this year included DoCulinary (foodie-centric film screenings followed by panel discussions and a meal); EcoCinema, which centered on environmentally-minded films; and City of the Future, which allowed the public to sample virtual reality films.

Filmmakers competed in local and international categories. In the Israeli competition, Amichai Greenberg’s “The Testament,” the story of an obsessive Israeli hero staring down an identity crisis, took home the trophy for Best Feature Film. Al-Monitor columnist Shlomi Eldar’s “Foreign Land,” a thought-provoking account on creeping Israeli extremism told through the story of Arab TV star Ghassan Abbas, earned the award for Best Israeli Documentary.

Internationally, the Russian/Finnish/German production “Arrhythmia” was awarded the Carmel Award for Best Film, while Eugene Jarecki’s “Promised Land,” which runs the gamut from Elvis Presley to Donald Trump in a quest to crack the American psyche, earned a Special Mention Award in the same category.

“The festival invests much effort in promoting the local Israeli film industry,” Blayer said. “At the same time, we are dedicated to exposing Israelis to a variety of cultures by bringing films from around the world, especially from places we don’t always have the opportunity to see, for example Bulgaria, Portugal and Poland, to name a few.”

Other competitions at the festival include the Golden Anchor Competition for Balkan and Mediterranean Cinema, and the Between Israeli and Jewish Identity Competition. Blayer explained the latter: “We look for films that describe the Jewish experience and culture in different countries around the world and for films that present the uniquely Israeli experience — the different cultures that make up the mosaic of Israeli society and the conflicts that arise between them.” Standouts in the category this year included “Back to the Fatherland,” which examines the conflict faced by Israeli grandchildren of Holocaust survivors who have moved back to European countries like Germany and Austria. In the same category was the Israeli premiere of “Etgar Keret: Based on a True Story,” a documentary following the journey of two innovative Dutch filmmakers on their way to meet the beloved Israeli surrealist and short-story master.

Like all years, however, the heart and soul of the Haifa Film Festival was its homegrown projects. The festival hosted a gala screening of “Foxtrot,” the controversial yet critically acclaimed current Israeli submission for Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. The festival also hosted a number of pitching platforms, grants and mentorship events for multicultural filmmaking partners.

“In recent years, Israeli cinema has truly offered a glimpse of the many facets of Israeli society and culture,” Blayer said. “Communities that in the past weren’t ever addressed by film now take center stage.”

And while admitting that she could not select a favorite film, Blayer pointed to a favorite initiative, which celebrated its second year at the festival: the Mix Program, a collaboration between the festival, the Gesher Multicultural Film Fund and the Scriptwriters Guild of Israel in which joint Arab-Jewish filmmaking teams compete for a production grant.

“Not only did the initiative give a boost to underrepresented filmmakers,” she said, “it also allows Israelis from different social strata and cultural backgrounds to experience their fellow citizens’ experiences, and hopefully come out of the theater with greater compassion for those outside their typical milieu.”

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