By William Wolf

19TH ISRAEL FILM FESTIVAL  Send This Review to a Friend

The chance to see the latest films from Israel has been brought to New York once again with the 19th Israel film Festival (June 19-July 3, 2003), an event which has also played Chicago (May 8-25), Los Angeles (May 28-June 8) and is coming to Miami (Nov. 13-20). At the New York opening night, in addition to the showing of the film "Wisdom of the Pretzel," the Festival's 2003 Lifetime Achievement Award was presented to director Milos Forman and its 2003 Cinematic Award was given to Israeli director Dina Zvi Riklis.

The morning after the festivities, which included a reception at Etoile, I sampled the film "Slaves of the Lord," which is a profoundly disturbing work directed with unrelenting intensity by Hadar Friedlich, who also wrote the screenplay. The film was made for television but easily stands as worthy of theatrical showing as well.

The story involves Tamar, a girl preparing for her Bat Mitzvah as Passover approaches. She is in a very religious home and her studies and indoctrination begin to take a toll on her. She grows obsessed with the rituals of external and internal purification. She and a friend secretly sneak into a mikvah to experience the mystery of it. Increasingly Tamar begins to think of herself as impure and she begins to hear voices berating her.

To her parents and older brother she merely looks distracted, but they are unaware of the voices that keep nagging at her sense of self-worth. She talks to God and there is no let up to the film's mounting tension as the religious indoctrination run amok in her mind reduces her to feelings of worthlessness. Eventually this leads her to a lonely visit to the mikvah, where she submerges herself under water and tries to stay there. She surfaces gulping for breath twice and does it for the third time. Will she come up again or will the pressure of religious doctrine end in suicide? The film, shown in festivals but not yet in general release in Israel, is obviously a controversial one.

The screening was followed by a press conference attended by numerous representatives of Israeli films, as well as the director and driving force being the festival, Meir Fenigstein. "I think we've seen more films from Israel in the United States in the last few years than in the last ten years," Fenigstein asserted. He noted that "Late Marriage" did some $1.5 million at the box office in the United States and predicted that in 2004 the 20th anniversary of the Israel Film Festival would reflect the "biggest year yet for Israeli films."

Information elicited in the press conference indicated that subjects of films made in Israeli tended to be related to the problems faced in Israeli society, such as the lot of women in the army or the experiences of Israelis and Palestinians working together. Budgets are still very low when compared to the cost of Hollywood films. For feature films they tend to be between $350,000 and $700,000. Documentary budgets are much less, about $60,000 or lower. As elsewhere, there are also new moves to shoot on video.

Among those taking part in the conference and seated at a long table in the Clearview Cinemas 59th Street East Theater, the festival venue, were: Gil Mezuman, director of "Jenin Diary;" Yair Lev, director of "Uri Avnery: Warrior for Peace;" Meni Elias, producer of "Dugit Over Troubled Water" and its director Gil Karni; Chanoch Zeevi, director of "On the Front Line," Moshe Ivgi, actor in "Amsalem's Tears;" Dina Zvi Riklis, director of "The Postwoman;" Ilan Heitner, director of "Wisdom of the Pretzel" and Shai Werker, its co-producer with Heitner; Guy Loel, actor in "Wisdom of the Pretzel;" Tamar Yarom, director of "Sob Skirt" and Itai Raziel, cinematographer of "Aviv."

Festival tickets and information phone: 1-877-966-5566.


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