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Sunday, August 14, 2022

How the 39th Jerusalem Film Festival offered a chance to experience Israel, in reel and real

Taking in the sights and sounds of Jerusalem, seeing how the old and the new meld, and attending the 10-day festival, spread over 10 days in July, with more than 200 films, including a clutch of movies from this year's Cannes Film Festival

Written by Shubhra Gupta |
August 6, 2022 3:08:08 pm
Jerusalem Film Festival, Sunday Eye 2022The Western Wall and the Al-Aqsa Mosque in the background in the Old City of Jerusalem (CREDIT: Wikimedia Commons)

Streaming into Sultan’s Pool, the open-to-the-sky location of the opening film of the Jerusalem Film Festival (JFF) 2022, you are aware of the duality that is so overwhelmingly present in this wondrous city: antiquity and modernity. The large amphitheatre is said to go back to Roman times, and here we are, about to watch Ruben Ostlund’s Cannes winner, Triangle of Sadness, a film about the repercussions of 21st-century hedonism. It feels both bizarre and perfectly fitting that in this place, wherever you turn, the old and new mix and meld, making it a unique experience.

The idea is to savour the films and the place in a concise but comprehensive programme, which ensures we do both in equal measure. And we dive into it with enthusiasm from Day 1, which begins with a visit to the Old City. We go back in time as we step inside. Narrow alleys lead into the Jewish, Muslim, Christian quarters, each vastly different in flavour and aspect, each with a living population navigating the shifting complexities of the region.

JFF, Sunday Eye 2022 Audience at the JFF festival (CREDIT: Courtesy Matias Sakkal)

Nothing I’ve read matches the actual experience, as we pause at a colourful mural filling up the whole wall (apparently a great “selfie point”, which we duly take advantage of); walk by remnants of the walls surrounding the city, and the shops heaped with artefacts and dried fruits. It is the kind of old quarter you will find across the Middle East, but here in Jerusalem, you can feel the burden of myth, history and conflict at every step.

Here’s the start of Via Dolorosa (the Path of Tears), where Christ is said to have walked, on the way to his crucifixion. Up ahead is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, with a sharp arrow of sunlight streaming in from the open dome. And now we are at the steps leading to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which we can go up part way for a glimpse, for only Muslims are allowed in. And then we stop at the Western Wall, a holy place where Jews pray and place their “wish-notes” in the crevices of the wall. I place one of mine and just stand there for a minute, absorbing the head-spinning amalgamation of sights and sounds, before heading off to a delicious hummus-pita-kebab lunch in the company of Daniella Gefen, our most knowledgeable guide, and Matias Sakkal, our friendly ever-helpful host.

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Barren, Jerusalem Film Festival, Sunday Eye Film still of Barren

It takes considerable effort to wrench ourselves back into the present. Riches await in the solidly programmed 39th edition of the JFF, with more than 200 films spread over 10 days. The international competition section has a clutch of films from this year’s Cannes Film Festival, including David Cronenberg’s latest body-horror provocation Crimes of The Future, Jerzy Skolimowski’s quirky treatise on donkey wisdom EO, Park Chan-wook’s crime thriller Decision to Leave, Kore-eda Hirokazu’s Broker, which can be seen as a less effective, but still powerful, companion piece to his 2018 film Shoplifters, and Ali Abbasi’s Iranian serial-killer noir Holy Spider.

June Zero 2, Jerusalem Film Festival, Sunday Eye 2022 Film still of June Zero

I repeat-watch a couple, and then focus on the films from Israel. It is interesting to learn that documentaries are popular, thanks to the interest of viewers, supportive TV channels, and grants, which enable filmmakers to embark on ambitious non-fiction projects. But going by the films I caught, feature films are coming back into their own: Concerned Citizen by Idan Haguel, a tragicomedy involving men and manners, Barren by Mordechai Vardi, about the struggles of an Orthodox Jewish couple to have a child, and June Zero by Jake Paltrow, a moving account of a trio at the periphery of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann’s trial.

Movieland Netanya, Jerusalem Film Festival, Sunday Eye 2022 Movieland theatre in Netanya (CREDIT: Courtesy Shai S Sampson)

One of the highlights of my visit is an unplanned but wholly fascinating evening spent with the affable Shai S Sampson, the sole Israeli distributor of Indian films in Israel. He asks if I would like to be present at the premiere of Ranbir Kapoor’s Shamshera at his theatre in Netanya, located on the other side of Tel Aviv. I jump at his kind offer, and over the hour-and-a-half spent driving to the theatre Movieland, he talks about his father Solomon Sampson, who migrated to Israel in the early ’60s, and was a pioneer in getting Bollywood movies to the country. Shai also owns TV channels which show Bollywood films in not just in Israel, but several countries in Africa and Europe; the UK, the US and Canada are on the cards soon.

Shai S Sampson, Jerusalem Film Festival, Sunday Eye 2022 Shai S Sampson, the sole Israeli distributor of Indian films in Israel (CREDIT: Courtesy Shai S Sampson)

Mainstream TV pushed Bollywood movies to the margins around the ’80s, but it is still a lingering flavour among a certain generation of Israelis who grew up on Raj Kapoor movies, and who burst into the evergreen ditties Mera joota hai Japani and Ichak dana from Shree 420 (1955) without too much urging. The Jerusalem Press Club director general, Uri Dromi, gives us a hearty rendition of Ichak dana, as we are shown around the impressive archives of the Cinematheque, the film festival venue.

On our last day, a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum leaves us shaken to the core. We’ve seen many cinematic representations — the Oscar statuette for Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1994) is on exhibit — but the tour leaves one speechless, at the horror, hope, resilience. It brings us to the end of a film festival which I’m not about to forget in a hurry.

(The writer was part of a delegation of film critics invited, by the Jerusalem Press Club, to the 39th Jerusalem Film Festival, July 21-31)

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First published on: 06-08-2022 at 03:08:08 pm

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