“Sababa!” Thus did Quentin Tarantino, in the only Hebrew slang every tourist learns, anoint his lifetime achievement award with the most appropriate endearment of the Tarantino ethos: “Cool!” Hoisting aloft a trophy that, from the evening distance, resembled a universal remote control made of coffee-colored glass, there could be no question that the Django Unchained auteur was the photographic and celebrity main attraction of the 33rd Jerusalem Film Festival’s opening night. After a brisk acceptance speech punctuated by a nod to the recently departed Michael Cimino, who was absent from the evening’s montage dedicated to recently departed notables from the world of film, he resumed his front row seat; a glut of photographers pursued him as iron filings collect around a magnet. Despite his predilection for speaking his mind, and the ongoing unrest in the United States, Tarantino put on his best diplomatic face and kept his opinions to himself.
Not that there was want of incendiary rhetoric to galvanize an otherwise bucolic evening under the stars. While most of the speakers who preceded the opening-night film, Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar’s Julieta, tended toward polite remarks that alternated between Hebrew and an English translation, the same couldn’t be said for Miri Regev, Israel’s Minister of Culture and Sport. A member of Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party, the famously outspoken and (according to some of my fellow attendees) “pushy” Regev held fast against a deluge of jeers as she launched into a tirade against the men and women she termed the cultural elite—in other words, almost everyone within earshot.
Regev’s moment in the deafening spotlight deserves some unpacking, so suddenly and unavoidably was this year’s festival made to own its position and vector in the Israeli socio-political continuum. Long before her appointment by the center-right Netanyahu in the 2015 legislative election, she had built a reputation on rocking every boat in the harbor, invariably at the expense of decorum. But even inside the historically Ashkenazi government, Regev (Moroccan-born, thus “Mizrahi” Jewish, historically at a disadvantage in Israeli culture, commerce, and politics) rarely declined a chance to upbraid the “Ashkenazi elite”; her crude rhetoric (she’s been known to compare Sudanese refugees to cancer and to call the attorney general a “piece of shit”) has been known to provoke equally crude responses.
As an analog, imagine the American left, fond of its image as a tolerant and correct body politic, responding to presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s malignant oratory by attacking his German ancestry, his spray tan, or his hair. My neighbors that evening didn’t provide a full translation of the crowd’s rising sea of derision, but they told me that it wasn’t new: anti-woman, anti-Mizrahi, complacent, and insular. In short, whatever Regev was saying, they didn’t wish to hear it. That we were to sink into a Catalan melodrama by Almodóvar seemed almost an afterthought.
But sink we did, as the desert temperature plummeted and blankets began to pepper the open-air Sultan’s Pool amphitheater. Returning to the melodramatic form after the 2013 farce I’m So Excited! and the Franju-inspired 2011 thriller The Skin I Live In, the atypically literary Julieta, adapted from a set of short stories by Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro, has an intimate sprawl that compels while the director’s customary visual strategy is often absent, utilitarian, or indifferent. But “time is a thief” is a theme that connects the Talk to Her director and the Canadian author Munro, and Julieta is nothing if not a structure of what’s gone missing, in which a flash-forward to a protagonist wracked by guilt and grief delivers a stealthily incisive emotional payload. Only then do the micro jumps in time, until that moment serving Julieta merely as narrative expedients, are revealed to be what they really are: a thousand tiny, unhealed cuts.
While the “we’re all connected” notion doesn’t give one great hope for cinematic quality, it’s unlikely that any endeavor in that vein will achieve the landmark status of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, or the abysmal depths of Paul Haggis’s Oscar-winning Crash. The festival’s most Crash-like entry, Nir Bergman’s Saving Neta rates almost exactly at the middle of the chart. Directed and co-written by one of the principal creators of HBO’s In Treatment (which began life on Israel television, also under Bergman’s tutelage), Saving Neta links a handful of tales of familial strife by the appearance and occasional utility of a lost soul: the Neta of the title, a dishevelled tramp in the tradition of the morally shell-shocked priest of Buñuel’s Nazarin. Did Neta save us, or did we save Neta? You probably already know the answer to that (spoiler: both), but Saving Neta does well for itself not by its blandly workmanlike, televisual style, but in its modesty and attention to detail, never giving in to overemphasis or heavy-handed musical cues.
Would that such small miracles had proved infectious. The debut feature of cinematographer and Sam Spiegel Film and Television School graduate Guy Raz, the unfortunate We Had a Forest takes the radical approach of saying, unambiguously, “No thank you!” to child hot-car deaths, and spends what feels like an endless 80 minutes getting there, from the germ of the fatal mistake to its aftermath. Aiming for the low rung of “González Iñárritu lite,” We Had a Forest signals its intentions early on by opening on the caved-in, inconsolable parents, already slow-reeling from a family catastrophe, stumbling around formerly joyful fixtures of their local playground, then backtracking to happier times, when the fuse of tragedy was lit by fatigue and stupidity. Originally conceptualized as a short film, We Had a Forest was retooled for feature length in the editing room, with Raz elongating shots as necessary to push the project over the market’s mandated 75-minute feature threshold. The result is a finger-wag of crushing indulgence, a vacuous Public Service Announcement timed to move like Barry Lyndon, minus the uplift.
I spotted one of the featured actors in Saving Neta taking a selfie with his on-screen self, unwittingly giving nourishment to a subtheme of the festival, that of seeing oneself on screen, and, in turn, of the cinema experience redoubling after spotting any given film’s subjects or actors as they roamed the cinematheque after their digital simulacra had lit up the screens. So was it that Yosef “Pepe” Alalu, secular opposition leader in an increasingly right-leaning and (to hear it told) Orthodox-courting municipal government of Jerusalem. The subject of Pepe’s Last Battle, a documentary by his son, Michael, the elder Alalu cuts a striking profile not soon forgotten.
Alalu has been described by more than one journalist as “Hobbit-like” for his appearance, though it’s more appropriate to compare him to Gandalf the Grey for his seemingly endless, salt-colored beard and hair, or, to complete the Tolkien hat trick, Gimli, for the way his sledgehammer visage matches his spirited, tenacious approach to life and work. A lifelong stick in many muds, Alalu recently made a kamikaze run for the city’s mayoral seat after being ousted from his post on the city council. A cursory biography and a play by play of that election season are the subjects of Pepe’s Last Battle. While it isn’t a revolutionary approach to nonfiction filmmaking, nor is it likely to win hearts in Terra Haute, it scores one of the fundamental checkmarks of the documentary genre, in that it makes a vivid, compelling reality out of something that, for most of us, might have remained a complete unknown.