Jerusalem is a city of beige and tan, a vast barren sprawl that is, despite the brutal heat and muted colors, quite beautiful. Its odd mix of orthodoxy and modernity pair like sand and cement to create something singular and undeterrable. There’s a kind of delirious, heat stroke-induced grandeur to its aesthetic uniformity, the caramel-colored homes enclosing you and the occasional swaths of trees providing much sought-after shelter from the sun, the tan and green recalling the colors of Israeli military uniforms. All of the buildings are finished with Jerusalem Stone (which is mostly made up of limestone) to marry the new to the old, to transcend date and age. A parched and pale sky settles over sun-baked façades stacked upon sandy expanses. Feet wrapped in leather sandals slap against the sidewalk and air conditioners spittle from above. “Drink water,” everyone advises. At its apogee, the sun abuses unrepentantly, with cruel omnipotence, yet people persist and keep going where they’re going, water bottles in hand. They are stubborn.
The golden, gleaming rotunda of the Dome of the Rock sits atop Temple Mount in Old Jerusalem like a hopeful beacon. Ancient towers jab upward, and on the surrounding rooftops television satellites accumulate, the LG logo ubiquitous. A variegated flotilla of 1,000 umbrellas hangs over Yoel Moshe Solomon Street, a narrow strip of attractive businesses, art galleries, craft shops, cafés, men smoking hand-rolled cigarettes. At the intersection, three banks face each other, as if in a standoff. In Old Jerusalem, where tourists flock, many locals come to buy groceries because they’re cheaper here than in the city’s modernized section. In this indolent neighborhood, with lithe cloven streets, a butcher with a cigarette tucked between his lips slaps a slab of meat against the counter for an older woman. Tour groups in khakis and baseball hats are herded along to keep foot traffic flowing. They’re lead to the tourist section—more narrow alleys with stone floors now festooned with glittery trinkets and “handmade” scarves and coolers of Coca-Cola and Turkish coffee pots made in a factory somewhere. It all feels, at least to this tourist, like a place pilfered from an undefined era, one that belongs to no particular epoch. It feels as if it has been torn out of time.
The Jerusalem Film Festival, flags for which hang all over the city and dance proudly over the busy roads, white stallions rearing triumphantly on black fabric, is a curious entity, laidback yet passionate, with a dauntless focus on Israeli film history. Like the antiquarian city after which it’s named, the festival is beholden to the past in a way that feels almost romantic, not so much a stubborn refusal to change but rather a reverence for tradition. Time trickles here. The past lingers on screen, like ghosts from the ancient burial sites of Old Jerusalem, the excavated catacombs and dusty cemeteries that are almost full after so many centuries. (“Now we bury people up,” says Pinny, my taxi driver, swerving to avoid a jaywalker. “There’s no more room. No more land in the Holy Land.”) Everyone here is eager to discuss the city’s history, and its future, which are inexorably bound. If there’s a prominent motif that ties together all current Israeli films, it’s a sense of self-exploration, a self-vivisection of Israeli and religious identity, also inexorably bound.
It’s a lovely festival, with an eclectic array of titles, over 180 total, including American films like Sofia Coppola’s much-written-about The Beguiled and Joshua and Ben Safdie’s Good Time; several selections from the ageless Philippe Garrel and that prolific master of saki-fueled, lens-zoomed tangents, Hong Sang-soo; Oliver Laxe’s Mimosas, a meditative, John Ford-inspired western reincarnated as an Islamic story of cyclical tradition; Sergei Loznitsa’s misanthropic, Dostoevsky-inspired A Gentle Creature, widely panned at Cannes but, for a certain kind of masochistic cynic, sort of great in an obvious, ugly way; and, of course, a glut of Israeli films, many from neophyte or up-and-coming directors, raised and educated in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.
But to really appreciate the festival, as well as the films being produced by Israel currently, one has to have some knowledge of Israeli film history. Most Westerners know little about Israeli culture, save for the few films that find overseas success (like 2014’s Zero Motivation, a pleasant, enjoyable film that’s almost devoid of political or social commentary, which makes it perfect for American movie theaters). This dearth of knowledge is a criticism often leveled at visiting reporters and critics, which the JFF and Jerusalem Press Club intend to rectify with an initiative to bring over critics from various countries and immerse them in local culture.
At times, it can feel to outsiders like solipsistic navel-gazing, but Israeli cinema is still relatively young—as is the country, of course. The first known film made in Israel (technically in Palestine), shot on nitrate stock in 1896, predates Israel’s statehood, and is now housed in Paris, in a special nitrate-safe vault. But Israel didn’t have commercial films until 1960; before that, they mainly produced propaganda and “educational” films. The introduction of European and American films was a kind of artistic liberation, and the influence of the French New Wave and American noir on their commercial films is obvious. Godard in particular had a profound influence on ’60s Israeli cinema, despite his vociferous anti-Semitism—though he once said that 20th-century cinema’s greatest tragedy was that there were no cameras in the concentration camps. One wonders what he would make of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum, which ends with a balcony view of Jerusalem that suggests nothing less than heaven on earth.
Gilberto Tofano’s Siege (originally called Matzor), a 1969 classic that was recently restored and played at this year’s Cannes and had its hometown premiere at the JFF, borrows the early attitude and aesthetic of Godard at a time when the filmmaker himself was trying to shed his cool reputation and become a serious revolutionary (he failed at both). Shot in chic black and white, it recalls the blithe chutzpah of Breathless, as well as the low-key cool films of Louis Malle and meta-humor of Federico Fellini’s 8 ½. Compare the insouciance of Siege to the films of Jean-Pierre Melville, for whom the JFF had a retrospective this year; a more severe, almost frugal filmmaker, he allegedly used a tape measure to make sure his reverse shots were exact, and stripped dialogue down to the marrow. Rather assiduous, at times nearly ascetic, his formal dexterity focused on the meticulous employment of minutiae as a weapon. I’m not entirely sure what, if any, connection Melville had to Jerusalem, but the festival’s retrospective embodies its international appeal, its attempts to simultaneously extrapolate the underlying issues of Israeli culture while still drawing moviegoers and critics from other countries.
Israeli films were governed by the Ministry of Commerce until 1979, when they shifted to the Ministry of Culture and Sport. The country produced only six to eight films a year for most of the ’80s, with little Western interest. In 1989, Israeli cinema, particularly films made in or about Jerusalem, entered a new era when two revolutionary film schools were founded, lessening Tel Aviv’s sovereignty over the country’s film culture. Renen Schorr, an Israeli film activist whose 1987 debut, Late Summer Blues, is one of the country’s enduring classics, founded Jerusalem’s Sam Spiegel School, and in the 2000s helped Israel join the European Film Academy. He also co-founded the Israel Film Fund in 1978 and the Jerusalem Film Fund in 1993.
Schorr is, like most everyone here, a vehement defender of Israel and its arts, and like most everyone here he uses the phrase “Hollywood” as shorthand for bad American movies. Speaking to a room of journalists and critics, he dismisses Sundance as a business that perennially churns out the same movies and American film schools, notably New York University, as being overpriced and closed-minded—too cerebral and dense, he insinuates, with not enough heart. He has a mantra: “The best special effect is a good story.”
Films from Sam Spiegel are character- or plot-driven and overtly political, not as formally punctilious or theory-based as U.S. student films often are. The Ma’aleh Film School, on the other hand, prides itself on offering solace to aspiring filmmakers who come from religious backgrounds (there’s something of a dichotomy, one laced with just-barely-discernible contempt, between the mostly secular film culture of Tel Aviv, “a bunch of young heathens,” one Jerusalem-based journalist quipped, and the more “traditional” or orthodox religious folk in Jerusalem). The Ma’aleh school also pioneered the use of film as therapy in Israel, and many of the films it produces have a cathartic quality to them. They, too, focus on characters and personal realization, not formal experimentation. The personal is political and the political personal in the new generation of Israeli films, as in Israel itself.