At a time when film festivals pop up like dandelions every year, programmers have to find ways to stand out. What’s most alluring about the JFF isn’t just the admirable array of films, most of which have screened at previous festivals (Slant has covered almost everything of note already), but Jerusalem itself, which aspires to be a beacon for Israeli film. There’s a cinematic quality to the city, with its sepia-toned horizon, vestigial edifices, blaze of white sun roasting anything or anyone foolish enough to remain unshaded. From this desiccated land bloomed three major religions and much of Western culture’s most enduring imagery, and the programmers want to steep the festival in that history and educate visitors. It sometimes feels like propaganda with a smile, the local films a form of amiable agitprop, and occasional defenses of Zionism creep into conversations without warning like ants at a picnic, but everyone is so damn friendly and passionate, always smiling and nodding, that it’s easy to get swept up and go along with it.
“It’s complicated,” everyone says of the Israel-Palestine imbroglio, that proverbial white elephant. “It’s complicated.” They will, invariably, try to elucidate, arguably convert if you’re a left-leaning person (Jerusalem is, as The New Yorker’s David Remnick pointed out a few years ago, shifting further to the right, and its media is becoming more conservative), but politics are discussed with more congeniality than in America, at least in the festival setting. (My taxi driver did say that Palestinians weren’t really people, but he seems to be in a very bitter minority.)
The JFF doesn’t have the bourgeois prestige and enviable world premieres of Cannes, or the maddening size of the Toronto International Film Festival, or the populist affability of the New York Film Festival, but it feels very much like a beloved local affair, one that unifies and galvanizes. Moviegoers arrive in droves to the exquisite Cinematheque, which acts as a central hub for the festival, and the currently-in-renovation Lev Smadar, tucked away on a lissom one-way street south of the Old City. From the outside, Lev Smadar appears ramshackle and derelict, the façade hanging lazily, its lobby floor shattered and the tables and books covered in dust and debris, but the theater proper is ebullient and clean, with assigned red seats that resemble those at the Metrograph and bathrooms with excellent water pressure.
The Cinematheque, a glorious building, has four theaters, a video store, and a restaurant inside, as well as a bucolic beer garden outside. In the basement is the Israel Film Archives, a haven for history and the pride of the city’s film culture. Everyone involved with the archives is dedicated and tireless, and they adore their work. The storage room smells like vinegar and harbors an estimated 3,500 hours of film. The red needle on the Relative Humidity meter hovers a click below 40. Every film funded by an Israeli film fund must be stored here. “People don’t always follow the law, but they obey money,” preservationist Hila Avrahami says.
Two months ago they began an exhaustive digital preservation of every film stored here, using 2K scans for 16mm and 4K for 35mm. The sound technician is wearing a Sonic Youth shirt; on his desk is a jar of Elite Coffee, a ubiquitous brand of instant coffee made with cardamom and whose iconic red label is a Israeli staple in every kitchen, and on another desk is a dog-eared copy of Arthur Miller’s Before the Fall and a biography of Pasolini, both in English. The room in which the visual footage is scanned is about the size of a college dorm room, the sonorous whirring of machinery almost tranquil, soothing. Though the archives focuses on Israeli film, it’s an international effort, in a way: Avrahami studied in America, as did the visual technician I met, and the sound preservation equipment is Swiss, purchased from Germany. A Lipsner Smith machine is used to clean the film stock before the scanning process, which takes five to six hours for a two-hour film, begins.
About eight feet away from the storage room is the entrance to the beer garden, where the JFF’s opening-night party is held. The mood here is welcoming, comfortable, and unceremonious. A multi-leveled courtyard carved into a hill outside of the theater, replete with chairs and tables and local craft beer on tap, it looks defiantly different from the rest of the city, the way a tattoo might look defiant to a more orthodox parent, but it still feels simpatico with Jerusalem’s cultural pride.
The crowd, mostly young, dressed mostly casually, hobnobs and lounges. Children are scattered among the industry insiders and festival patrons, and couples press together in lawn chairs and against the walls as the sun sets. The DJ plays music from The Virgin Suicides and Fantastic Planet and something that sounds like Serge Gainsbourg but isn’t. A lot of people are smoking and cigarette butts are strewn about the grass but nobody can spare one. Everyone seems to have purloined one from someone else, or rolled their own and just ran out of filters, sorry.
Just beyond the courtyard, trees the color of empty wine bottles or cathedral naves drink the remaining sunlight, and car rooftops coruscate along the roads that wrap around the hills. There are no orthodox religious people here, something later pointed out to me by a Ma’aleh professor. Surprisingly, no one brings up anything overtly political or problematic, at least not before they get a few pints in them. Then, several people ask me, “How’s America doing now?” as if asking how a friend under the weather is recuperating, and no one shies away from discussing politics if goaded in the slightest. (American journalists are derided as being “activists” and “crusaders” more than once, but always sotto voce, cordially. “No offense.”)
Politics pervade Jerusalem and Israeli cinema, which makes the opening-night selection, Redoubtable, an intriguing choice. Before the film begins, a message from Miri Regev, the Minister of Culture and Sport, fills the screen, and boos fill the outdoor amphitheater. “People hate her,” one of the festival’s staff whispers to me; far-right leaning and considered a Zionist, she insists that state-funded artists must show unflinching loyalty to Israel, and once notoriously called undocumented immigrants “a cancer,” which isn’t so far removed from Godard calling Jews “the new Nazis.” When lead actor Louis Garrel introduces the film, he jokes that he hopes the audience likes it more than they like Regev. He draws a swell of cheers and smiles broadly. By the time the film ends, many of the seats have been vacated.
Director Michel Hazanavicius won best director and picture honors at the Academy Awards for his affable ersatz silent movie The Artist, and Redoubtable, while more vulgar (and with some played-for-laughs ironic meta-nudity), is afflicted with a similar need to please instead of provoke. Insider baseball that will undoubtedly disappoint insiders, it depicts, with troubling simplicity, the turbulence of Goddard’s political and professional activities in the late ’60s, which were, to put it mildly, controversial. He fancied himself a revolutionary, an intellectual, decrying his own films and berating friends, such as Jean-Paul Belmondo, for selling out, and in doing so ostracizing himself from cinephiles and socialists, both of whom found him increasingly bombastic and ignorant. Here, Godard is just an asshole, not much different from an Alex Ross Perry character. (Perry’s Golden Exits, a searing, multi-character drama in the same sardonic vein as Husbands, also played the festival, though Perry’s Brooklyn clout seems to have dissipated in its transAtlantic journey, as the film caused little more than a murmur.)
Redoubtable plays like a Godard career highlight reel re-shot by film students who know what the master’s aesthetic innovations look like but don’t understand why he employed them. He turns formal experimentation into empty chicanery. Fawning and lazy, it files the barbs and brilliance of Godard’s brazen (and hypocritical) conflict with art and politics, treating his vitriol and his abhorrence for his New Wave films, and those who adored them, as a minor character flaw. Hazanavicius takes the easy way out and makes no comment on Godard’s unrepentant, vexatious Maoist leanings, which fuel the recently re-released La Chinoise and continue to inspire debate today.
There are screwball shades here, and a director with more mettle might have turned the scenario into something acerbic and articulate. Hazanavicius lifts tricks from Godard’s ’60s films—the garish color palette dominated by hyper-saturated reds and blues and yellows, contradictory subtitles, what David Bordwell calls planimetric shots and centrifugal subjects, and so on—but it just feels like a cutesy exercise in cinematic name-dropping, an attempt to prove film buff credentials. An empty, aesthetic-aping exercise that brings to mind Gus Van Sant’s Psycho, though with more self-importance than self-awareness, it was even criticized by several of the programmers for not being “entertaining” enough. (One kept referring to Shrek as the ideal opening-night movie, which is certainly more kosher than Godard.) In portraying Godard and the political movement of the era with such stark simplicity, Redoubtable feels saccharine even when it’s trying to be incisive. The best part, honestly, was when the outdoor screen wavered in the wind, which made me think of the Franscope distortions in Contempt, a bit of life imitating art.