The Israeli Film Festival is underway every Thursday at 8 p.m. from Jan 28 to March 4 at the Goldsmith Family Cinema. The movies are all contemporary Israeli films, and each has a speaker after the screening. We sat down with Assistant Professor of Religion Dalit Katz, a native Israeli who teaches Hebrew and organized the festival.
Argus: Can you describe this year’s films and how you chose them?
Dalit Katz: The Israeli Film Festival this year consists of six very different films. We opened with a documentary film, “Souvenirs.” This is the first time we incorporated a documentary film in the film series. It feels more like a narrative film because it is about the process of making a film.
The second film is “A Matter of Size.” I watched it this summer in Israel; it was just released. It is a comedy about overweight people coming to terms with themselves through sumo wrestling. It takes place in Ramle, a very blue-collar city. Culturally sumo doesn’t fit with Israeli culture. This film made it work. It shows that there are some issues in Israel that are universal. People are wrestling with self-acceptance all around the world. It is an Israeli film, but it can also speak to a wider audience. It is so funny.
The third screening is a new thing I integrated into the film series – two episodes of the Israeli TV show “A Touch Away.” It is a very successful series in Israel. HBO just bought the rights to produce it in America. It deals with the conflicts between the ultra-religious Jews and new immigrants from Russia, who are secular. It’s actually an impossible love story between a religious girl, Rochele and a Russian immigrant, Zurik, who live in the same neighborhood, Bnei Brak, outside of Tel Aviv.
The fourth film, “My Father, My Lord” is about the relationship between a rabbi and his son. It has many questions about belief in god between the father and son. It is artistically superb. In Hebrew it is “Summer Vacation.”
“Eli and Ben” is a new movie about an architect who is blamed for taking a bribe. The film follows how it affects his relationship with his son.
The last film is called “Noodle,” it is about a woman who tries to help a son of an Chinese immigrant to Israel. The mother was deported, and the woman tries to help the little one find his mother. We have these foreign workers who come to Israel from different countries. When they have kids, there is an issue of citizenship and their rights. It is a new phenomenon that Israeli society has to learn to deal with. Each one of these films tackles a different aspect of life in Israel. I think what is really special about this film festival is that after each film there is a speaker who illuminates an aspect dealt with in the film.
In “A Touch Away,” we are bringing in an expert, Professor Olga Gershenson, who is going to speak about the relationships between Israelis and Russian immigrants. When we show “A Matter of Size,” we are bringing the two Israeli co-directors to talk about the movie. We have film critics, professors, and directors, and that makes it a very educational event.
A: The first issue people think of with Israel is the Arab-Israel conflict. These films address other issues. Did you choose the films to show other aspects of Israeli life?
DK: I think that Israeli society is so culturally rich that when we show different aspects of it in each film, you get a more whole picture of it as a society. Especially in the area of the arts and film, Israeli filmmakers are very innovative: they take chances and they create art forms that are never seen before. I’m thinking about the film “Waltz with Bashir,” where they use animation in a very sophisticated way. Internationally Israeli filmmakers are getting a lot of attention. They have been nominated for the best foreign film for three years in a row – including this year’s “Ajami.”
A: What is unique about Israeli cinema? Has it always been so prolific?
DK: Israeli cinema started as being a vehicle of the government to promote its ideology. Therefore the films were very unified. They were typically a melodrama in a marriage, or a love story between an Ashkenazi and Sephardic person, which ended in marriage, and all the conflicts were resolved. Later on, through the 1960s, 70s and 80s, it changed and went towards more personal stories. You can see the variety of directions filmmakers take. Some people concentrate on personal stories, some on the political situation, some on the personal with the politics in the background. But it isn’t a thematically unified movement like when it started. The government still supports the films-it gives grants-but the government does not have any say in the content of the film.
There are also very successful TV shows – “A Touch Away,” “In Treatment” – both the rights to those shows were bought by HBO. They are produced with much less money than here in the States, but the writing is wonderful and very sophisticated. This is why I decided to integrate TV into the series, it’s really become an art form in Israel.
Israeli films are very complicated. They examine issues and they are not trite, they show different aspects of life. This is a sign of democracy – even if things are not perfect, let’s at least show them and deal with them.
A: What has been the audience at the film series?
DK: The audience is a combination of the Wesleyan community, not only just Israeli and Jewish students, but varied audiences. People from Jewish communities all around Connecticut have attended, usually who have returned after seeing past festivals. We had faculty from other departments, it is a very varied audience-you see young and old. The discussions afterward are very interesting. People have very interesting questions and illuminating remarks.