I am old enough to remember when the 1984 prison drama “Beyond the Walls” became the first Israeli film to obtain a significant theatrical release here in Australia. What a moment that was for a fledgling film industry for which even the word “industry” was an overstatement.
How things have changed. By my calculation, some 13 Israeli films have now been nominated for Academy Awards: ten features for “best foreign film” (*) and three documentaries (**). This makes Israel the tenth most nominated country in the world. Pretty good, considering that it had such a late start.
But one of the biggest changes is that we in Australia now have access to the latest Israeli films (and not just random late night SBS TV viewings) through the annual “AICE Israeli Film Festival”, now in its eleventh year. The AICE (Australia-Israel Cultural Exchange) operates in as a genuine exchange, bringing Israeli films to Australia, and in turn taking Australian films to Israel.
The AICE Festival opens in Australia this coming week, running at various times in Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide and Byron Bay.
Of this year’s films, “The Second Son” (also known as “Dancing Arabs”) is one of my favourites. Coming directly from a rapturous reception at the Jerusalem Film Festival, this film is directed by Eran Riklis (“Lemon Tree”, “The Syrian Bride”), based on two of Sayed Kashua’s bestselling novels. We follow the story of an Arab boy attending a Jewish boarding school, and dealing with crushing cultural challenges. (Below: The Second Son)
In fact, a large number of this year’s festival films deal sensitively with Israeli-Arab relations: “Self-Made” (the opening night film) is a black comedy in which a working class Arab woman and an upper-middle class Israeli artist have a bizarre mix-up at the Israel-Palestinian Territory border. “The Green Prince” is an extraordinary documentary about a Palestinian and his unusual relationship with his Shin Bet (secret police) “handler”. “Under the Same Sun” posits that peace is possible between Israelis and Arabs, through cooperative business (this film won a recent award at the Peace on Earth Film Festival).
Like most film-makers around the world, Israeli film-makers usually sit on the “left” side of politics, and their films often provide highly critical viewpoints on the conflict with Palestinians (and social commentary generally), providing insights and a “human face” that are rarely, if ever, shown on the nightly news cycle. Thus attempts to boycott Israeli films (which have been growing in the wake of the recent Gaza war) are, if anything, oddly self-defeating. These film directors show parts of Israeli society and how Israelis really think and interact with Arabs, going far beyond usual assumptions. Attempts to silence their voices are unfortunate at best and deeply troubling.
Many of the other Israeli obsessions are showcased at the festival, including folk-dancing (“Hora 79”), the conflict between religious and secular (“In Between”), Holocaust survivors (“Anita B”), former Nazis (“Mr Kaplan”), art stolen by the Nazis (“The Art Dealer”), Jewish refugees from Arab lands (“Shadow in Bagdad”) and national commemoration (“The Ceremony”).
(*) The ten features are Sallah (1964), The Policeman (1971), I Love You Rosa (1972), The House on Chelouche Street (1973), Operation Thunderbolt (1977), Beyond the Walls (1984), Beaufort (2007), Waltz With Bashir (2008), Agami (2009) and Footnote (2011).
(**) The three documentaries are The 81st Blow (1974), The Gatekeepers (2012) and 5 Broken Cameras (also 2012).