Israel Film Festival Celebrates 25th Anniversary

United King Films
Maya Dagan and Adir Miler star in a scene from "The Matchmaker."

Filmmaker Avi Nesher recalls meeting Israel Film Festival founder Meir Fenigstein in the early 1980s in a New York coffee shop -- and having some doubts. After all, at the time Fenigstein was known simply as "Poogy," the drummer in the famed Israeli rock band Kaveret. When Fenigstein told Nesher about his plans to create a traveling, domestic film festival dedicated to Israeli cinema, the idea sounded far-fetched.

Now, as the IFF celebrates its 25th anniversary, Nesher looks back in awe.

"It's the grand American story, a man with a dream," he says. "This guy was a drummer in a rock band and he put the whole festival on by himself."

It's fitting that Nesher's drama "The Matchmaker" opens the festival today because his first feature, "The Troupe," opened the inaugural fest in 1985.

The IFF was originally conceived in 1982 when Fenigstein, then a student at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, took a trip to Israel. He recalls speaking to an Israeli entertainment executive who not only embraced the idea of creating a festival but offered to lend support. "He said, 'Why don't you take more films and do a festival? Take me to Boston and I'll do your marketing and PR,' " Fenigstein recalls.

This would be only the beginning of a flood of good fortune that helped make the first festival -- which consisted of only six films -- a success. "The first day of the festival a Jewish dentist came to me and asked me if I was planning to take out an ad in the Boston Globe," Fenigstein says. Unable to afford it, the young fest director was shocked when the dentist decided to pay for a large ad himself. As a result, the remaining festival screeenings "were packed or sold out," Fenigstein notes.

After those humble beginnings, the IFF would go on to distinguish itself from the festival pack by becoming a traveling event that touches down in four major American cities: New York, Miami, Chicago and Los Angeles.

But before Fenigstein truly got the festival on the road, he remembers at least once having to defend his vision. The festival had successfully wrapped a couple of years in its new official home, New York, when Fenigstein was invited to a party there for Mayor Ed Koch. Several celebrities were in attendance including Steven Spielberg and Robert De Niro.

[pagebreak] "The guy that invited me was standing with some producers and said, 'Meir wants to take the festival now to Hollywood; New York is too small for him.' I said, 'No, no, no. New York is not too small. We just have to also take Israeli films to Hollywood.' "

And while Fenigstein eventually cut Chicago from the roster and at times battled to hit more than one city in a year -- he tried four cities for the 15th anniversary -- he feels he's always done as much as he could. "In one city it's very complicated to organize a festival," he says. "You do it in three, it's three times as difficult."

Israeli cinema may be thriving now, but that was not always the case during the past two decades, making the IFF's survival all the more remarkable. "He is a real pioneer in exposing audiences to Israeli cinema," Nesher says. "He also managed to be successful even in the lean years." Indeed, the fest -- which will screen more than 30 films in L.A. -- has over the years presented 800 feature films, documentaries and shorts to more than 900,000 people, easily making it the largest showcase of Israeli films in the U.S.

Beyond the number of films screened and the festival's nomadic history, Fenigstein has also, with what some call his "force of will," created an event where some of the biggest names in Hollywood have taken part or lent support. This year's honorary committee includes Michael Douglas, Bette Midler and Rob Reiner, with festival chairman duties in the hands of Arnon Milchan.

The IFF will bestow honors separately on Nu Image/Millennium CEO Avi Lerner, Relativity Media CEO Ryan Kavanaugh, "Avatar" producer Jon Landau and actor Richard Dreyfuss.

A gala dinner is also part of the opening-night festivities tonight and will serve as a platform for raising funds for the IsraFest Foundation, the nonprofit that produces the festival, and scholarship funds that will be awarded to the top six film schools in Israel.