Jerusalem Fest Endures Despite Ongoing Conflict

Amid rocket attacks, cancellations and multiple controversies — including Israeli filmmakers sparking a backlash by empathizing with Palestine — festival organizers never considered shutting the event down.

Ahead of its official ending this weekend in the Holy Land, incessant security tensions ultimately managed to overshadow the Jerusalem Film Festival in its 31st year.

The escalating hostilities of recent weeks resulted in Israeli Defense Forces launching Operation Protective Edge a day before the planned festivities at Jerusalem Cinematheque, home to the festival, were about to kick off. The Opening Gala event envisioned to take place on the backdrop of the walls of the Old City, featuring the world premiere of Israeli director Eran Riklis' Dancing Arabs, was initially postponed, and eventually scrapped altogether. Local media attention was preoccupied with the ongoing rocket attacks targeting most of the country, yet organizers say they are content with the tens of thousands who chose to "run from one screening to another, instead of to the nearest safe haven," celebrating the 200 films, including 60 Israeli titles, screened this year.

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"We are very pleased with the end result and believe in the edition we put forward this year, but dilemmas definitely arose because of the security situation," said Noa Regev, director of the festival. "Our conclusion was that especially in days like these it's important to maintain the existence of the festival and a discussion between filmmakers, cultural figures and the audience truly emerged attesting to the power of cinema to challenge our view of life at this time."

Regev admits that the festival office received a lot of phone calls from scheduled guests in the hours leading to the start of the events. "Once the military operation commenced I declared an independent operation and was determined to go ahead with the festival," she explained. "We told our guests that we will understand their decision either way but that things look entirely different when you're here. Jerusalem wasn't a main target region. We had the facilities to protect everyone and even when an alarm did go off alerting a coming rocket attack, viewers vacated the movie theater to a safe shelter and went back in to proceed with screenings once things calmed down."

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Out of 130 guests only 15 canceled their attendance, including Austrian film director Ulrich Seidl (the Paradise trilogy), although organizers claim it was not necessarily due to the situation in Israel. Highlights included Pulitzer-winning playwright David Mamet reading from his new novella, The Handle and the Hold, German actress Martina Gedeck presenting the screening of her movie The Wall, and South Korean director Park Chan-wook (Oldboy) leading a panel on the "Korean revenge thriller." He also presented a master class following a screening of his 2013 thriller Stoker, starring Nicole Kidman.

Although present in Jerusalem, Spike Jonze, this year's Academy Award winner for best original screenplay for Her, opted to forgo his scheduled master class coinciding with a 15th anniversary screening of his directorial debut, Being John Malkovich. "I apologize for not being there with you tonight," he said in a statement addressed to festival attendees. "It felt like the wrong time for me to be talking about movies with everything going on. I hope you understand. I will come back again and screen movies and talk film with you when the time is right. My heart is with you and everyone who is suffering right now."

During the past week, headlines in local media outlets naturally pushed coverage of the festival aside. Regev said the decision to carry on with the fest was in no way an attempt to distract people from the reality of the situation. "We did not create a bubble or forget about what's going on outside the cinematheque," she said. "The festival went on not as a way to boost morale and there was no tendency for escapism. The event was not a carnival but rather a cultural event where artists found themselves watching thought-provoking films which evoked further discussion relating to the situation. That's why it was important to me not to give up."

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Alongside the tumultuous events surrounding this year's festival, the eight nominated Israeli filmmakers in the full-length feature category held an independent press conference Monday urging, via a joint letter, that local media outlets show the suffering of Gaza civilians, not just that of Israelis, and called for an immediate ceasefire. "We, the undersigned, Israeli directors whose films participate in the Jerusalem Film Festival, believe that in these violent days, it is impossible to talk only about cinema while ignoring the killing and horrifying events around us," read the plea by Efrat Corem, Shira Geffen, Ronit Elkabetz, Shlomi Elkabetz, Bozi Gete, Nadav Lapid, Tali Shalom Ezer and Keren Yedaya. The impromptu act was met with backlash in Israel, including that of Minister of Culture and Sport Limor Livnat, who referred to it as "shameful" at a time when "millions of Israeli citizens are under attacks led by Hamas."

Geffen caused another controversy Thursday night upon presenting a screening of her new effort, Self Made. According to leading news website Walla!, Geffen asked the audience to stand in a moment of silence to remember Palestinian children who died as a result of the military operation in Gaza. Many filmgoers refused to participate and booed. The new movie, which premiered earlier this year in Cannes, depicts two female characters, a Jewish and an Arab woman, swapping lives.

"We were not involved in the action of those directors but fully stand behind all of the filmmakers featured in the festival," said Regev. "It is our part to serve as a platform to artists first and foremost by showcasing their works. Their act was not against the state of Israel but merely an opportunity to express sorrow over the situation and vocalize their stance as many artists do around the world. We believe this is the ultimate starting point for openness, solidarity and peace."