Berlin fest topper walks political tightrope

Israeli cinema is following up on its 2007 bumper year with a strong presence at the upcoming Berlinale, which coincides with the 60th anniversary of the creation of the state of Israel.

Berlin fest topper Dieter Kosslick has visited Israel a number of times in recent months, notably delivering a stirring speech on the opening night of the Jerusalem Intl. Film Fest last July, where he trumpeted the state of Israeli cinema.

With Berlin traditionally the most political of the major European film fests, and keeping in mind the complicated history of Israeli-German relations, Kosslick has had to walk a tightrope to ensure that any events organized by the fest would not offend people on any side of the divide.

Two years ago, for example, a Berlinale confab intended to launch Greenhouse, an E.U.-funded Mediterranean film center, became heated as Israeli and Palestinian filmmakers criticized the choice of partners for the plan.

In the end, it appears Kosslick may have found a nifty balance by filling the lineup with Israeli fare but avoiding any official announcements surrounding the anniversary. “There is no official program for this anniversary, but by showing the films, we somehow commemorate also the founding of the state 60 years ago,” says Kosslick with customary diplomacy.

While the six titles in the lineup range in theme and style, one noticeable trend in the films is the extent to which the political situation in the Middle East is an ever-present factor.

Competish contender Amos Kollek’s “Restless,” a tale of a father and son reuniting after the dad walked out on his family to pursue a poetry career in New York 20 years earlier, mixes the personal with the political as the prodigal father’s verses alternately champion and attack Israel. That the son has recently been discharged from the Israeli army only adds to the drama.

Eran Riklis’ “Lemon Tree,” selected for the Panorama sidebar and starring Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass, tells the story of a Palestinian woman who discovers that the Israeli defense minister has just moved in across from the lemon grove in her garden. When the minister orders her grove to be chopped down after it is deemed a threat to his security, the woman challenges his decision in the Israeli high court.

“There is no such thing as a political film,” Riklis says. “For me, once you’re in a territory which has political issues, then everything is political. My film is about two (people) across a border, both real and virtual. You could say it’s political because one is a Palestinian and one is an Israeli, but at the end of the day it’s also just a story about two people. And some lemon trees.”

Riklis is joined in Panorama by Dror Moreh’s doc “Sharon,” which recounts the comatose former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon’s decision to unilaterally end Israeli’s occupation of the Gaza Strip.

Two docs also play in the Berlinale’s Forum: Natalie Assouline’s “Shahida” and Yoav Shamir’s “Flipping Out.”

Assouline’s hot-potato pic saw her spend two years talking to five female Palestinian would-be suicide bombers currently residing in Israeli jails.

Shamir’s doc uncovers the phenomenon of recently discharged Israeli soldiers who, traumatized by their experiences in the Palestinian territories, decamp to India and indulge in copious drug-taking.

Rounding out the selection is a special presentation of Israel’s most famous filmmaking agitator, Amos Gitai, and his new pic, “Tomorrow You Will Understand.”

“There is a thread with all the films selected this year in that they involve political issues,” says Israeli Film Fund topper Katriel Schory. “The festival programmers definitely didn’t go for the soft stories.”

The downbeat tone of many of these films reflects the mood among certain sectors of the country’s artistic community. A series of government funding cutbacks has prompted demonstrations by Israeli artists, musicians, dance and theater professionals.

The ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict has also added a bittersweet flavor to those hoping to celebrate Israel’s 60th anniversary. “It’s just another year. We don’t see much reason to celebrate,” Schory says.

“It’s a hard question,” says Talia Kleinhendler, who produced “Restless” and “Shahida” and also served on “Sharon” as associate producer. “We’re still here somehow, and that does mean something, but on the other hand we’re not where we’d like to be politically and socially.”

While Israel’s government is likely already prepping a rollout of events to celebrate the anniversary, the question of how the cultural community can participate is a complex one, given the sensitivities surrounding the ongoing conflict and the still-unresolved fate of the Palestinian people, many of whom were displaced in 1948.

That U.S. prexy George Bush has stressed the importance of resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in his final year in office only underlines the issue’s strategic significance.

But away from the interminable political process, Israeli filmmakers certainly have a lot to cheer about.

Films such as Joseph Cedar’s “Beaufort,” Eran Kolirin’s “The Band’s Visit” and Etgar Keret and Shira Geffen’s “Jellyfish” and David Volach’s “My Father, My Lord,” won major awards at last year’s Berlinale, Cannes and Tribeca fests, respectively.

Israeli auds are also flocking to see local pics, with four Israeli films making the country’s top-10 grossing list for the first time ever in 2007.

“For many years, all the Israeli films were either only about the army and politics or they ignored it completely and tried to make an American film, but it made it impossible to enjoy watching them,” Kollek says. “But in the last four or five years, we’ve seen people just try to make films.

“It’s like with ‘Restless.’ The character of the father has a lot of political opinions which he expresses at different times, but it’s also a very personal film about a father-son relationship.”

Despite the tinderbox atmosphere of the region’s politics, the irony of all this may be that Israeli and Palestinian filmmakers have often enjoyed fruitful and productive relations. Riklis’ film, for example, features a number of Palestinian thesps, including the aforementioned Abbass and Ali Suliman (“Paradise Now,” “The Kingdom”).

Likewise, Kleinhendler is producing a collaboration between two directors, one Israeli and one Palestinian, that features a majority Palestinian cast and evenly split crew.

“It’s a very complicated situation and a very challenging journey,” Kleinhendler says. “Sometimes we wish we lived in a world that was black and white, with good guys and bad guys, but it’s not that way. There are no clear answers.”

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