Gathering has helped country's films get Hollywood exposure

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Los Angeles owes its reputation as a multicultural mecca to various factors, among them cultural happenings like the Israel Film Festival, which this year celebrates a quarter-century of screening films from the Holy Land in the Southland.

The festival was in fact started on the East Coast — it began in Boston and then quickly moved to New York — – and still has satellite events in various cities (New York and Miami lately). But its real home is L.A., which is not that surprising when one considers the similarities in topography and climate between Southern California and Israel and the convenient presence of Hollywood, where foreign filmmakers still dream of being accepted.

The fest’s unlikely moving force is Tel Aviv-born Meir Fenigstein, 59, who founded it in 1982 as a four-day, six-film event. He doesn’t have the background of a movie geek. He was, in fact, a musician — among the most famous pop stars in his small country. Known by the nickname Poogy, he was drummer for the group Kaveret (beehive in Hebrew), which was formed in 1973 and broke up three years later.

After deciding against a career in music, Fenigstein cast about for a field suited to his talents. Luck, chance and the opportunity to advance Israeli cinema outside its homeland brought him to the point of starting a film festival with almost no knowledge of the industry or its promotion.

“One thing led to another,” he recalls. “I didn’t always know what I was doing. When I decided to do a festival, my motive was to produce something myself, to find what I was good at. From my days in the band, I knew I could organize things.”

These days the festival runs to some 35 films, split between features and documentaries. Occasionally there is confusion about the event’s goals. It is not a Jewish film festival — Fenigstein leaves that to others — but rather strictly a celebration of Israeli cinema. If a movie isn’t made in Israel, it isn’t shown in Fenigstein’s fest.

“We’re representing the Israeli film industry, just Israeli films,” he says. “I’m Israeli, and that’s my interest — to promote this culture.”

And thanks in large part to his efforts, the profile of Israeli cinema in America has been raised substantially.

“The contributions are manifold,” says Meyer Gottlieb, prexy of Samuel Goldwyn Films and an IFF board member, speaking about the fest’s impact. “It showcases these films in the global arena of Hollywood, which is very important, offering an opportunity for Israeli filmmakers to show their works in a peer-to-peer situation.”

Beyond that, the fest has charted the development of the Israeli film industry from a provincial national cinema to something world class.

“In the beginning, Israeli films weren’t really supported by the government,” Fenigstein says, alluding to the establishment of the Israel Film Fund in 1979. “They had to be produced like in America, so they had to be commercial. They had an ethnic character and humor and were geared to the Israeli audience. Just a few films really reached the world.”

A look at Israel’s track record at the Academy Awards supports that view. After four foreign-language film nominations in the 1970s, the country earned just one between 1978 and 2007. Since then, however, Israel has been nommed for the foreign-film Oscar every year.

Greg Laemmle, president of Laemmle Theaters (whose various locations have long served as IFF venues), credits Fenigstein and the fest with bringing attention to a host of filmmakers whose work now commands international attention, including Eytan Fox, Ari Folman, Joseph Cedar, Amos Gitai and Avi Nesher (whose “The Matchmaker” opens this year’s fest).

Indeed, Laemmle maintains that the fest has done its work so well, its role in the distribution cycle has evolved.

“The festival now almost serves less about clueing distributors into these films and is more part of a release strategy for film films that have been acquired in Cannes and Toronto and Sundance,” he says. “But to the festival’s credit, I don’t know that those festivals would be giving attention to Israeli films were it not for the attention the (IFF) has given Israeli film over the past 25 years.”

As for the future, Fenigstein shows no signs of complacency. “People ask me where I get the energy,” he says. “But I’m as excited now as if it were the first one.”

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