TEL AVIV — Haifa, a mixed city of both Arabs and Jews hugging Israel’s northern coast, is usually outshone by its big brothers Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. But for one week a year, when the Haifa Film Festival packs the weeklong harvest holiday of Sukkot with several days of independent and mainstream cinema, Haifa reminds the country of its importance on the Israeli cultural scene.
This year marks the fest’s 28th installment, with highlights including a tribute to the late Greek helmer Theodoros Angelopoulos, replete with an Israeli debut concert by piano virtuoso Eleni Karaindrou, who scored several of his films; an international marketing forum and pitching conference; and screenings including Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master,” which opened the fest. Other big draws are Joe Wright’s “Anna Karenina” and Rama Burshtein’s “Fill the Void,” Israel’s submission for this year’s foreign language Oscar, which Sony Pictures Classics recently bought for North America.
But off the red carpet, there is another side to the Haifa fest, one that runs more on gumption than glamour: Haifa provides an annual showcase of the best independent cinema Israel has to offer, as well as some of the most promising low-budget offerings from around the world. New York-based writer and producer David D’Arcy, the Haifa fest’s independents curator, says that not only does the festival feature retrospectives and debutantes, but that it has become extremely involved in hosting people who want to make co-productions with Israel. “Those meetings are taking place during the festival and at the festival,” he says.
D’Arcy brought one his own independent co-productions, Andrew Shea’s “Portrait of Wally,” to this year’s lineup. Other low-budget standouts, he says, are Jonathan Lisecki’s “Gayby,” about a yoga instructor’s quest for a baby; Chris Sullivan’s “Consuming Spirits,” an experimental animation piece ruminating on life in the Rust Belt; and Kristine Samuelson and John Haptas’ “Tokyo Waka,” a study of the 20,000 crows that co-exist with the human residents of Japan’s biggest city.
Samuelson and Haptas have shown their essayistic, image-driven work at fests ranging from San Francisco to Seoul. They jumped at the chance to show at Haifa, they say, thanks to its reputation as a prestigious event with seasoned viewers.
“We had heard that Haifa was a little bit more independent-minded,” Samuelson says.
Filmmakers on an even thinner shoestring are showing their work at Fringidaire, a sidebar event dedicated to the most avant-garde and low-budget pics Israel has to offer. A project from Cinema Fringe, a support organization for struggling directors created by Marat Parkhomovsky and Elad Peleg, Fringidaire is held at a nightclub adjacent to the festival. Screenings are served up with hearty portions of beer and music.
“This thing is alternative all the way,” Parkhomovsky says. “Not only the films but also the way it is done.”
Israeli director Amos Gitai says that Haifa may be so welcoming to the unconventional because it is itself unconventional.
“This is a very special place,” says Gitai, who was born and raised in the city, one of the few places in Israel where Arabs and Jews live together in actual peace. “Some of the best actors in the country are born in Haifa because it allows one to mix languages,” he adds. “When I have brought international artists to Israel, like Juliette Binoche or Jeanne Moreau or Natalie Portman, they’ve always considered Haifa fascinating.”