Jerusalem Film Festival faces religious fundamentalists

JERUSALEM — Alesia Weston, the new executive director of the Jerusalem Film Center, had been in Israel for only about a week when residents awoke to find that across the city, posters for the upcoming 29th Jerusalem Film Festival had been desecrated.

They showed a woman, sweetly dressed in a knee-length print dress, riding a bicycle and clutching a bouquet of colored balloons. Ultra-Orthodox Jews believe women, and images of women, should not be seen in the public sphere, and hence several posters across the city either had the image of the woman torn out or had been smeared with white paint.

Part of Weston’s new gig also involves running the festival, which kicked off July 5. She stepped in after a period of crisis for the fest, which in the past few years has faced the early exit of its previous director, Ilan de Vries, as well as a judging scandal and an unsure future.

With just three weeks between Weston’s plane touching down and the event’s opening night, she probably didn’t expect to have time to become embroiled in a socioreligious debate. But this is Jerusalem, where much is mystical and nothing is simple.

Even being a woman in this city, the capital of the Middle East’s most thriving democracy, has of late become more cumbersome. On bus routes that snake through religious neighborhoods, some buses maintain de facto gender segregation, with women sitting only in the back. Barriers have popped up on some of the city’s ancient streets, papered with signs calling for women to walk on one side, shielded from the eyes of religious men.

A film festival, especially one created by a woman, led by a woman, showing films made by women and offering screenings on the sabbath, seems these days to be almost an act of defiance.

“This is an institution that has an enormous importance in terms of the local community, in terms of the secular stronghold that it represents in Jerusalem,” Weston says of the cinematheque, a multifunctional complex that overlooks Jerusalem’s majestic Old City and houses both the film festival and the Israel Film Archive. “It’s a cinematic oasis,” she says.

The Jerusalem Cinematheque was founded by Lia Van Leer, the 87-year-old grande dame of Israeli cinema, who stepped down as director four years ago but maintains an advisory role. Van Leer is also the founder of the Israel Film Archive and the cinematheques in Haifa and Tel Aviv.

Van Leer has little patience for the eroding status of women in her city.

“I said in this area there should be three states: an Arab/Palestinian state, a Jewish state and a secular state. And the religious, let them have their own state, let them have their own army, let them make a living,” Van Leer says. She is quick, however, to point out that she means only the most fringe elements of Israel’s religious population.

“A lot of people come with the kippah here, and there’s no problem,” she says, referring to the skullcap traditionally worn by observant Jewish men. Using the term for Jews who reject all aspects of secular culture, she says, “I’m talking about the Haredim.”

Local helmers are not shying away from addressing the issue. Femme director Rama Burshtein’s “Lemaleh et Heh’halal” (Fill the Void), which was slated for competition at the JFF but will instead bow in the Venice competition lineup, puts a hard, cold focus on the place of women in Haredi society. The pic explores the conflicts of a Haredi bride-to-be suffering under the weight of her family’s expectations.

Other female directors and producers are enjoying their time in the fest’s spotlight. Dana Goldberg’s first feature film, “Alice,” about a thirtysomething woman suppressing her emotional demons, is competing in the full-length narrative category. And in both the short film and the highly contested documentary film competitions, roughly half of the pics are helmed or produced by women.

Female voices are also getting play outside of competition. One such film is “Aya,” produced by Israeli actress Yael Abecassis. Abecassis, whose break in Israeli cinema came when she played the childless ultra-Orthodox woman Rivka in Amos Gitai’s “Kadosh,” was also invited to be on the fest’s five-member narrative competition jury (which includes Variety chief critic Justin Chang).

Abecassis says that, as a woman, she was eager to accept. “This is a macho country. We grow up around soldiers, the figures, the fighters, the Bibi Netanyahus, she says, making an example of Israel’s right-wing prime minister. “Women are not in the game. So for me, it was very important that there be another female judge.”

But current events aside, Abecassis says, women in Jerusalem, and in film in general, aren’t going away. “The long work that we have to do is to change the reality,” she says. “But I’m very optimistic. There is a lot of work and a lot of darkness. But there is also a little light.”

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