‘The Boyfriend,’ ‘Aya,’ ‘Virgins’ & ‘A Great Light’ Shine at Jerusalem Fest’s Film Lab

JERUSALEM — Ashim Ahluwalia’s “The Boyfriend,” Mihal Brezis and Oded Binnun’s “Aya,” Keren Ben Rafael’s “Virgins” and Idan Hubel’s “A Great Light” were among the standouts at the Jerusalem Film Festival’s fourth edition of the Sam Spiegel Intl. Film Lab.

The Film Lab presented 11 projects today that were were developed during a seven-month seminar supervised by three script editors, Clare Downs (“A World Apart”), Jacques Akchoti (“A Screaming Man”) and Avi Nesher (“The Wonders”).

One of the most daring projects pitched at the Film Lab, “The Boyfriend,” which marks Ahluwalia’s sophomore outing, centers around a passionate affair between a middle-aged banker and an 18 year-old working-class boy in Mumbai. The project is meant to explore facets of contemporary Mumbai that clash with the conservative society’s caste system and mores.

Ahluwalia, whose directorial debut “Miss Lovely” opened at Cannes’ Un Certain Regard in 2012, said “The Boyfriend” was based on an autobiographical novel. “In India, homosexuality is illegal, and the fact this book was published was nothing short of a miracle,” pointed out Ahluwalia.

“The boyfriend” has already received a script grant from the Hubert Bals Fund and was picked up for the Rotterdam’s Cinemart.

A debut feature, “Aya” centers on a chance encounter between a young woman and a stranger she meets at the airport while waiting for her husband. The project is based on the eponymous short, “Aya,” which was nominated for best live-action short at the Oscars in 2014. “Aya” also won Israel’s top film award and went on to be released theatrically in Israel.

“‘Aya’ is an exploration of coincidental encounters, in which for one brief period, two people are open enough to engage and connect,” explained Brezis, who grew up in a Jewish Orthodox family and said she had a similar experience when she traveled to Prague alone as a teenager.

Brezis and Binnun directed three other shorts, “Shabbath Entertainment,” “Tuesday’s Women” and “Lost Paradise,” which played at a flurry of festivals. The 1.25 million Euros ($1.39 million) film is produced by Yael Abecassis, a popular actress who notably starred in Amos Gitai’s “Kadosh” and launched her production vehicle, Cassis Films, with Hillel Roseman in 2011.

“A Great Light” is a mystery thriller following the journey of a woman, Shlomit, who investigates the disappearance of a 15-year old girl, Or, and starts looking into her middle-class family life. The more Shlomit digs, the more she exposes Or’s family, as well as the limits of Israel’s public institutions, from the police to the healthcare system. Budgeted under 1 million Euros, “A Great Light” is produced by Eitan Mansuri at Spira Films. Hubel, whose debut “The Cutoff Man” premiered at Venice, said the movie will have a social dimension by delving into characters living on the fringe of society. Hubel also had his short “Daily Bread” play at Venice and compete at the European Film Awards in 2014.

“Virgins,” Ben Rafael’s feature debut, tells the tale of Lana, a 15-year old’s romance with Chiki, a man twice her age who is in town to cover the municipal elections. Instead of covering the elections, Chiki, who is bewitched by the young girl, starts writing that he has seen a mermaid, spurring a media circus within the town. The $1.13 million “Virgins” is produced by Caroline Bonmarchand at Paris-based Avenue B.

Ben Rafael, who graduated from France’s La Femis, has directed various shorts, including “Northern Lights,” which played at Cannes’ Directors Fortnight in 2013.

Now in its fourth year, the Film Lab boasts a strong track record. Renen Schorr, founding director of the Jerusalem’s Sam Spiegel film and television school, and Ifat Tubi, said they were proud to see “Son of Saul” (pictured above) — which was presented by Laszlo Nemes during the lab’s second edition — win the Cannes’ prestigious Grand Prix.

Other Film Lab Alumni include Philippe Lacote with “Run” (Cannes 2014), Nadav Lapid with “The Kindergarten Teacher” (Cannes 2014), Malik Vitthal with “Imperial Dreams” (Sundance 2014), Álvaro Brechner with “Mr. Kaplan” (Busan 2014) and Burhan Qurbani with “We Are Young, We Are Strong” (Tribeca 2015).

Schorr said the Sam Spiegel film and TV school, one of Israel’s top film schools, is committed to encouraging students to undertake projects addressing any kind of social or political issues, and is open to all students regardless of their ethnic or religious backgrounds. The school has students coming from, for instance, the West Bank. Admission is, however, highly selective, Schorr emphasized.

The Film Lab’s jury is chaired by Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg’s Kristen Niehuus, with Arte France Cinema’s Olivier Pere, ZDF film department’s Meinolf Zurhorst, Israel Film Fund’s Katriel Schory, ARP Selection’s Michele Halberstadt, Opus Films’ Ewa Puszczynska and “Son of Saul”‘s helmer Laszlo Nemes.

The jury will hand out prizes to a pair of projects tomorrow, July 11.

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