A postcard from Jerusalem

Guest column

Last week, I traveled to Israel for 56 hours to present Miramax’s documentary “Paper Clips” at the Jerusalem Film Festival.

“Paper Clips” tells the story of a project by a middle school class in a fundamentalist Christian community in rural Tennessee honoring the memory of the 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust. It’s a film about commitment, understanding, communication, and most importantly, tolerance — themes that resonate in the small but vibrant Israeli film community and in mainstream Israeli society.

There’s a big appetite for Hollywood films in Israel, as there is for most things American, so it was no surprise that I received a warm welcome from both the festival organizers and some of the Israeli filmmakers.

Some 250 films were screened over the nine days of the festival, with Anthony Minghella introducing the opening night film, Emir Kusturica’s “Life Is a Miracle,” to 6,000 people at an open-air theatre in the valley just below the entry to the Jaffa Gate of the Old City.

The festival is an important launching pad for films that will later compete for the award informally known as the Israeli Oscar. They’re considering changing the name of the award to “The Shmuels” — Samuel in Hebrew — to give them a more Israeli flavor. The Best Picture winner becomes the Israeli nominee for Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards.

Lia Van Leer, the festival’s energetic, octogenarian founder and director, fondly remembered Roberto Benigni speaking at the festival’s premiere of “Life is Beautiful” months before the movie opened in the United States. The festival was the right place to highlight Benigni’s sensitivity to the film’s controversial subject matter, Van Leer told me.

So, I hoped, would it be the right place to screen “Paper Clips.”

The festival was also an occasion for me to spend some time with Joseph Cedar, a dynamic Israeli writer/director whose first film “Time of Favor,” won 6 Israeli Academy Awards including Best Picture in 2002. Joseph’s second film “The Campfire,” premiered several hours after “Paper Clips.”

Cedar introduced me to many members of the Israeli film community who share many of the challenges facing their colleagues around the world.

There are the inevitable translation problems. Take the case of the the Israeli distributor of “Shrek 2.” In the original film, Shrek captures the character Puss and Boots and threatens to “Bobbit” him — a reference to the infamous John Wayne Bobbitt. When it was dubbed into Hebrew, the Israel distributor changed the name Bobbit to David D’aor, a famous Israeli singer with a very high voice.

The singer didn’t appreciate the joke and sued the distributor. In the version which was ultimately released in Israel, Shrek simply says, “Let’s take a sword and castrate him.” The distributor proudly told me that he has never had so much press on any of his films.

The Israeli film financing system is very different from the U.S., with an even tougher fight for resources. Virtually all of the feature films rely upon support from two government sponsored funds.

Israeli filmmakers face the challenge of all foreign language projects – how to make a movie that will not only work in your own country, but will be appealing to audiences around the world.

They explained that international audiences, especially at festivals, arrive with the expectation that an Israeli movie will automatically deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And because of that, many Israeli movies stay away from what is referred to as “the situation,” and instead seek to tell personal stories.

Cedar’s films have managed to do both — find personal, controversial stories that also touch upon “the situation.”

“Time of Favor” had a plot line involving a yeshiva student plotting to blowup the Temple Mount — a rare glimpse inside the mind of a right-wing Jewish extremist — and his new film “Campfire” addresses the issue of sexual abuse among teenagers in a religious youth group that also offer insight into the philosophy of Jewish settlers in the West Bank.

Later, I tagged along with a group of New York City Council members and clergy for a few stops on their fact-finding mission sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of NYC. We visited a center for the absorption of Ethiopian Jews who had emigrated to Israel, which led to a discussion of the changing face of Israelis. With the emigration of over 1 million Jews from states in the former Soviet Union, and thousands of Jews from Ethiopia, and other places around the world (including the United States), Israel has become a multicultural melting pot with some similarities to what we experience in many American cities.

We shared lunch with Israeli-Arabs living in the Gilboa region of Israel, not far from the Palestinian city of Jenin. The opportunity to hear these devout Muslims describe a local community research competition that promoted the study of sections of the Koran which promote the value of life, peaceful co-existence, and appreciation for your neighbors, was very enlightening.

Visiting Tel Aviv, I had a chance to visit “Mike’s Place,” a jazz bar on the beach right next to the U.S. Embassy that that is the topic of a documentary by a non-Jewish filmmaker. The project was meant to offer a different perspective on Israel, as the patrons and employees were mainly American, Canadian and British. Many were not Jewish. The project was in the middle of production when the bar was hit by a suicide bomber, seriously injuring the filmmaker and killing others portrayed in the doc. By the time I visited, Mike’s Place had been rebuilt — a testament to the resilience of the Israeli people to persevere against the terror.

Introducing “Paper Clips” in the midst of these encounters was an emotional experience for me.

I learning about Israel and the Holocaust growing up attending Jewish Day Schools, but my experience with projects about the Holocaust was limited to co-writing an 8th grade play about Raoul Wallenberg.

I truly admire Steven Spielberg for “Schindler’s List” and the work of his Shoah Foundation. I’ve been working with the producers of “Paper Clips” — the Johnson Group and Ergo Entertainment — for more than three years.

In previous visits to the country, I visited the religious and historical sites and museums, lived with Israelis, studied Hebrew in the university and worked as a counselor at the YMCA. But this visit was different.

“Paper Clips” received a very warm response from the audience, a majority of whom stayed for the Q and A. There were several suggestions about the need to have Israeli and Palestinian kids see the film together to build upon its message of tolerance and understanding. They were encouraged to hear that we are developing a curriculum and study guide based on the film to share with school children around the United States, and hopefully eventually the world, as part of Miramax’s ongoing work with Abe Foxman and the Anti-Defamation League.

“Paper Clips” will be released in September.

Hiltzik is senior VP of corporate communications and government relations at Miramax.

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