Organisers of the annual celebration of contemporary Israeli cinema aim to look beyond the conflict, and celebrate the craft.
23 Aug 2011 - 9:54 AM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:09 PM

In late 2009, Raphael Nadjari, director of the landmark documentary The History of Israeli Cinema, said “Today, Israeli cinema is anyone's cinema. Anyone can have his say in it, and the era is over when any film produced here was considered 'the last word'.” For Tali Polichtuk, the Executive Director Australian Israel Cultural Exchange (AICE), Nadjari's statement rings especially true today, and speaks to the global perspective that Israeli filmmakers have embraced.

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“I would say this is true globally rather than specific to Israel. The camera democratised art – the 'I can do that',” says Polichtuk, who is charged with overseeing the 8th annual Israeli International Film Festival. “Video cameras, smart phones, etc., widen [the filmmakers'] scope and opportunity.” Her views differ from Nadjari in one aspect, though. “Anyone who knows Israel knows that there is no such thing as 'the last word' – there'll always be someone else who has something else to say!”

The 2011 festival program reflects the diversity of opinion emerging in contemporary Israeli cinema; it features everything from poignant remembrances of happier times (Avi Nesher's 60's-set opening night film, The Matchmaker, pictured) to the determined fight for personal freedom (Hagar Ben Asher's brazen take on sexual mores, The Slut) to the survival instincts required to fend off a mortal threat (Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado's slasher stunner, Rabies).

“In the last decade or so, Israeli filmmakers have moved away from what was called 'introverted navel gazing' and films that failed miserably at the local box-office,” says Poliichtuk, who worked closely with her Israeli-based Artistic Director, Katriel Schory, in devising one of the most festival's eclectic programs to date. She points to Dover Koshashvili's Late Marriage, a box-office smash brimming with intelligence and insight into the modern Israeli urban experience as one of the festival films speaking of contemporary issues. “Late Marriage is seen as somewhat cathartic; a film that explored the Georgian Jewish community in Israel and attracted audiences in droves as well as gaining international acclaim. New confidence was injected into the industry.”

Such films represent a turning point in the domestic Israeli film culture. Global acceptance of Israeli-trained filmmakers is at an all-time high, after an extraordinary period of international success with films like Ayelet Menahemi's Noodle (2007), Ari Folman's Waltz with Bashir (2008), Eran Riklis' The Lemon Tree (2008), Haim Tabakman's Eyes Wide Open (2009) and Samuel Maoz's Lebanon (2009), and Nir Bergman's widely-acclaimed coming-of-age story, Intimate Grammar, this year's Best Picture winner at the Jerusalem International Film Festival. It is apparent to Tali Polichtuk that the Israeli film sector is currently in the midst of one of its strongest production periods. “Writer/directors such as Avi Nesher and Joseph Cedar returned to Israel having worked or trained in the US. Add a new generation, such as Guy Nattiv (The Flood) and Hagar Ben Asher, immersed in the positive environment and, with new approaches, new stories to be told,” she says. “(Now) the Israeli film industry produces films diverse in subject, diverse in approach.”

She refuses to entertain any notion that the ongoing conflicts of her homeland adversely impact its filmmakers. When asked if the decades-old bloodshed that defines the region for many Westerners has hindered film production, Polichtuk bluntly states, “It functions – a 'get on and do it attitude'. Conflict is sadly part of the State's everyday and has been since it was established in 1948”. In fact, expanding the world's perception of Israel was one of the key drivers for the formation of AICE, and the film festival , which runs annually from late August (Sydney) to mid September (Melbourne).

“The Australia Israel Cultural Exchange was established to address the singular representation of Israel in the media – that of conflict. The dynamics of Israeli culture produced in a democratic country was generally overlooked or ignored,” she states. “The AICE Israeli Film Festival provides an insight into concerns and issues faced by Israelis and a window into the everyday of Israeli society.”

One of the highlights of the 2011 program of events is the factual film section. This strand includes such acclaimed documentaries as Doron Tsabari's call-to-action media expose Revolution 101, Itamar Chen's heartwarming Teacher Irena and Noa Ben Hagai's compelling clash-of-families film, Blood Relation.

Polichtuk is quick to emphasise the depth of responsibility her dual role as one of the overseers of the film festival commands. “The core audience of the AICE Israeli Film Festival is inevitably both the Jewish and Israeli communities here in Australia. But the objective is to provide the wider Australian audience the opportunities to see Israeli film,” she states. “Many of [the films'] concerns are global in their themes and are therefore relevant to a wider audience.” Some of the contemporary works that the festival will highlight include Roi Werner's big-city romancer 2 Night, Eitan Tzur's darkly-shaded tale of possessive love, Naomi.

The festival organisers are particularly proud of the symmetry the AICE Israeli Film Festival shares with last month's Australian Film Festival, which played to packed houses in Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem in early July; Kriv Stender's Red Dog was the sell-out opening night film. “Close ties have been established as a result of the two festivals, both in terms of the industry as well as diplomatically through the support of both Embassies,” says Polichtuk. There are key differences that define the difference between the filmmaking styles of both countries.

“Landscape plays an important role in Australian film,” she says, displaying a buff's knowledge of her adopted home's film culture. “Israel tends, (though) not exclusively, to veer towards more intimate films, with a sense of location linked more to the storyline than the actual setting.”

But similarities exist, points out the AICE Executive Officer, further strengthening the Australian sectors bond with Israeli filmmakers. “There's no doubt that the last couple of years has seen Australian filmmakers move away from those 'introverted navel gazing' films that, like Israel, saw local films fail to attract local audiences.”

The AICE Israeli Film Festival commences in Sydney on August 23. Full program details are available at the festival website.