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Director on Event Amid Tensions

Director on Event Amid Tensions

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For many New Yorkers on the Upper West Side, the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan is a spot to play pickleball, grab a cup of coffee, or dump your kid off for a ceramics class. From June 4 through June 10, however, it will be the nexus of current Israeli cinema, hosting the 12th Annual Israel Film Center Festival. And considering what has transpired lately at Columbia University just a few subway stops away, it could make for some particularly lively post-screening Q&As. 

JCC stands for Jewish Community Center, and while you don’t have to be Jewish to go and use their pool, the vast Amsterdam Avenue facility is not not connected to Israel. In its lobby you’ll find a wall boasting “Jerusalem stone,” no shortage of Hebrew classes, and various lectures and symposiums concerning the Middle East. 

In addition to film screenings throughout the year, the JCC maintains the Israel Film Center, which claims to be the largest collection of Israeli movies and is the springboard for this annual festival. (It is one of several film festivals held at the JCC each year.)

The festival is essentially a snapshot of “this year in Israeli film,” with some titles ending their international runs and others making their debut. There are eight narratives and two documentaries this year, a nice mix including comedy (like Josh Pais in the Wes Anderson-ish espionage romp Checkout), Biblical history (Legend of Destruction, an animated film led by Oscar Isaac), and a family dramedy reminiscent of The Straight Story (The Road to Eilat). This slate represents the last full wave of movies coming from Israel before the irrevocable changes made to that culture by the October 7 attacks and subsequent war with Hamas. 

Isaac Zablocki, who maintains the Center and is the senior director of film programming at the JCC (where he’s worked for 19 years), spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about the special challenges of programming the festival this year, and about the precarious status of Israeli cinema in the current political climate. (For example, days after our conversation, film directors Ken Loach and Mike Leigh resigned as patrons of a British cinema because it hosted an Israeli festival, and programmed a documentary about the Oct. 7 attacks.) 

Isaac Zablocki

Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images

What is the Israel Film Center Festival, and how does it differ from the other Israel Festival you usually hold in fall?

The Israel Film Center Festival takes a general look at Israeli cinema right now. This is our 12th year. There is an older Israel Film Festival in Los Angeles, and they used to do a second festival here in New York, but the Israel Film Center at the JCC Manhattan shows more Israeli films than anywhere month to month. We weren’t getting credit since we didn’t have a festival. They still do theirs in L.A. and there can be overlap, but each has a different crowd, different style. 

We try to see every Israeli film, then program the best ones relevant to our community. Some will never play again in the US. We keep the programs diverse and avoid any two movies that are too similar. I’m particularly proud of that this year.

The Other Israel Festival dives into the image of minority populations in Israel, and Arab-Jewish relations. It gets into a deeper level of what we see in the headlines. Last year’s festival was postponed—we were already selling tickets when Oct. 7 happened.

There’s also an Israel Film Center Fund.

Our fund helps films already in production and in the contract we have the right to screen them at one of our festivals. The donors are anyone passionate about Israeli films.

The Center has a streaming service now, too.

Yes, pay-per-stream or by membership. It has many rare Israeli films you can’t get anywhere else. Those are the ones that get the most attention. Our most popular remains Sallah Shabati from the 1964 (starring Topol), which was nominated for the Oscar. Terrible production values, they didn’t know what they were doing, but a popular comedy. 

Was there any consideration for canceling the Israel Film Center Festival this year?

Consideration, yes, but not for canceling. We’ve been really thoughtful about how to proceed, and the tone. Even calling it a “festival,” which is a weird word. How do we celebrate when so many are suffering?

We also thought about the diversity of the films, what kind of perspectives we’d show. We kept away from certain topics. It’s mostly non-political this year, with two exceptions—The Future and Children of Peace—these were both holdovers from our Other Israel Festival last year that both speak to universal hopes, and are not too threatening in tone, they shed some light and are good for reflection. 

Are there plans for increased security?

We’re prepared for anything. We always have good security and we have our ear to the ground. 

And if there are some demonstrations?

People have a right to share their opinions. We are in a country where protest is legal. We’re happy to welcome people into the conversation.

I rarely make political statements, but I will say this: the arts and artists are so important right now. Artists are the ones that often make a lot more sense than politicians, and they are the ones on the ground doing good work. Art is the last thing that should be disrupted. 

Listen, you’ve been to some of our screenings — I think the biggest concern isn’t a protestor. It’s an old Jewish woman who won’t give us the microphone back because she needs to talk about her grandson’s latest work. 

Okay so back to the programming — for this year, if a movie was, say, a little too glib, you passed on it?

Right. Not the time. We didn’t want to show anything that pushed political boundaries too much, or something about terrorist attacks. We wanted to be sensitive to that right now. Everyone’s got a little bit of PTSD. 

What I felt was most important this year was to show normal life in Israel. We see Israel in the news every day—I wanted to go beyond that and show a family wedding (Seven Blessings), or a boy trying to finish high school (A Room of His Own).

A movie like The Milky Way, I was recasting it with Hollywood actors in my head — it could easily take place in any city. 

The success of Israeli cinema has always been telling universal stories. But the specifics are Israeli. In The Milky Way, Maya Kenig has really picked up on what Israel has become, which is a thriving economy for some, an industrial world where you can find a market for anything, even mother’s milk. These companies that seem friendly at first, then it becomes a little 1984 or Parasite. Another is A Room of His Own, which is about a high school kid figuring out what he wants to do. Very relatable. But since this is Israel he has to decide about joining the army.

It’s very similar to any movie about a strange kid who doesn’t fit in in high school, except the class trip is a visit to concentration camps in Poland. 

Honesty with the details is what makes these movies great. You don’t want to pretend to be an American movie. 

Your opening night film Legend of Destruction is very unusual. It’s tales from the Biblical era, visualized as paintings, with voice over work with some pretty well-known people like Oscar Isaac.

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Oscar Isaac, Billy Zane, Evangeline Lilly—

They are all taking a risk involving themselves in an Israeli project.

And Elliot Gould, but he can take care of himself. 

Yes, mainstream stars, but it’s about a defining moment in history, the Roman destruction of the Second Temple. However, for insiders it will play differently—thinking about the internal conflicts shown in the film and comparing them to today. The movie came out in Israel in Hebrew already, this is the world premiere of the English version. And it’s fascinating — was it predictive, being made before Oct. 7? Remember, for two years before October 7 there was already such division in Israel, with multiple elections. That division is universal, though, we see it in America and elsewhere. There was a time when you could catch a lot of these movies at other festivals, but now many of them are only being shown here.

Do you think the other major festivals — Cannes, TIFF, Berlin, Sundance — are intentionally showing fewer Israeli movies?

Maybe not Berlin but the others, yes, they are … they are being more careful. There are definitely some festivals that are saying, “We will not take Israeli films.” The bigger ones are maybe thinking, “Oh, we want to avoid trouble right now,” and these are places where every year, every year in my career, would have multiple Israeli films. 

Cannes just wrapped up. If you count up the entire Cannes Festival plus all the sidebars like Director’s Fortnight and out-of-competition slots, there are over 115 feature films listed. Not one is Israeli. There is one short, that’s it. Coincidence?

I think this is the first year. Cannes is really the place to be for Israeli cinema, it’s such a launching pad, and Israeli films are very European. There have always been multiple films. There was a time when Israeli cinema was the hottest kid on the block. They were coming to us, asking for tips on what would be the next big one. And that period has dialed down. Is it because of politics or is it because trends come in waves?

Okay, so it could have just been an off year for Cannes?

I can tell you that the Israeli film funds that apply to festivals with dozens and dozens of films are all hearing crickets. And places like Netflix, which has bought so many Israeli films over the years, even a place like that is being extra cautious, I’d say. 

I would imagine international productions are now thinking twice about shooting there.

There’s not a lot of that happening right now. Many of those relationships are being tested. But so many creative films and television shows and international productions use Israeli resources, that it just can’t be ignored. What’s depressing to me is that most festivals are progressive places. These are festivals that would often show movies with the intention of bringing voices to the table, and that’s what we most need to hear right now. 

When I think of the JCC Manhattan, when I think of this building, aside from a big swimming pool, I think of the fact that for months when you walked in the first thing you saw was a sign-up sheet for Arabic lessons.

It’s a community that doesn’t exist everywhere, and we don’t want to lose it. America is divided right now and the Jewish community is divided right now. Some say, “You are either fully with us or against us!” I think there are more sane voices out there that actually believe in working together and creating a space for each to exist.

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