24 Frames

Movies: Past, present and future

Category: Foreign-language film

UCLA Iran film festival opens Friday with family drama 'Mourning'

April 12, 2012 |  8:00 am

Mourning ucla iranian film
Still reeling from the 2010 arrests of directors Mohammad Rasoulof and Jafar Panahi, Iran’s film community was dealt another blow in January when the Culture Ministry shut down the House of Cinema, a 20-year-old organization with 5,000 members that supports independent film. Despite these setbacks, 2012 has been a banner year for Iranian film. Asghar Farhadi’s “A Separation” won the Golden Globe for foreign-language film and took home the Academy Award in February.

Shannon Kelley, programmer for UCLA’s Film & Television Archive’s annual celebration of Iranian cinema, which begins Friday evening at the Billy Wilder Theater, said the restrictions and difficulties haven’t silenced the country’s resilient filmmakers.

“This film culture is always introducing new young people doing very risky things — the kind of things I would like to see any cinema do,” he said. “It’s kind of phenomenal given the various pressures that remain.”

The festival opens with the 2011 drama “Mourning,” which Kelley described as a “surprising new film by a young director. It is a very contained family drama on the great current theme of Iranian cinema, which is communication breakdown.” Director Morteza Farshbaf is scheduled to attend the screening.

Also on tap are four films by actor-director-producer-writer Parviz Sayyad, who left Iran in the 1970s and  lives in Los Angeles. He will be talking about his films at each program.

One is 1974’s “Samad Becomes an Artist,” which screens April 27.  Samad, said Kelley, is “one of those characters who occurs in most national cinemas who comes  from the country and collides with modernity.”

Last year, the festival had great success screening archival films from Iran. “The local community has been very supportive of our new cinema,” said Kelley. “But it is an audience who is regenerating so quickly that a lot of members of the audience don’t remember things that have been shown even a few years ago.”

The series concludes with two movies by directors who have faced sanctions from the Iranian government. “Good Bye” was Rasoulof’s last film before he was arrested in 2010; it was sneaked out of the country by the filmmaker’s friends and screened at the Cannes Film Festival last year. The other offering is “This Is Not a Film,” Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb’s homemade documentary about Panahi’s house arrest. It was smuggled out of the country on USB drive hidden in a birthday cake.

Kelley noted that these movies may be the last from these filmmakers for years. These directors, said Kelley, offered “complicated human portraits, and anything that cuts that off is like cutting off a life force.”


Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi sentenced to prison

Movie review: Jafar Panahi's 'This Is Not a Film'

Iran ministry shutters independent film institute

— Susan King

Photo: A scene from "Mourning." Credit: UCLA Film &Television Archive.

L.A. Asian Pacific Film Fest to kick off with 'Shanghai Calling'

April 6, 2012 |  5:13 pm

"Shanghai Calling," a romantic comedy starring Bill Paxton and Eliza Coupe, will open the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, organizers announced Friday. The festival runs May 10–20.

The movie, a romantic comedy about an ambitious New York attorney (Daniel Henney) who is sent to Shanghai on business and stumbles into a legal mess, is the feature debut of Daniel Hsia. 

The festival will screen 46 feature films and 142 shorts from more than 20 countries at the Directors Guild of America in Hollywood, CGV Cinemas in Koreatown and, for the first time, the Art Theater in Long Beach.

"Sunset Stories," directed by Silas Howard and Ernesto M. Foronda, will be the festival’s
centerpiece presentation. It stars Sung Kang ("Fast Five") and Monique Curnen ("Contagion") in what festival organizers say is "a uniquely L.A. story of love and control." 

The international centerpiece is "Valley of Saints,"  which won the world cinema grand prize at Sundance and was directed by Musa Syeed and produced by Nicholas Bruckman. The film is an India/U.S. production bringing to the screen the landscape of Kashmir. The story follows a young tourist boatman and his best friend as they try to run away from the provincial life in their lake village.

The Saturday night gala, typically reserved for a crowd-pleasing film, will be filled by "Yes We're Open"  from Bay Area screenwriter H.P. Mendoza and director Richard Wong. Described as a "sex comedy," the film looks at liberal San Francisco lifestyles over dinner and drinks with a side of infidelity.

Tsao Jui-Yuan’s "Joyful Reunion" -- a  follow-up to Ang Lee’s "Eat Drink Man Woman," will screen as the festival closing night presentation. It's a foodie film that looks at family ties surrounding a vegetarian restaurant.

For a full list of films, click here. Tickets go on sale April 13.

-- Julie Makinen


Indian Film Festival highlights emerging directors

April 6, 2012 |  2:23 pm

Chittagong Indian Film Festival

In India’s long fight for independence, the first defeat of the British came not at the hands of soldiers but of untrained teenagers, led by a schoolteacher, in 1930. This piece of history is the subject of “Chittagong,” the opening-night movie at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles, which runs Tuesday through April 14 at Hollywood’s Arclight Cinemas.

“Chittagong,” having its world premiere at the fest, is the directorial debut of NASA scientist-turned-filmmaker Bedabrata Pain, who was born in Kolkata and has lived in Los Angeles since 1992. Inspired to write the film for its “story of human triumph set in a political background,” Pain also hopes to spread awareness of the historical incident -- which he said is known by few even in India.

IFFLA, now in its 10th year, will screen 33 features and short films. Christina Marouda, a native of Greece who watched many Indian films as a teenager, started IFFLA after working for AFI Fest. “I felt that there was a gap and someone should do something about it.”

In the last decade, she’s seen Hollywood’s interest in Indian cinema grow, following the Oscar romp by “Slumdog Millionaire” and the investment by Indian conglomerate Reliance ADA Group in DreamWorks in 2009. A larger spotlight on Indian entertainment has come, Marouda said, with more Indian actors in such TV shows as “The Big Bang Theory” and “Outsourced” and with the films of Mira Nair, director of “The Namesake.”

IFFLA screens films made in India, about India and by filmmakers of Indian descent, and Marouda says it’s more than just a festival. “It’s more like a festival/film commission/agency .… We are really the platform that is trying to bridge that gap” between Indian and American filmmakers.

That sometimes means taking an active part in the making of a movie, as with this year’s closing-night film, “Patang.” It's the feature debut of Prashant Bhargava, whose short “Sangam” screened at IFFLA in 2004. Keeping in touch with the director since then, the festival organizers helped Bhargava find financiers for his feature and are involved in marketing the upcoming self-distributed release of “Patang.” The Los Angeles premiere for the film, about a family reunion at a kite festival, will close IFFLA on April 14 at 7 p.m.

Bookending the event with two first-time feature directors is part of the festival’s endeavor to find new filmmakers, especially as the landscape of Indian movies is changing.

“There is a new, emerging core of Indian filmmakers that are young and hip and willing to take risks,” said shorts programmer Terrie Samundra. “They are films that are willing to make you uncomfortable, critique tradition, taking apart old structures and political alliances -- we see that with [films about] sexuality, relationships, politics, identity.”

But the festival’s 10th year is also a time to look back, as it presents an anniversary retrospective. Chosen in an online vote from IFFLA’s previous audience and jury award winners, the fest will screen three films from past years: “Udaan,” “Lions of Punjab Presents” and “Black Friday,” which was banned in India for its controversial telling of the 1993 bomb blasts in Mumbai.

Awards for this year’s films will be presented following the screening of “Patang,” and IFFLA will host its fifth annual Industry Awards ceremony on Thursday at the House of Blues on Sunset Boulevard.

The awards “highlight those executives that have managed to deal with the challenges of either distributing Indian content or producing Indian content … and bridging the gap between the two film industries,” Marouda said.

Among the honorees this year are Kishore Lulla, chairman and chief executive of India-based Eros Entertainment, and Michelle Satter and Alesia Weston, who head the Sundance Institute’s lab for Indian screenwriters, Mumbai Mantra.

The Industry Awards luncheon -– along with seminars and One-on-One, a meet-and-greet for industry professionals and aspiring filmmakers –- is part of IFFLA’s effort to be a filmmaker-friendly festival.
The hope to be a resource and an inspiration for emerging filmmakers is shared by “Chittagong” director Pain.

“India is a very young country and the youth in India is a sort-of untapped force still, and they can do wonders,” Pain said. My film "in some ways is telling them, ‘Don’t be afraid, just go for it.’ ”

Tickets are available at indianfilmfestival.org. Admission is $14 except for the opening- and closing-night galas, which are $75.

-- Emily Rome

Photo: Delzad Hiwale in "Chittagong."  Credit: Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles

'We Have a Pope': Anxiety and surprise at the Vatican

April 6, 2012 |  5:00 am

"We Have a Pope"Often described as the Italian Woody Allen, writer-director-actor Nanni Moretti has made several clever comedies, including 1985's “The Mass Is Ended,” in which he plays a former radical turned priest who returns to his village. The film won the Silver Bear at the Venice Film Festival. He went dramatic in 2001 with “The Son's Room,” a haunting tale of a middle-class Italian family grieving over the death of a teenage son. It won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Moretti, 58, is also well-known in his country for his leftist political views and a decade ago was involved in protests against Silvio Berlusconi's government.

In his latest film, “We Have a Pope,” he goes back toward comedy and religion. It opens in limited release Friday, after debuting last year at the Cannes Film Festival. Octogenarian French actor Michel Piccoli (“Contempt,” “Belle de Jour”) plays a French cardinal named Melville who is unexpectedly chosen as the new holy father. Because no one, including Melville, thought he would be named pope, Melville panics and refuses to go onto the balcony at St. Peter's Basilica to address the thousands waiting to hear from the new leader of the Catholic Church.

Moretti directed and co-wrote “We Have a Pope” and also acts in it, playing a psychiatrist (who is not a believer in Catholicism) called in to see if he can help the new pope. Moretti, who will head the jury of this year's Cannes Film Festival, recently talked about the film over the phone from New York via a translator.

REVIEW: 'We Have a Pope' blessed by tender portrait

Q. Did you write the role of Melville with Michel Piccoli in mind?

I was thinking of him and I was hoping, but I didn't allow that idea to condition my writing. I had been a fan of his for 40 years. ... I wanted to finish a full draft of the screenplay and then I proposed the film to him. He is not a native speaker of Italian, so the first thing is that I dared to ask him to do an audition for the movie just to see if he could do an entire film in Italian. He accepted. So I sent six scenes to him, which he memorized and acted out. He did beautifully.

Q. Did you use a translator to communicate with him on set?


Q. What was Piccoli like to work with?

He didn't have ideas that were so rigid he wouldn't accept my suggestions. In reading the screenplay, he definitely understood immediately the character. I did direct him and tell him how things should be.

Q. You were raised Catholic, but you are a nonbeliever, just like your character in the film.

Neither [my character] nor I brag about this; we also aren't embarrassed about this. We simply no longer have the gift of faith.

Q.  So since you don't have the gift of faith, why did you make a movie revolving around the Vatican? Did you want to satirize the Catholic Church?

"Satire” is not the right expression.

Continue reading »

Claude Francois biopic 'My Way' opens City of Lights, City of Angels

March 27, 2012 |  7:30 pm

'My Way' opens City of Light, City of Angels festival

A musical-biography of the singer-songwriter Claude François, the third-highest-grossing film in the history of French cinema and tributes to Julie Delpy and Yves Montand are among the highlights of the 16th City of Lights, City of Angels French film festival.

The lineup for the festival, which will screen 34 features and 21 shorts beginning April 16 at the Directors Guild of America in West Hollywood, was announced Tuesday evening.

Opening the festival is director Florent-Emilio Siri’s film “My Way,” which stars Jérémie Renier as François, the pop singer who sold 67 million records before his accidental death at 39.

“The Intouchables,” about a bond that develops between a disabled aristocrat and his caretaker, will close the event April 23. The film, written and directed by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, has become a breakout box-office hit in France and is set for release in the U.S. in May.

François Truffart, the director and programmer for the festival for the last eight years, said it’s been “an amazing year” for French cinema, coming off the best picture win for the black-and-white love letter to silent cinema “The Artist” at February’s Academy Awards.

“This certainly for me is the biggest lineup we have had,” Truffart said. “There is a new generation of actors and talent. Refreshing is the word I would use for the films this year.”

Though there are new names in the mix, many of the titles featured at the festival represent generations of French talent or see familiar faces trying on different roles.

Mathieu Demy, the son of directors Agnès Varda and Jacques Demy, makes his directorial debut and stars in “Americano,” a drama about a Frenchman who grew up in Los Angeles and now lives in Paris. Actor Daniel Auteuil (“Jean De Florette”) makes his directorial debut with “The Well Digger’s Daughter,” a remake of the 1940 Marcel Pagnol film in which he also stars.

Other highlights include “Another Woman’s Life,” a romantic comedy written and directed by Sylvie Testud starring Juliette Binoche and Mathieu Kassovitz; and “Michel Petrucciani,” a documentary from Michael Radford (“Il Postino”) about the famed jazz musician who was born with glass bone disease and stood 3 feet tall as an adult.

The festival will screen a newly restored print of “Le Sauvage,” the 1975 romantic comedy from director Jean-Paul Rappeneau (“Cyrano de Bergerac”) starring the late superstar Yves Montand as a married perfume-maker who leaves everything behind to become a recluse on an island. His happiness is disrupted by the arrival of a runaway bride (Catherine Deneuve).

Delpy will screen two films she wrote and directed — the romance “2 Days in Paris” from 2007 and her newest feature “Le SkyLab.”

To see the complete lineup, go to www.colcoa.org.


A mini French film festival at Laemmle Theatres

Cannes 2012: Wes Anderson's 'Moonrise Kingdom' to open fest

Hong Kong Film Festival: Transvestites, Muslims and a 'Lovely Man'

-- Susan King

Photo: A scene from Florent-Emilio Siri’s "My Way." Credit: Credit: "City of Lights, City of Angels

A mini French film festival at Laemmle Theatres

March 26, 2012 |  2:35 pm

Illusion 2

The Laemmle Theatres are going Gallic this Wednesday with their "Rendez-Vous With French Cinema" showcase. Five contemporary French films will be screened at the Claremont 5, the Town Center in Encino, the Playhouse 7 in Pasadena and the Monica 4 in Santa Monica.

Laemmle has joined forces with the Film Society of Lincoln Center, Unifrance Films and Emerging Pictures for this annual French cinema festival.

Screening at 1 p.m. Wednesday is "Smugglers' Songs," directed by Rabah Ameur-ZaImeche, revolving around 18th century folk hero and bandit Louis Mandrin.

"Pater," directed and starring Alain Cavalier, follows at 3:10 p.m. Cavalier joins forces with actor Vincent Lindon for a semi-improvised comedy about men, power and, of course, politics.

Following at 5:20 p.m. is "Moon Child," directed by Crystal Fournier and also starring Lindon, a drama about the relationship between a dermatologist and a boy with a genetic deficiency that makes it impossible for the child to be in the daylight.

Mathieu Amalric ("The Diving Bell and the Butterfly") is the director of "The Screen Illusion," on tap for 7:40 p.m. The film is an updated adaptation of Pierre Corneille's 17th century tragicomedy.

The showcase concludes with Laurent Archard's "The Last Screening," at 9:55 p.m. The film is being described as " 'Cinema Paradiso' meets 'Psycho.' "

Each film has a separate admission price. For more information, go to www.laemmle.com.

— Susan King

Photo: A scene from "The Screen Illusion" will be shown Wednesday at several Laemmle Theatres. Credit: Rendez-Vous With French Cinema.

Hong Kong Film Festival: Transvestites, Muslims and a 'Lovely Man'

March 25, 2012 |  4:02 pm

Donny damara a lovely man
Heat is a priceless commodity for a film in a festival, where hundreds of movies fight for attention in a very brief time span. At the 36th annual Hong Kong International Film Festival, the Indonesian movie “Lovely Man” is one that is sizzling.

This provocative and powerful film, part of the indie showcase here, is a father-daughter story unlike any you’ve seen. She’s 19, a devout Muslim, hoping to reconnect with the father who abandoned her and her mother when she was 4. He’s a fixture in the Taman Lawang area in Jakarta, Indonesia's capital, where transvestite hookers ply their trade in the midnight hours. Both father (Donny Damara) and daughter (Raihaanun) are at turning points in their own personal crises.

There is a lot to be sorted out in writer/director Teddy Soeriaatmadja’s sixth film. The  indie director has been making movies steadily since 2005. But “Lovely Man” may be the one that finally puts him on the international map; it has certainly emerged as one of the hot tickets in Hong Kong. His keen eye and intimate storytelling earned him a best director nomination at this year’s Asian Film Awards. (The prize went to Asghar Farhadi, the Iranian writer/director of "A Separation," which won the foreign language Oscar last month.) 

Soeriaatmadja has essentially created a conversation between the two that unfolds over one night when the daughter takes a train from the countryside where she's grown up to the city, in hopes of just seeing him. What she finds is nothing like the memories of a man blowing soap bubbles with her as a child -- instead he's a vamp in a beaded red miniskirt and black stilettos working prostitute’s row. It’s hard to tell who is more shocked, the girl or the father who thought his secret would be safe from her forever.


Both actors are excellent as they move through a range of emotions and their characters figure out how they feel about each other, what they owe each other and whether, even though joined by blood, they can cross the huge cultural divide that would separate a transvestite and a devout Muslim in Jakarta. He is essentially a modern-day untouchable; she is basically an innocent. But in Soeriaatmadja’s hands, nothing is quite as it seems, and that is what keeps pulling you through the film. That and Damara’s incredible performance.

The actor, who earned his own Asian Film Award nomination for his turn in "Lovely Man," is mesmerizing as he flirts with potential johns and fights with his daughter. Words are the main weapons he’s been given to defend himself in a world that is exceedingly cruel to transgender people. But you see his vulnerability in the toss of that long hair courtesy of a wig, or the way he runs his finger under his eye, as if making sure the makeup is just right. These small gestures let you glimpse all the turmoil inside.

Ultimately, Soeriaatmadja has given us a moving one-act play on human connections and the power of love and forgiveness to change lives. It’s a stripped-down story about empowerment, and there's nothing there that isn’t absolutely needed -- including that red-beaded mini.


Hong Kong Film Festival: A comic arrow zings indie filmmaking 

Hong Kong film festival changing with the times

Hong Kong film festival: Powerful visions of poverty 

--Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times Film Critic, reporting from Hong Kong

Photo: Indonesian actor Donny Damara  receives the Best Actor award for the film "Lovely Man" from Hong Kong actress Karen Mok  at the sixth Asian Film Awards in Hong Kong on March 19. Credit: Aaron Tam/AFP/Getty Images

Hong Kong Film Festival: A comic arrow zings indie filmmaking

March 23, 2012 |  2:09 pm

Eugene domingo andy lau
Comedies about the movie business are always a risky proposition. They're hard to get right and require a sort of insider cleverness that tends to limit the appeal to a rarefied few. The cheeky, brilliant fun and dark social commentary that saturate the Philippine movie “The Woman in the Septic Tank” make it one of the most provocative surprises of the 36th annual Hong Kong International Film Festival.

The movie was born out of the frustrations of a couple of the country’s most comically critical new voices, director Marlon N. Rivera and screenwriter Chris Martinez.  It takes direct aim at the film festival circuit and how the lure of awards is turning too much of indie cinema into -- if you believe the movie’s central metaphor -- garbage. So it's no small irony that “Septic Tank” is in competition for the young cinema award here.

The film marks Rivera’s move from writing to directing, and it’s hard to imagine that won’t be where he will stay. For screenwriter Martinez, who often directs as well, the film is the best stage yet for his particular brand of ironic comedy. (Hints were easy to spot in the titles of some of his work, such as a 2011 short called “The Howl & the Fussyket.”)

“Septic Tank” is a meta-tale of mega proportions told in a cinema verite style as we follow a young indie filmmaker who’s got an idea for a movie about “poverty porn” –- the horrific idea of desperate mothers driven to sell children for sex to support starving families –- that he’s pitching around town.

It all unfolds over a single day -– the one that will make or break the film -– as the director and his equally young producing partner move closer to their meeting with the acting diva whose participation would almost guarantee festival gold. And Eugene Domingo is their gold -- she is one of the Philippines' most popular actresses, and here she not only plays the various incarnations of that tortured mother that the filmmakers imagine but also a parody of her big-time-actor self.

What makes “Septic Tank” such a fresh breeze is the way in which ideas -– bad ones, good ones, ridiculous ones –- come to life on screen. As the filmmakers roll through various meetings and various insecurities, you literally see the push and pull of all the external and internal forces shaping the film. Take casting the mother, for example. As the filmmakers haggle over which actress should get the role and why -- the director favors the ingenue he's got a crush on, the producer wants the diva whose name will buy them attention -- we see how each one would play out a given moment.

The conceit keeps the film spinning, and as the story shifts through all those ideas and demands, Domingo plays countless different shades of the character and herself. That the filmmakers could pull it off at all is remarkable given all the industry toes and conventions they step on. But it is the way they take the incendiary topic of mothers and children in such desperate straits and find a way to create such a comically biting social commentary on filmmaking that is the triumph here.

Check out the trailer below:



Hong Kong Film Festival: Stars and paparazzi on opening night

Hong Kong film festival: Powerful visions of poverty

Hong Kong film festival changing with the times

-- Betsy Sharkey

Photo: Hong Kong actor Andy Lau and Philippine actress Eugene Domingo after they were named the most popular actor and actress in online voting for the Asian Film Awards in Hong Kong on Monday. Credit: Kin Cheung / Associated Press

Hong Kong film festival: Powerful visions of poverty

March 22, 2012 | 11:49 am

"People Mountain People Sea"

One of the major themes running through the 36th annual Hong Kong International Film Festival is lives on the margins. Poverty can take many shapes, but the singular message is that a life without hope -- a poverty of the spirit -- is the most devastating result of any economic travails.

Two dramas playing here -- "Choked" and "People Mountain People Sea" -- take this matter head-on in very different ways, yet they're alike in the idea of how lives get derailed by bad times.

“Choked,” out of South Korea, proves to be an impressive feature film debut from writer/director Kim Joong-hyun. The story grew out of a latent fear the director had in college -– what would happen if a mother disappeared and a son was left behind to deal with the mess?

"Choked" earns its no-air, no-escape title. An increasingly tense thriller, it is set in a city on the rise, all captured with a slightly noirish style. It begins with Um Tae-goo playing the promising new company man with prospects. He has a good job with an industrious outfit that is in the not-so-good business of getting apartment dwellers to relocate so their buildings can be torn down for pricier projects. It’s the kind of forced relocation that “progress” demands is these modern times. He’s an earnest sort with a pretty fiancee who may be out of his league, and lots of plans -- all of which begin to unravel when his mother (Kil Hae-yeon) disappears. He's left with an impossible mountain of her unresolved debt, an unrelenting loan shark and a particularly insistent single mother who is determined to get her due.

It’s a dark story that turns out to be a mystery as much as anything else, with twists and turns that will surprise you. A mood piece and a morality tale smartly constructed by the filmmaker, the movie features a performance by Um that is a study in quiet desperation -- a young man weighed down by his mother’s indiscretions as much as by her debts and that breathless sense that there is no way out.  

A world away in the mountains of rural China, “People Mountain People Sea” has its own tale of woe. It's a remarkably candid look at the Chinese underclass -- from rural villagers worn down by hard labor and barely able to survive, to the urban ghettos filled with drug users and toughs. The film is the second feature directed by Cai Shangjun, who spent some years as a successful screenwriter before making the move to directing with his first feature “The Red Awn” in 2007, a film about a father and son trying to rebuild their broken relationship. 

This latest effort, which earned the director a Silver Lion from the Venice Film Festival, is also about family ties -– this time it’s an older brother trying to find the man who murdered his younger brother. But what Cai is really digging into is the forgotten people of China, those so deep in economic decline that they might as well not exist. 

It is social commentary without the polemics, as the older brother finds that the loss around him is much larger than his own personal grief, that the sea of lost souls is so much larger than he imagined. He travels from the mountains that he knows as a stonecutter to the seaside cities where he is a stranger. Everywhere he turns, there is human suffering. (People Mountain People Sea (人山人海) is a Chinese expression meaning "huge crowds of people.")

Cai has created a powerfully bleak story of few words and extraordinary images, the camera capturing the harsh beauty of the mountains, the dense squalor of the urban ghettos. At one point, a soothsayer warns the journey will change the stonecutter's life, both a truth and an understatement.

Together the two films together speak of family and poverty and the price of being without hope. Powerful voices on relevant issues that make you glad they spoke up.


Video: Betsy Sharkey talks about 'Love in the Buff'

Hong Kong Festival changing with the times

Hong Kong Film Festival opening night

-- Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times film critic, reporting from Hong Kong

Photo: A scene from "People Mountain People Sea."

'Footnote' director Joseph Cedar and the new Israeli cinema

March 18, 2012 |  8:24 pm

The Israeli filmmaker Joseph Cedar was in town last month for the Academy Awards, which honored his latest movie, “Footnote,” with a nomination for the foreign language film Oscar. To make him feel at home, I took him to lunch at an Israeli café in a neighborhood that has so many kosher markets it’s known as Little Israel. The café owners gushed over Cedar’s movie, which was a big hit in Israel, winning 9 Israeli Oscars. The waitress even delivered a free dessert plate, which Cedar politely nibbled at, confiding that “she doesn’t know how skinny you have to be to fit into a tuxedo.”

The warm reception was somewhat out of character for the typically fractious Israelis, who can argue about almost anything, as Cedar captures so adroitly in “Footnote.” The film, now playing at the Laemmle Royal Theater, is about a bitter rivalry between father and son, both Talmudic scholars at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. The father, played by Shlomo Bar Aba, is taciturn and misanthropic, resentful of any incursions from modern life. The son, played by Lior Ashkenazi, is worldly and successful, a champion schmoozer.

The men are already at odds. But when a misunderstanding occurs involving the ultra-prestigious Israel Prize, all hell breaks loose.

Many have assumed that the film has autobiographical roots, since Cedar’s father, Haim, is a celebrated biochemist who has been awarded the prize, the country’s highest academic  honor.  Cedar insists that he and his father are extraordinarily close. In fact, when “Footnote” earned an ovation at Cannes, the first person Cedar hugged was his father.


To me, the film is really about something larger that all artists, Israeli or otherwise, struggle with--the need to remain creatively autonomous while also connecting with a broader culture. It is an issue that engages Cedar, since he has struggled to retain a fiercely independent vision at a time when Israel's film and TV industry is amid a commercial boom. 

“I’m always torn between the two sides,” says Cedar, 43, who was born in New York and emigrated to Israel as a young boy. “If you use popularity to spread important ideas, it can be a wonderful thing. Populism is a necessary force, because purists don’t always communicate very well. But without strict purism, the populist would lose his connection to the source of his subject.”

For years, Israel was something of a showbiz wasteland, with only one state-regulated TV channel. It wasn’t until 1993 that what is now known as Channel 2 became a commercial operation. The government now mandates that nearly half of Israel’s TV content be locally produced. After Israeli film production faltered in the 1990s, the government passed a cinema law in 2001 that established public subsidies that are allocated by competing nonprofit organizations.

The results have been dazzling. Israel’s now-vibrant movie business has produced so many critically acclaimed pictures that the nation has been a foreign film finalist at the Oscars four of the past five years.  (“Footnote” was financed in part by government subsidies.) And the TV industry is now successfully exporting its concepts. The Showtime hit “Homeland” is based on the Israeli series “Hatufim.” The HBO series “In Treatment” is a remake of a similar Israeli show.

Israelis say the government intervention inspired a new generation of filmmakers and TV show runners. But they also credit the country’s burst of creativity to its wealth of immigrants. “Israel is a place full of talent because it’s an incredible melting pot,” says producer Ehud Bleiberg, who made the critically acclaimed films “The Band’s Visit” and “Precious Life.” "Israel has immigrants from more than 100 countries, so you get the best of the best, whether it’s in science and technology or film, art and literature.”

Bleiberg points to another key cultural difference. “Israelis are impatient, so things happen much more quickly than in Hollywood. You’d never spend six months negotiating with a studio the way you do here. Israel is a small country where everyone knows each other. If you have a good script, you just call up the actor. If they like the script, then you get going.” And if they don’t? “When someone says no, it’s not an answer anyone in Israel accepts.”

With funding handed out by nonprofits, not bottom line-oriented studios, Israel has become an incubator for uncompromising, personal filmmaking. Yet Cedar says that having to rely on subsidies can sometimes make filmmakers feel like workers on a plantation. "A filmmaker in Israel can't function without the establishment," he says. "In Hollywood, you have an odd sort of freedom, since the film industry won't do anything that isn't financially successful. So it replaces conformism with the desire for success."

Cedar's ambivalence about the larger role of the state in all aspects of society emerges in one of the bravura moments in “Footnote.” It depicts an epic committee squabble, filmed in a tiny, claustrophobic room where all of the scholars are hemmed in by books and sheaves of papers.

“It was based on a committee I had to deal with to get my daughter into kindergarten, the only difference being that it was women who were all pregnant,” Cedar explains. “Everywhere I go, everything I need is blocked by a committee. The dynamic of a committee automatically means there is a power struggle, usually weighted toward those in power, so having everyone in a tiny room was a perfect metaphor.”

Even though "Footnote" is set in academia, for Cedar, the film is a quiet commentary on the power of the establishment in Israel. "If in order to be embraced by the establishment you have to betray everthing you stand for--well, that's pretty political for me," he says. “Israel started out as a small country that had to be more ingenious and creative to survive. But as we became more prosperous, we became a bully. And when you gain power, you lose your hunger for innovation. So when you look at Israel today, what do we boast about? Our high tech industry, which uses our intellect to make lots of money. We should be creating different roles other than the role model of being rich.”

Still, Cedar doesn’t see himself as a government critic so much as an artist who invariably finds himself in conflict with the establishment. For Cedar, what really matters, especially in “Footnote,” is the struggle to preserve culture. “The question is how to do it—do we preserve culture by retaining the older traditions or by keeping them relevant?” He smiles. “There’s no real answer. I guess it’s the debate that matters.”

Photo: Shlomo Bar Aba as Eliezer Shkolnik in "Footnote." Credit: Ren Mendelson/Sony Pictures Classics


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