IFF: Israeli, Jewish and American – All in One

by Ersi Danou November 23, 2019
israel_film_festival_founder_exdirector_meir_fenigstein_2019_iff_lifetime_achievement_award_winner_arthur_cohn_2019_iff_achievement_in_film_award_producer Sharon Harel-Cohen

IFF founder and ex-director Meir Fenigstein, 2019 IFF Lifetime Achievement award winner Arthur Cohn 2019,  and IFF Achievement in Film award, producer Sharon Harel-Cohen.

Undoubtedly one of the largest and best-endowed foreign film festivals in Los Angeles, the Israel Film Festival (November 12-26, 2019) has its formula down: two full weeks of screenings in Beverly Hills’ Ahrya Fine Arts Theater and Encino’s Laemmle Town Center 5, kicked off by a grand gala on Opening Night at the Saban Theatre. And it has worked well and consistently for 33 years now.

But the real key to the festival’s success and longevity is one man: Founder/Executive Director Meir Fenigstein. His total dedication to the annual festival is carved in time and easy to see by images readily available on IFF’s website, of Fenigstein with Michael Douglas in black & white tuxedos or young Steven Spielberg and Brooke Shields, all the way to more recent moments with Helen Mirren, Natalie Portman, Sylvester Stallone, and many more. He is the heart and soul of this event, and the live agent of this organization’s mission: “To brand Israel as the lively and innovative nation that it is; as well as shining a spotlight on Israel’s thriving film and television industry and enriching the American experience of Israel’s social and cultural diversity”.

The nonprofit organization boasts a stellar Honorary Committee, which includes names such as Robert De Niro, Michael Douglas, Goldie Hawn, Dustin Hoffman, and more. Additionally, this year’s honored guests, receiving the IFF Lifetime Achievement Award and the Achievement in Film Award respectively, were as impressive representatives of the Hollywood industry: Award-winning, independent producer Arthur Cohn, whose films span five decades from The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1970) to the latest The Etruscan Smile; and independent producer Sharon Harel-Cohen, who has made films in Israel, Europe and Hollywood, with the latest being Israel’s Oscar and Golden Globe entry, Incitement. During her acceptance speech, she admitted that the films she felt most passionate about were the ones she made in Israel. Indeed, it is something to marvel at, the strong and unbroken connection Jewish and Israeli Americans feel toward their homeland, and, most importantly, their culture.

The opening night on November 12, began with a catered reception followed by an entertaining ceremony with an engaged, mixed audience. Attending filmmakers were called onto the stage at the end of the festivities, bringing forth another moving highlight. The gala concluded with a screening of the harrowing drama Incitement, about the assassination of the peace-seeking Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin 24 years ago. The film details the true events from the point of view of Rabin’s enemies and offers self-reflective insight into the mindset of extremist and divisive politics. Picture of his Life, a documentary that combines global environmental issues and the personal journey of wildlife photographer Amos Nachoum, served as the fest’s centerpiece event. Tel-Aviv on Fire, a comedic Golden Globe contender that deals with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in subtle and humanistic spirit, screens at Closing Night on November 26.

Several other screenings are named Spotlight events, with filmmaker Q&A sessions, including Berlinale’s top winner Synonyms, a sneak preview of the satirical Mossad!, the world premiere of the documentary Reichman, and more US premieres of fiction and documentary features. All in all, themes of war and peace, terrorism, extremism, and the holocaust are recurring occasions in this edition of IFF, though with an added, it seems, willingness for rumination.

IFF does not offer industry events, yet it is strategically timed in proximity with the American Film Market (AFM, November 6-13, 2019), one of the most important global, annual film markets, taking place in Santa Monica. This year, the festival sponsored a booth at the AFM, in order to “position the Israeli Film community as part of the world-wide market place, a move that will allow maximum exposure, networking, and business & investment opportunities between buyers and sellers from the Israeli and International Film & Television industry”.