Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Film Festival Openers: It’s All About Setting the Tone

I was Director of Programming of the Toronto Jewish Film Festival from 1996-2004 and much emphasis was always placed on picking the right film to open the festival. We were unique among Jewish film festivals, and most film festivals, in fact, in that as often as not we chose a documentary instead of a feature film to launch the event. I’ve since left the TJFF, but I’m always intrigued with what films get picked to open film festivals since in many ways that choice can influence the reaction of audiences to everything that follows and, if you pick a dud, set a negative tone that could impact adversely on your event. Two recent film festival openers, while not badly chosen, exemplify the dilemma of making the best possible choice in the films available for exhibition.

First, the good news, the inaugural edition of the Toronto Italian Contemporary Film Festival was launched quite successfully last week. It’s the latest incarnation of the city’s Italian film festival which when I first encountered it, during my own film festival tenure, seemed quite promising until its savvy programmer was ousted. It then limped along for years, offering uninteresting films, and worse, doing so in late summer just before the advent of the humongous Toronto International Film Festival, thus ensuring that no significant Italian films, most submitted to TIFF, would find their way to the Italian film fest until much later, when the larger film festival would have made its decision on what to show or not. How things have changed, Not only did this new Toronto Italian film festival snag the latest Woody Allen film, To Rome With Love, in advance of its commercial opening in Toronto on July 6th, the whole festival, program book, guests etc. was basically crafted in a mere seven weeks, quite an astounding feat. The not-as-good news, Kryptonite! (La Kryptonite nella borsa), the festival’s opening movie was not a particularly good one, though it was an understandable choice.

Luigi Catani and Vincenzo Nemolato in Kryptonite!
A period piece set in Naples in the early '70s, Kryptonite!, which won the People's Choice award at the festival, boasts a significant directorial credit: its director, Ivan Cotroneo, making his debut behind the camera, who co-wrote the film with Monica Rametta and Ludovica Rampoldi and based it on his own novel, also co-scripted the sensual and poignant Tilda Swinton movie I Am Love. It also stars known Italian actress Valeria Golino (Rain Man, Frida) as Rosario, a loving mother who takes to bed when she’s begun to suspect (correctly) that her husband, Antonio (Luca Zingaretti from My Brother Is An Only Child), is having an affair. The movie’s mostly light plot is also useful in selling the film festival opener, revolving as it does around an impressionable nine-year-old boy Peppino (Luigi Catani) who observes but doesn’t always understand what’s going on around him, but is jarred when his odd cousin Gennaro (Vincenzo Nemolato), who likes to dress as Superman, dies suddenly. The problem for Peppino is that he keeps seeing Gennaro who likes to pop up to give him advice on life and love.

Kudos to Cotroneo for making a movie utterly different from I Am Love. but though he’s good with actors and the film's characterization is strong enough, the movie is tilling the same ground as movies like Lasse Hallström's quirky My Life as a Dog (1985) and, particularly John Boorman’s wonderful Hope and Glory (1987), which also situated its young hero amidst social and political turmoil and added a few dollops of fantasy to the proceedings. Kryptonite! doesn’t really bring anything new to an old story. And Cotroneo, though he touches all bases of the times – anti-war protests, feminist rallies, illicit sex – doesn’t really delve very deeply into the changes roiling Italian society in the '70s; the depicted scenes seem more like fleeting signposts than significant, life-altering events. The movie does look good, courtesy of Luca Bigazzi and its music, David Bowie’s “Life on Mars,” Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” (albeit the song didn’t actually come out until 1977) and an Italian version of Nancy Sinatra’s “These Books Are Made for Walking,” are effectively used. Cotroneo undoubtedly has talent, but his next movie will have to display more substance and originality than Kryptonite! if it wants to stand out from the pack.

Agathe Bonitzer in A Bottle in the Gaza Sea
A Bottle in the Gaza Sea (Une bouteille à la mer, which translates as A Bottle in the Sea is a bit better), was also a logical choice to open the recent Toronto Jewish Film Festival as movies about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are always of interest to the festival’s mostly Jewish audience. But the movie’s subject matter also needs to be a little lighter in tone than something like the complex but dark Israeli movie Ajami if it’s to attract film-goers to the opener. Some moviegoers don’t check out anything else at a festival. Thus A Bottle in the Gaza Sea, with its message of hope illuminating the (non-sexual) relationship of an Israeli girl and a Palestinian man can entice those who don’t want anything too heavy or depressing on screen. Fortunately, A Bottle in the Gaza Sea is a good movie but also one that inadvertently, I suspect, will make you despair of a solution to the age-old conflict in the region.

The movie tells what happens when Tal (Agathe Bonitzer), a 17-year-old French immigrant to Israel convinces her brother, who is in the army, to drop a bottle with a note, in English, from her into the Gaza sea in hopes that it will reach someone in the Palestinian territory with whom she can start to communicate. That someone is Naim (Mahmoud Shlabi), who goes by the computer moniker Gazaman. As the two begin to get to know each other, by email, their lives slowly, almost imperceptibly begin to change. A French/Canadian/ Israeli co-production, A Bottle in the Gaza Sea, which did receive commercial release in Canada, is in many ways quite remarkable, mostly because it manages to make you sympathize with both the Israelis and Palestinians, but never by engaging in any sort of moral equivalence. (Palestinian suicide bombers do not equal Israeli soldiers, nor do they behave in similar ways.) The movie actually begins with the aftermath of a suicide bombing in a café in Jerusalem, in 2007, before Israel’s separation barrier (or fence or wall or whatever you want to call it) was erected to deter most terrorist attacks aimed at Israelis. Tal, who lives in that city, is shaken by that terror attack, one whose victims include a girl her own age, and, as only a teenager can do, she decides to act by sending her message to someone on the other side – Gaza and Jerusalem are separated by only 73 kilometres or about 45 miles – who can help her understand what’s going on around her. Twenty-year-old Naim, who like most young Palestinians is impacted by Israel’s blockade of Gaza, imposed to keep Hamas terrorists at bay, is aimless, jobless and lost, without any idea of what to do with his life. But his increasing rapport with Tal, and his subsequent involvement with a cultural centre where he goes to learn French, because of Tal`s being from France, begin to offer him opportunities for advancement he could never have dreamed of before.

Mahmoud Shalabi (right) in A Bottle in the Gaza Sea 
More than anything, A Bottle in the Gaza Sea demonstrates how abnormal day to day life in Israel and Gaza can be. At first, I thought the movie would have been more effective if the back and forth was initiated by a Sabra, an Israeli-born Jew and not a French speaking Jewish immigrant. But that detail allows French-Jewish director Thierry Binisti to show Israel through Tal`s still-adjusting eyes, the endless security checks whenever an Israeli wants to enter a club, restaurant or discotheque, news about the constant barrage of rockets being aimed by Hamas at southern Israel (Those bombings are highly traumatizing for Israelis who cannot do everyday things without always having to run to bomb shelters.) and a general feeling of despair that peace will never be achieved. (At one point Tal`s father (Jean - Philippe Écoffey) angrily asks, almost plaintively, why Israel’s leaving Gaza was met by bombs and not the beginnings of a Palestinian state. That’s a good question never asked often enough.)

On the Palestinian side, opportunities for ordinary living are constricted in different ways. Sometimes the checkpoints that allow food and supplies into Gaza through Israel aren’t opened even if the Israelis promise they will be – capriciousness can be the order of the day – and because of the blockade, justified as it may be, there’s not much freedom for a young man to roam. Palestinians like Naim also have to deal with their rulers, Hamas, who in the movie are shown to be quite a scary lot, keffiyah-clad gangsters, in fact. When Naim is suspected of being an Israeli collaborator because of his clandestine communication with Tal – his friends wouldn’t approve of what he’s doing – he’s paid a visit by a Hamas operative and roughed up pretty badly when his interrogator isn't satisfied with his answers. And sometimes innocent families like Naim`s get caught in the middle when Israeli troops square off against Hamas terrorists. Clearly, the potential of peace isn’t something one can believe in on the Palestinian side, either.

Both Bonitzer, who learnt Hebrew for her role, and Shalabi, who learnt French for his, are terrific. And you’ll quickly suspend disbelief that their type of relationship, prompted by an errant bottle, could occur since it’s laid out so realistically and unsentimentally. The movie does betray its origins as a young adult novel – written by Valérie Zenatt, who co-write the movie with Binisti – the subplot wherein Naim gets a chance at a scholarship that will take him out of Gaza is a conventional conceit in a movie that, refreshingly, is otherwise pleasingly non-linear. It would have made for a better movie if Naim's life didn’t change beyond his contact with Tal (that’s change enough).

Scene from A Bottle in the Gaza Sea
However, it's the movie’s political and human undercurrents, not made explicit by the filmmakers, that actually gets at one of the main reasons Israelis and Palestinians can’t make peace. Late in the film, Tal – as only someone brought up in a questioning, democratic country could – begins to assail everything she’s believed in. She's so affected by Naim`s life and plight that she lashes out at her parents and even at her beloved older brother, Eytan (Abraham Belaga), accusing him of brutalizing Palestinians when the Israelis invaded Gaza in 2009. In a moving scene, he explains that it was just the opposite, he was trying to spare civilians from death and destruction, which in fact is what Israeli soldiers are supposed to do, even if some may act brutally instead.

Conversely, in the movie, not a single Palestinian, not Naim nor his friends nor his supportive cousin nor even his near saintly mother (well-known Palestinian actress Haim Abbas – Lemon Tree, The Visitor) question anything about their lives other than to blame Israel and sometimes Hamas for everything. They don't ask why they’re suffering under Hamas, or why the Israeli blockade exists, or why the Israelis are their enemy. That’s stunningly true. But to see it laid out so clearly and soberly in the film, contrasted as it is with dissenting, rebellious Israelis like Tal, is quite illuminating.

A Bottle in the Gaza Sea may be offering a ray of hope that two individuals can get to know and understand each other, even possibly make a difference, but the bigger picture, however, between the peoples as a whole, isn’t so bright. That's mainly because one side, the Palestinians, more than the other, won’t reach out to the `other` in the same way, or even try to look within themselves to see what can be done differently. The singular achievement of A Bottle in the Gaza Sea, a fitting and provocative film festival opener, is to depict this paradigm in a truthful yet subtle way. Too bad, those who have made up their minds about the genesis and raison d'être of the conflict – notably the anti-Israel brigade – are unlikely to ever see it.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto . He teaches regular courses at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, and has just finished teaching a course on American cinema of the 70s.

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