If it wasn’t for the pandemic, London’s Jewish Community Center (JW3) was going to have a busy week ahead. It had long been scheduled to host Seret, UK’s Israeli Film and TV festival from 21 to 30 May, 2020. But the three cheerful women who founded the festival eight years ago won’t let a virus get in their way. The festival has elaborate plans for a virtual run in its ninth year, including screening of 14 films for UK audiences as well as Q and A sessions with some key stars of the Israeli cinema. While the films are only available to UK audiences, the Q and A sessions are open to the international public. Details are all available online.
Seret, Hebrew for ‘movie’, started eight years ago when three Israeli women Odelia Haroush, Anat Koren and Patty Hochmann came together. The three have stuck together to run a successful festival that brings crucial Israeli films to London and other British cities every year. The festival has expanded and now has versions running in Berlin and seven other cities in Germany as well as four cities in the Netherlands; and, over the oceans, in Santiago and Chile.
This year’s festival will open on Tuesday night, 8 pm UK time, with a Q and A hosted by JW3’s CEO, Raymond Simonson. He will speak to Tsahi Halevi, the 45-year-old star now known internationally for his role as an Israeli secret agent in the popular TV series Fauda. The rising star speaks fluent Arabic for his role in the TV series, in which his unit goes undercover in the Palestinian Territories. Halevi also won accolades for his cover of the famous Egyptian song Tamali Maak in 2015. His celebrity status was further enhanced in 2018 after tying the knots with Lucy Aharish, perhaps the most well-known Arab journalist on Israeli television. Halevi comes to the Seret festival with the comedy film Mossad, the second film made by Alon Gur Arye. The project is inspired by such classics as Airplane! (1980) and Naked Gun films (1990s) by the American director David Zucker who was a creative consultant on Gur Arye’s film.
The opening night conversation will also include Nelly Tagar, the 37-year-old comedian whose 2014 Zero Motivation premiered at Tribeca and became the best-selling film of the year in Israel. Tagar is the star of Seret’s opening film, Art of Waiting by Erez Tadmor about a couple looking to have a child despite fertility problems. This will be the UK premier for the film. Tadmor will join Tagar and actor Roy Asaf for a Q and A on May 30, 8 pm local time.
The opening night film
Of the other 12 films at the festival, the most anticipated must be Incitement, the third film by the New York-based Israeli-American director Yaron Zilberman. The film, which screened at Toronto International Film Festival last year, profiles the life of Yigal Amir, the extremist who, in 1995, killed the Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. The film won the best picture at Ophir, Israel’s equivalent to the Academy Awards, and was nominated in 10 categories including best actor awards for Yehuda Nahari, who portrays Amir, and Amitay Yaish who plays the assassin’s father. Nahari will feature in a Q and A in the festival, held on May 27, 7:30 pm.
Those interested in Israeli politics will have many more films to chose from: Golda, featuring the life of Israel’s first female prime minister Golda Meir, is based on video tapes of an interview never published before. Last year, it featured in DOC NYC, US’s biggest documentary film festival. Golda is a hard-hitting thriller and it doesn’t shy away from the controversies surrounding an iconic leader whose symbolic renown internationally is contrasted to her contested legacy among the Israeli citizens.
Further to the left on the political spectrum, there is Barak Heymann’s Comrade Dov chronicling the life of Dov Khenin, the popular MP from the Communist Party of Israel. Heymann follows Khenin around as he campaigns for his ideals, whether for Jewish workers laid off after their factory moves to Jordan; or residents of a Palestinian village demolished by the Israeli government.
Another political documentary is the third film by Itamar Chen, The Rabbi from Hezbollah, about Ibrahim Yassin, a Lebanese Shia Muslim with ties to Hezbollah who becomes an Israeli spy… and is now an ultra-orthodox Jew living in Israel (his name has changed to Avraham Sinai.)
But the festival offers much beyond political documentary. The rich offerings of Israeli cinema now include movies in diverse genre and the Seret’s line-up offers some of the best.
There is Africa, the feature debut by Oren Gerner, which stars the director’s own parents. The story revolves around the 68-year-old Meir, a recent retiree who has to face his village’s decision of handing the organizing of the local festival to the youth.
Semi-autobiography seems to be a catching theme. Director Tossi Atia’s Born in Jerusalem and Still Alive features a tour guide traumatized by the bombings of the Second Intifada who now takes tourists around the famous attack sites in his hometown, Jerusalem. Even more auto-biographical is Gur Bentwich’s Peaches and Cream in which he plays himself: a neurotic director attempting to find audience for his latest film. Evgeny Ruman, who came to Israel from Russia as a child, has a made a film about this very community of migrants. His Golden Voices tells the story of two dubbing stars of the Soviet Union who move to Israel after the historic collapse of that state.
Straddling between documentary and fiction is the fascinating Acre Dreams by Daniel Wachsmann, who hadn’t directed a feature film for cinema screens in about 30 years (his latest was the 2004 TV movie Letters from Rishikesh.) The film is inspired by the life and 2011 assassination of the celebrated Jewish-Palestinian director Juliano Mer-Khamis, renowned around the world for the theater he ran in the Palestinian city of Jenin. The film goes to Acre in Northern Israel — in the last days of the British Mandate of Palestine, before the state of Israel had been founded. What happens when a Palestinian theater director wishes to stage a play about the wartime romance between his grandmother and a Jewish citizen of Acre?
This is among the many questions that Israeli films at Seret explore this year.
The virtual festival has options for buying tickers for particular films or a 50 GBP festival pass that offers access to all the 14 films.