Film Chat: The World Is Funny

— by Hannah Lee

This year’s Israeli Film Festival of Philadelphia opened this past weekend with the 2012 box-office hit, The World is Funny. The gala weekend included a visit by the director/screenwriter, Shemi Zarhin, for a Q&A session with Sunday’s audience.

Nominated for a record-setting 15 times by the Israeli Film Academy for its Ophir Awards (and won for one), The World is Funny is set in Tiberias, the birthplace and muse of its director. It has a stellar cast, including Assi Levy, who won a Best Actress Ophir for her starring role in the 2006 film Aviva My Love (Aviva Ahuvati), also written and directed by Zarhin. This film also is graced by the presence of an Israeli legend, Yeshayahu “Shaike” Levi, whose career with the Gashash HaHiver comedy trio spanned 40 years and won the Israel Prize in 2000. (My favorite Zarhin film remains the 2007 “Noodle,” in part because of the Israeli cheerful bravado spirit and the Chinese actors.)

More after the jump.
The World is Funny is narrated by a young woman, Tsephi, who cleans houses (although she doesn’t need the income) while seeking out interesting stories for the writing workshop that she attends at the library. Her duties bring her into the lives of three estranged siblings: Yardena, whose daughter died while serving in the Israeli Army; Meron, whose wife died in a car crash and whose teen son has awakened from a 8-year resultant coma; and Golan, whose sweetheart is dying from cancer.

In a testament to the writer’s craft, the film is not depressing. The director livens up the mood with comic depictions of the student writer’s scenes, including a man who falls in love with the goat he’s raising for slaughter for his son’s bar mitzvah celebration, and an assassin who only reveals his true face during his deadly assignments.

“Is the world funny?”, asked Zarhin during the Q&A session. “Well, it’s not so funny; it’s actually sad. But, it’s up to us to make it funny, because we need it to be so”, he answered.

Israeli films succeed when they are “communicative,” when they touch people, and not subjects. Zarhin concludes, “Life is a story we’re telling to ourselves — especially in Israel — and it always has a happy ending, but in Israel, it’s always too late.”

After the opening weekend, which included The World is Funny, By Summer’s End and a collection of short films, Israeli Film Festival of Philadelphia continues with “Life in Stills,” “Out in the Dark,” “A Bottle in the Gaza Sea,” and “The Flat,” concluding with “Fill the Void,” on March 17 and a farewell reception at Zahav.


First row: Cultural attaché for the Israeli embassy Deborah Baer Mozes, Israeli Consul General Yaron Saidman, Israeli Film Festival Founder and Coordinator Mindy Chriqui, The World is Funny Producer Shemi Zarhin, IFF Board Member Kira Stein.
Second row: IFF Web and Social Media Chair Irene Glickman, IFF Board Member Galit Carmeli, IFF Chairperson Nurit Yaron, IFF Board Member Idit Trope.
Back row: IFF Board Member Linor Schmeidler, IFF Board Member Zvi Shmulevitch, IFF Board Member Marvin Verman, IFF Board Member Hava Grunwald, and IFF Media and Communications Chair Aelon Porat.

Talkback with The Band’s Visit Director

— by Hannah Lee

An addition to this year’s Israeli Film Festival of Philadelphia was a showing of the 2007 film, The Band’s Visit, followed by a Q&A with the director, Eran Kolirin.  It was held on April 15 at the new home of the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr.

The film is a bittersweet account of what happens when the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra mistakenly heads to the remote fictional desert town of Bet Hatikva, where there is no Arab Cultural Center (“no Arab Cultural Center, no Israeli culture, no culture”) to stage their concert performance.   They are stranded there, with little Israeli money, until the inter-city bus arrives the next day.  Despite the tension between their two countries, they’re greeted with a range of generous and grudging hospitality.

More including trailer after the jump.

The Band’s Visit won eight Israeli Ophir Prizes awarded by the Israeli Film Academy.  Rotten Tomatoes reported that 98% of critics gave the film positive reviews, based on 108 reviews, and gave it a golden tomato for best foreign film of 2008.

Deborah Baer Mozes, the cultural attaché for the Israeli embassy, started the Q&A by asking what was the director’s inspiration?  It was the character of the Egyptian “General” (Lieutenant-Colonel Tawfiq Zacharya, superbly played by the Iraqi Jew, Sasson Gabai) dealing with his inner turmoil, of “something underneath trying to escape.”  Another audience member asked about his inspiration from the Egyptian playwright, Ali Salem, whose “My Drive into Israel” was a memoir of his 1994 trip to Israel following the signing of the Oslo Accord.  Salem later described the trip as not “a love trip, but a serious attempt to get rid of hate.  Hatred prevents us from knowing reality as it is.”  His pro-peace sentiments were controversial and Salem was banned from publication in Egypt afterwards.

An audience member asked why could the characters make phone calls from the public telephone booths without any simonim (Israeli phone tokens)?  The director gave both a practical and a poetic reply: the “142” number sequence allows one to make a collect call without simonim, but it’s far easier to make a phone call without money than to send an Egyptian band to Israel.

Another audience member noted that the filming was done in Yeruham (a desert town in the northern Negev, about 15 km from Dimona).  Kolirin has a fondness for these towns, which were planned to expand settlement into the desert, but which became dismal, forgotten places.  He expressed nostalgia for their architecture, which are gravestones to a grand idea.

How was The Band’s Visit received in the Arab world?  It was banned, of course, but it did get one screening in Cairo and Kolirin travelled there as the guest of the Israeli embassy.  It was a “schizophrenic feeling” for him, as it is a country so much like his own, but still foreign.

An audience member asked about the choice of having some characters being changed by the band’s visit, but Kolirin and other audience members disputed a change, as in whether the Egyptian character Simon completed his concerto overture.  The director said that he was more interested in a change in perspective (including that of the viewer, as in the phantom girlfriend who actually does make a phone connection) than for any external change.

Kolirin’s second film, The Exchange, was shown at the 68th Venice International Film Festival last September and will be released in the United States later this year.