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A conversation with Ilan de-Vries, Jerusalem Film Festival director

by simone July 16 2008
InterviewFilmThings to do

Ilan de Vries

The Jerusalem International Film Festival is celebrating its 25th year under the auspices of a new general director, Ilan de-Vries, former deputy director under festival founder Lia Van Leer. Mr. de-Vries took time from his busy schedule to speak with Jerusalemite about the festival and Jerusalem's cultural scene.

Please give us some background on the festival. How did it begin and how has it developed since? The Festival began in 1982 as the brain-child of Lia Van Leer and Dina Eldor and backed by the Jerusalem Foundation, which was headed at that time by Teddy Kollek. The festival began with 50 films. It was very small. There were few guests and virtually no Israeli cinema, because there wasn't much Israeli cinema in general at that time. Since then, the Festival has grown each year, attracting more famous guests such as Jane Fonda, Roberto Benigni and Alan Arkin. In addition to films made in the past year or two, we began showing archive films as well and created a special category, "In the Spirit of Freedom," which features films dealing with issues of human rights, democracy and tolerance. There is a large prize, courtesy of the Nathan Cummings Foundation for this category.

This year we're celebrating our 25th anniversary. The festival has really grown in its 25 years. This year we have 100 films from over 30 countries, including films from some Arab countries including Jordan. We don't often get films from the Arab world because of the political situation.

How did you personally become involved in the Festival? When the Cinematheque opened in 1981, I served as Ms. Van Leer's deputy and was very involved with the Film Festival in its early years. After nine years at the Cinematheque I left to work at Channel 2 and then Mishkenot Sha'ananim before returning to the Film Festival this year.

Has your audience changed at all in the 25 years of festival operations? While the audience has changed to some degree, there is a core group of loyal viewers that come every year. These people continue to come from across the country because they see the best of cinema there and they like the festival's atmosphere. The Cinematheque currently has 7,000 members, and these members make up the core audience. Jerusalem of course has changed in the 25 years since the festival began. It no longer has the same demographic it had 20 years ago. The city has gotten more religious and we now see more religiously observant people at the festival than we did years ago.

Beyond the demographic developments, have Talmudic Film: Beruriahyou noticed a change in Jerusalem's cultural landscape in the years since the festival began? This is a serious question that can't be answered superficially. Jerusalem has great artistic potential, a potential which is being realized practically, not just theoretically, each day. There are many creative people here and a hunger for culture, for current, pluralistic culture. I see this hunger in the young people who study at the Bezalel Arts School and at Hebrew University and at the city's other arts institutions. It's not just Jerusalem youth who are studying here: People come from all over to study at these places and the city has the potential to become a vibrant cultural center, the way it was 20 years ago, before the intifadas and before the municipality changed.

However, there is a feeling that the secular youth are leaving the city, and I have to say that culture requires an investment. Tel Aviv is known as a youthful city, a city that's open to developing forms of art and music. If Jerusalem thinks this is a coincidence, it's not. If you want to create a cultural scene, you need to invest in it - not just in terms of money but in terms of promotion and facilitation and a general atmosphere of openness and pluralism. The cultural scene depends to a large part on the city's leadership, and in this sense, it's hard to develop culture in Jerusalem because a lot of the people involved in the city's government, while they don't actively work against cultural institutions, they definitely don't encourage them.

Jerusalem's cultural landscape is also different from Tel Aviv's because of the Arabs and the charedim, both of whom are cut off from the cultural landscape of city for religious, political and security reasons. It's much more difficult for cultural institutions here than in Tel Aviv or other places in Israel, but that doesn't mean that Jerusalem does not have great potential. In fact, I think there's more potential here because of these difficulties. Jerusalem's Sam Spiegel School of Film and Television is the best in the country, Bezalel is one of the country's best art schools and the Jerusalem International Film Festival is the country's largest and most interesting. Jerusalem is a leader in many fields, and that's not a coincidence either. The atmosphere here holds a lot of potential - it just has to be realized.

The Festival places a heavy emphasis on Israeli films, which used to be ignored or scoffed at by the general public but have recently begun attracting international attention and accolades. How has Israeli cinema developed since the 1980s? Why do you think this is? Israeli cinema has definitely developed since the 1980s. Part of the reason is that the Cinematheque and the Film Festival always believed in Israeli films and worked to develop the Israeli cinematic potential. Other contributing factors, in no specific order, are the fact that more young people came entered the field in last 20 years and film festivals in Jerusalem and Haifa helped popularize Israeli films - not just in Israel but throughout the world. As Israelis began to have more interchanges with other countries they learned from them.

I think television has also played an important role in developing Israeli cinema. As television dramas have become more sophisticated and as their number increased, the quality of production on films went up as well. People working in Israel's movie industry often began by working in television where they learned how to work with scripts and with actors and then they go on to use these skills in large-scale films as well. While there's not a direct link between television and film, they are two different mediums, they are connected and Israel is a small country and there's a lot of interchange between the two.

Israel's Cinema Law [passed in 2000 to ensure and secure more funding for Israeli cinema] has also helped filmmakers plan ahead without having to worry about financing. The Film Festival's Wolgin Award also helps encourage young filmmakers and Jerusalem's Spiegel School helps young filmmakers develop their talent. The cinema culture is constantly growing here and Israeli cinema is flourishing and becoming more successful each year.

Every year the Festival has prominent foreign directors and or actors in attendance. How do you make these connections and who is coming this year? We make these connections through relationships we have developed over the years, through emails and personal connections and bBrooding John Malkovitchy traveling to other film festivals, meeting people and networking. This is the name of the game. Many important directors, actors and producers are coming this year, including producer Mike Medavoy, actor John Malkovich and director Michael Winterbottom. There are a number of other directors and producers coming who may not be big names for the public but are very important for us and for the film audiences who will get to meet them at the screening of their films. It's very important to have these sorts of interactions between filmmaker and audience at a film festival.

Please tell us some of the highlights of this year's festival, particularly those films which relate in some way to Jerusalem. Well, there's a documentary about the singer Patti Smith, Patti Smith:Dream of Life, which ends with a big scene in Jerusalem. There's also a program called "Jerusalem Moments," which ran at Beit Shmuel on Sunday July 13. The event featured ten movies from Israeli and Palestinian directors all dealing with the city of Jerusalem.

What movies are you personally looking forward to seeing at the festival this year? There are many films from abroad that are brilliant, but I can't give recommendations because many of the films are competing against each other and I don't want to create a bias. There's a brilliant documentary about Liverpool, Of Time and the City, by Terence Davies. I'd also recommend Into the Wild, an excellent film by Sean Penn. We're showing it for the first time on the big screen in Israel.

We're also presenting for first time - after many, many, many years - new prints of Exodus with Paul Newman, and it's brilliant. We got the rights to screen it as gift from MGM, so we're grateful to them for this, because for years there were no Exodus prints in the country and the movie could only be seen on video. Exodus is a very important movie about the history of Israel and we're proud to be able to show it at the festival.

Picture of Ilan de-Vries courtesy of Ilan de-Vries, pictures of Bruriah, the film, and John Malkovich, the actor, courtesy of the Jerusalem International Film Festival Public Relations Division.

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