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Chutzpah!: DocAviv Thrives Under New Director

By Ayelet Dekel

A girl stands in a desert landscape, swirling a hula hoop easily round her slender hips, intent on the Rubik's cube she swivels round and round, trying to solve the puzzle: One of the many images that comprise Kevin Macdonald's Life in a Day, the opening film of DocAviv, the Tel Aviv International Documentary Film Festival, an image that might well describe the festival itself: intense, full of energy and curiosity, trying to do everything at once and, amazingly, succeeding, thriving in a hot and often harsh climate.

The festival was founded in 1999 by documentary filmmaker Ilana Tsur, who felt that docs deserved their own festival platform in Israel. Israeli documentaries have been enjoying the same surge of creativity and corresponding popularity experienced in the local feature film industry over the past 15 years, and the festival has become a significant presence on the cultural scene. Tsur resigned as artistic director last May; this year's festival, which ran from May 12 to 21, 2011, was marked by change and innovation as the first festival under the artistic direction of Sinai Abt, former head of Noga Communications Channel 8.

Going global in a big way, Abt chose to diverge from the DocAviv tradition of opening the festival with an Israeli film--perhaps a sign that local filmmaking has come of age and can now hold its own on the international playing field. Life in a Day, a YouTube project composed of user-generated footage, set the tone for this forward-looking fest, raising issues such as the impact of new technologies, access to and distribution of information, relationships between filmmakers and audiences, as well as identity and global culture. The film's editor, Joe Walker, was a guest of the festival and provided some insight into this very different process, saying, "We had no idea what the film was going to be until we started noticing trends."


From Kevin Macdonald's Life in a Day, which opened the 2011 DocAviv.



DocAviv 2011 offered a packed program with a diverse array of strong films. Many of the directors were present at the screenings, fielding questions from inquisitive audiences, the conversations often carrying over to the hallways and terrace. The free-flowing, non-stop interaction between all festival participants--industry professionals, film students and the general public--is one of the outstanding features of DocAviv.

New forms and practices were the focus of two special workshops: Re:invent with Brian Newman, and a presentation by Sandra and Paul Fierlinger of their new online animation project in progress. After the workshop, the Fierlingers continued chatting with a group of Israeli animators in the library, talking about creating films that are intended for a new kind of audience on the Internet: an audience of one. Festival events at the Port of Tel Aviv had a Mediterranean feel, with open air screenings of music docs on the dock, and a two-day Food Doc program among the fruits and vegetables in the marketplace.

DocAviv's role in nurturing a generation of filmmakers can be seen in Tamar Tal's Life in Stills, winner of the Best Israeli Film award; Tal first participated with a student short four years ago. Personal and national history converge as 96-year-old Miriam Weissenstein and her grandson Ben fight to preserve the original Photohouse, home to an archive of photographs taken by Miriam and her late husband Rudi, documenting the first steps of the State of Israel and the city of Tel Aviv. Miriam's vivacious bold approach to life, the sometimes painful honesty of the relationship between Ben and Miriam and the tenacity of their devotion--to one another and to the family project--unfold in parallel to the centennial celebrations of Tel Aviv, a city that relentlessly reinvents itself. The complex relationship between the past and the future is conveyed through this intimate family portrait.


From Tamar Tal's Life in Stills, which won the Best Israeli Film award.



The images in Gianfranco Rosi's International Competition Award winner, El Sicario Room 164, written with Charles Bowden, are stark and simple: a man in a hotel room, his head covered, his features and identity hidden, describes his recruitment, training and actions as an assassin for a drug cartel. It's a horrifying reality where appearances have little connection to the truth, and an entire system of government and law enforcement functions efficiently to ensure the continued future of drug trafficking. As he speaks, his story takes form in the most traditional mode--drawn in his notebook in bold simple lines, the magic marker creating an eerie soundtrack for the film.


From Gianfranco Rossi's El Sicario Room 164, which won the International Competition Award.



Another hooded figure, his hands creating artwork, declares, "What I do is a bit of a legal gray area," and raises issues of truth and identity in the art world. Banksy's film Exit Through the Gift Shop takes the viewer on a tour of street art, its practitioners and poseurs, while executing a mid-film role reversal that turns the camera and the interrogatory gaze on the documenter.

Questions of identity loom large in The Collaborator and his Family, directed by Ruthie Shatz and Adi Barash. Ibrahim has been an informant to the Israelis. Following the shooting of his brother, also accused of collaborating with the Israelis, he flees Hebron for Tel Aviv with his family, despite not having an official permit. Caught between two cultures, the family belongs nowhere, living in constant fear of being detained by the police and deported, but since they're viewed as traitors in Hebron, they can no longer return home. The access the filmmakers received from Ibrahim and his family creates an intimate portrayal of the most marginalized members of society. The film offers a very different view of Tel Aviv--the poor neighborhoods in the southern part of the city, rarely seen in the media.

Efrat Shalom Danon's film Dreamers follows Ruhama, a teacher and screenwriter, and Tikva, a wigmaker and aspiring actress, in the making of a feature film. Both women belong to the Ultra Orthodox community, where some rabbinic authorities ban movies and television. Their search for artistic expression that will not conflict with the strict practices of their community, their courage and resilience make this film an inspiring adventure.

Identity, past and community all come together in Nick Brandestini's Darwin. In this former mining town of 35 in Death Valley, California, interviews with an assortment of individuals--filmed at a conversational distance, many in warm outdoor light--draw us close to their stories. As they reveal the layers of their past and present lives, one finds in Darwin a sense of tolerance and acceptance, an eclectic affirmation of life in the midst of the desert.


Ayelet Dekel is a writer living in Tel Aviv, and founder and editor of Midnight East, an online Israeli culture magazine.