What’s it like to attend a film festival in a country that turns into a political powderkeg? Usually, festival attendees have only a figurative concern about bombs, and then it’s bad movies. The concern at the just wrapped Jerusalem Film Festival was literal and very scary. Hollywood attendees told me that they were rushed into a bomb shelter, as rockets soared and troops began moving on the ground in the ongoing clash between Israel and Hamas over brutal murders in the West Bank. The opening night film, Sayed Kashua’s Dancing Arabs was cancelled due to the fear of a fusillade of Hamas rockets, and Spike Jonze cancelled the master class he was holding Wednesday after a screening of his film Being John Malkovich. Jonze did this after he arrived in Jerusalem, and there were many other no shows, including Austrian director Ulrich Seidl. David Mamet, as tough as they make playwrights, went ahead with his master class as did director Park Chan-wook. Meanwhile, attendees hailed how first time festival director Noa Regev and staff held things together despite the worsening circumstances, but clearly those who hung in were happy to come home.
What’s it like to be in the middle of such chaos? Here was the view from an attendee who asked not to be identified: “At first it seemed remarkably calm, but as the days went on I could sense that people were distressed and anxious. Then the atmosphere became stoic but somewhat strained…I only had to hit a bomb shelter once, perhaps it is being avoided because of fears of rockets falling on this ancient city with all its religious significance.” The filmmakers who did show were understandably distracted. “All came to support films, yet conversations turned regularly to the sad topic of the moment. A director felt upset after being interviewed by a journalist who revealed she wanted to write a piece about the festival and then asked for his political opinions about the conflict. He has strong political convictions and was happy to express them, but not in an article associated with the festival. An actress told me she was happy to be in Jerusalem because it’s so much quieter than Tel Aviv, where rockets are exploded by the Iron Dome directly above her house. She said she hears the sound of a motorbike starting and it makes her jump. That night she and her actor husband bid each other a tender farewell as she stayed on here and he went back to Tel Aviv without her, as each stars in different Israeli films. A designer told me she is sickened by what she described as a sense of evil she perceives caused by extremists on both sides, baying for blood in a conflict that ultimately injures and kills people who are 99% of the time innocents with nothing to do with military campaigns. One producer learned at the festival he was called up for service, and is on his way to Gaza. In the world outside the festival, a restaurant owner spoke of businesses facing dire consequences as tour groups canceled en masse. The Old City is all but deserted. He said it typically takes three months following the final ceasefire in such conflicts for businesses to return to anything resembling normal. Many people were in the process of moving family around the country to get them to safer places. You could sense the anxiety and exhaustion with the unfortunate regularity of these kinds of heightened moments in the conflict. People feel they go through something like this every couple of years, and some even expressed wanting to move away from Israel because of the stress. Several half-jokingly mulled the option of moving their careers to L.A.”