Sunday 4 November 2012

Ohad Knoller - a big hit at the UK Jewish Film Festival

A clip from Yossi - French subtitles here, but not in the UK!

It's November, so it must be the annual UK Jewish Film Festival! Once again the festival offers an eclectic mix of drama and documentary, full length movies and shorts, and films from a long list of countries including Uruguay, Croatia, Sweden and Russia. There are also many films from the more obvious places - Israel, USA, France and the UK. The festival centres on the Tricycle Cinema in Kilburn but also includes other London venues and some screenings in Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester.

So, to the films! I saw three films at the festival this weekend -two starring Ohad Knoller,  of Yossi and Jagger, the Bubble and Beaufort fame (not to mention Srugim - one of my favourite TV series ever). Ohad was present at screenings of both Yossi - the sequel to the aforementioned Yossi and Jagger as well as the rather offbeat (at least at first sight) We Are Not Alone.

Yossi and Jagger hit the screens ten years ago and won a string of awards, citations and critical acclaim. It touched on a number of issues - the Lebanon conflict, life in the Israeli army and an examination of being "on the outside" in this case through focusing on the relationship of two gay men. Most readers will know that Jagger dies in the movie, killed near the Lebanese border and Yossi finds the surviving partner (Knoller) a decade later, having left the army, qualified as a doctor and working as a cardiologist in Tel Aviv.

The Eytan Fox directed movie examines themes of loneliness, loss and also the crassness of some elements of modern living including the depersonalisation of the personal. Branded as a "gay" film in some quarters, Yossi addresses universal issues for the most part, through the medium of a gay character. The most specifically gay issue in the film is a discussion of the acceptance of gays in the Israeli Defence Force today compared to ten years ago when the first movie was released. There are moments of intense sadness that will move viewers to tears as well as some extremely funny scenes including a fair amount of poking fun at some of the tackier sides of Eilat!

There are some excellent performances - Knoller in the title role, Oz Zehavi as Tom one of a group of young soldiers Yossi meets and who have a significant impact on him and Orly Silbersatz as Jagger's mother who enters the story through a chance encounter at a hospital. There is also a brief appearance from Lior Ashkenazi of Late Marriage fame. A short Q&A followed the screening with Ohad fielding a range of questions on gay life in Israel (he is not gay incidentally!), a series of questions on the Srugim TV series and a bizarre question about honour killing of gays by Orthodox Jews which he dealt with cleverly and humorously. Nice one Ohad.

My other two films of the weekend were screened at the Phoenix Cinema in East Finchley. This was my first visit. It is a little art deco gem, with some original features retained and what look like restored (or replaced) panels in the auditorium showing symbols of the theatre and music. Its also very conveniently about three minutes walk from East Finchley Northern Line station. My second Ohad Knoller film of the weekend - We Are Not Alone - was a world away from Yossi. An offbeat romance between a security guard in Tel Aviv's Dizengoff Centre, played by Knoller and a young "lost" woman played by Efrat Ben Yaakov, nevertheless the film examines issues of belonging, the desire for closeness and the often frightening prospect of facing the world every day. Interestingly, during his introduction to the film, Knoller explained that he had once worked as as security guard and had felt "invisible" in that job. The film illustrates that feeling very clearly.

The same themes receive attention in Foreign Letters. This is a true story, set in the 1980's and based on the friendship between Ellie, a young Israeli girl recently emigrated to the United States with her family and Thuy, a Vietnamese girl of the same age from a refugee family. They have much in common - leaving their homelands to escape war, they are largely ignored by the majority of their very WASP classmates and to different extents are isolated through barriers of language and class. Language and words play a very big part in the story directed by Ela Thier (the Ellie of the film). If you get to see this, look out for a few scene stealing scenes from Ellie's little brother, I especially liked the door knocking episode and the shouting of "I have something, I have something" in Hebrew!

My favourite film of the festival so far? Yossi by a mile, but there are lots more to come including a Dutch war story - Susskind - by the same producers as Black Box. I can't wait.

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