28th Annual Israel Film Festival

Review by Willard Manus

LOS ANGELES - The Israel Film Festival has made huge strides since its humble beginnings in 1982. Over one thousand films, documentaries, TV dramas and shorts have been screened annually to nearly a million filmgoers.
This year’s festival kicked off with a gala opening-night awards presentation and the West Coast premiere of NEXT TO HER, an official selection at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival. Directed by Asaf Korman and starring Dana Ivgy, who won a best-actress award from the Israeli Academy Awards, the film tackles a tough subject: the challenge of raising a severely mentally challenged teenager. Gabby (played with astonishing realism by Liron Ben Shlush) is autistic but her sister Rachel (Igvy), a security guard, refuses to put her in a home, choosing instead to care for her on her own.

It’s no easy task. Because she works full-time, Rachel must leave Gabby alone in their flat all day. She must also bear the brunt of Gabby’s often-contrary behavior: angry screams and fits, sudden kicks and bites, stubborn refusals to obey orders. At the same time, Gabby also shows a sweet, loving side, an ability to laugh at certain things (TV cartoons, amusement-park attractions). Above all, she can take solace in her sister’s company; they take baths together, sometimes sleep in each other’s arms.
The intense symbiotic relationship between Gabby and Rachel is tested when the latter has an affair with a schoolteacher, Zohar (Yaakov Daniel Zada). The brusque, self-sufficient--make that self-centered--Rachel grudgingly allows Zohar to enter her life. She also takes his advice and places Gabby in a day-care center, a decision that has unexpected and near-tragic consequences.
NEXT TO HER’s story is a dark and dense one, but it is told with such honesty and compassion that it can’t help but touch your heart.
Another highlight at the 2014 IFF was MAGIC MEN. Written and directed by Guy Nattiv and Erez Tadmor, the film tells the story of a 78-year-old Greek-Israeli who decides to return to Greece to track down the man who saved his life during WW II by hiding him from the Nazis. Avraham flies home to Thessaloniki, once a largely Sephardic-Jewish city, and starts searching for his savior, Papaloukas, a magician who taught him his trade. Avraham has no idea where Papaloukas is, or even if he’s alive, but he searches for him nonetheless, driven by an overpowering need to honor and embrace the man.

Joining Avraham on his moral pilgrimage is his son, a didgiredoo-playing, rap-artist Orthodox Jew (!) and Maria, a young prostitute with the proverbial heart of gold. Out of these unlikely elements, Nattiv and Tadmor weave a warm, good-natured tale that takes some unexpected twists and turns. Their film shows modern Greece in a good light–except for one scene in which Avraham comes face to face with a bunch of Golden Dawn fascists–and it also has many humorous moments. But ultimately MAGIC MEN deals in a serious way with the themes of reconciliation and mortality.