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Amidst a storm of anti-Israel activity, Wesleyan’s Israeli film festival plays on

A Conversation with filmmaker Aner Preminger

By Cindy Mindell

MIDDLETOWN –Wesleyan University has seen its share of [a little] pro- and [a lot of] anti-Israel activism over the last several years — stoked by student groups like Students for Justice in Palestine, Wesleyan United with Israel, J Street U and Jewish Voice for Peace.

Over the last two years, Wesleyan students have organized “Israeli Apartheid Week” on campus, joining an annual event held on college campuses around the world that often includes harassment of students expressing pro-Israel views.

Last March, the Wesleyan chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine petitioned the university to remove Sabra Hummus products from the campus supermarket and dining halls, protesting the New York-based company’s perceived support of the IDF. The brand is co-owned by the U.S.-based PepsiCo and the Israel-based Strauss Group. The products were removed for a short time, then returned to the menu with the addition of Cedar’s Mediterranean Foods.

What’s more, the arena is not exclusively inhabited by students: in late 2013, when the American Studies Association passed a resolution endorsing and honoring “the call of Palestinian civil society for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions,” Wesleyan president Michael S. Roth spoke out in a Los Angeles Times op-ed, calling the boycott “a repugnant attack on academic freedom, declaring academic institutions off-limits because of their national affiliation.” A year later, Roth wrote an opinion piece for Huffington Post (told from the perspective of Sigmund Freud) criticizing the decision by the Jewish Museum of New York to cancel a talk on Kafka because speaker Judith Butler has expressed (qualified) support of the academic boycott of Israel.

That same year, leadership of the Middletown campus’ student-run Wesleyan Jewish Community announced its alliance with the Open Hillel movement, a new initiative devoted to abolishing the guidelines regarding Israel-related protocols within Hillel International. Official Hillel regulations reject partnerships with speakers or groups that deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state.

Then, in May, the Wesleyan Student Assembly adopted a resolution calling for the university to “divest from companies that profit from the occupation of the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem.”

And yet, as improbable as a rose flowering in the desert, the annual Ring Family Wesleyan Israeli Film Festival quietly blossoms on campus every winter to no great fanfare or brouhaha. The series of six recent Israeli films and TV-series episodes are selected by Dalit Katz, adjunct associate professor in Wesleyan’s Religion Department and director of the Center for Jewish Studies. And each year, Katz brings in a visiting Israeli film scholar who introduces some of the films and teaches a spring-semester course at the Center for Jewish Studies.

“The Festival has been so successful because word has gotten out about how good the films and how interesting the discussions are,” says Katz.

Inaugurated in spring 2006, the Israeli Film Festival was presented every other year until 2011, when a gift from the Ring Family allowed Katz to make the event an annual one. The festival is sponsored by the university’s Center for Jewish Studies and co-sponsored by the College of Film and the Moving Image at Wesleyan University.

The Israel-born Katz earned her BA and MA from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and spent a year between her degrees at the University of Liège in Belgium as part of an educational exchange program of the governments of Israel and Belgium. She taught Hebrew at Colgate University and Syracuse University before joining the Wesleyan faculty. Katz teaches courses in Hebrew and on various aspects of Israeli literature and culture. In addition to coordinating the film festival, she organizes Contemporary Israeli Voices, which focuses on literary and translation studies, and Israel in Shorts, a series of short films and TV-series episodes.

For this year’s film series, Katz invited Aner Preminger, an award-winning Israeli independent filmmaker and film scholar. Preminger is a tenured associate professor in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem Department of Communication and Journalism, and a tenured associate professor and former head of the Sapir Academic College (Negev) Department of Film & Television.

In addition to his feature and documentary films, Preminger has published three books and numerous articles on cinema. His films have been selected for film festivals and awards around the world.

Born and raised in Tel Aviv, Preminger earned a BS in physics from Tel Aviv University in 1974. In 1980, just before completing his master’s degree in physics, he changed course and came to New York University Graduate School of Film and Television to earn an MFA in filmmaking instead. While in New York, he also studied acting for a year at the Ernie Martin Studio Theatre and the Stella Adler Studio of Acting. He returned to Tel Aviv University for doctoral studies in 1994, completing his PhD in 2002.

Preminger, who is related to the late, great Austrian-American film director Otto Preminger, was thrust into the Israeli headlines last June when he publicly confronted Israeli Minister of Sport and Culture Miri Regev over her demands for “loyalty in culture” among government-funded Israeli artists and cultural institutions.

“I chose Aner Preminger because, like all of the other scholars in residence, he combines academic and practical knowledge of filmmaking and has produced unique and powerful films,” explains Katz.

Preminger will introduce the next two films in the Israeli Film Festival lineup: “Present Continuous,” his 2012 feature film, on Feb. 11, and “Zero Motivation” on Feb. 18.

He spoke with the Ledger about matters political and cultural in his homeland during a particularly fraught time, and his view from behind the camera.

 

JEWISH LEDGER (JL): What made you switch from the study of physics to filmmaking?

ANER PREMINGER (AP): In a lot of ways, I think there is something artificial in differentiating between science and art: during the Renaissance, people like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo were both artists and scientists. When I was young, I was very good in physics and mathematics, and these subjects interested me. The same things that led me to becoming a physicist later influenced my interest in filmmaking because basically, I was always curious and wanted to understand the behavior of the world and of people. As I became more mature, I became interested in people and in human behavior more than in the earth and galaxies, the kinds of things that interested me when I was younger.

I discovered my passion for cinema between age 15 and 17. When I watched films – starting with Ingmar Bergman and, later, Chaplin – I felt something that I had never felt before. Films moved me very deeply. At that time, I could do physics, but I didn’t dare to think that I could make such films. I discovered Antonioni, Alain Resnais, Francois Truffaut and Fellini, and later, also American cinema. Little by little, I decided that I wanted to try to do it myself.

It was very difficult to study cinema in Israel so, in 1979, I went to the United States to study filmmaking at New York University Graduate School of Film and Television. I had almost finished my Master’s degree in physics then, but decided to drop it.

When teaching cinema, I give examples from the theory of relativity and quantum to show students how modern cinema deals with very similar issues that modern physics deals with. A very interesting perspective can be given to modern art and especially to modern cinema when one is aware of the way of thinking in modern physics. For example, when I teach the film “Blow-Up” by Antonioni, I ask my students about the last scene with the tennis players: is there a ball or not? It depends on the kind of tools you use to observe reality. “Blow-Up” deals with how reality changes or how your sense of reality changes by the means with which you observe it. If you use a camera lens, you see a different reality than without a camera. And when you blow up the pictures, you can see more details, but the whole thing becomes blurred and you lose the meaning given by its context.

This is the basic premise of quantum theory: the smaller things are, the more difficult it is to observe them. It’s not a technical problem, but a conceptual one, because the tools you use to observe small particles like electrons are changed by the act of observation. That’s exactly what happens in “Blow-Up”: once you observe reality, you affect it. The concept of modern cinema and of modern art is that, by observing reality or by telling a story about something that happened, you affect and change the story. Modern cinema explores the way our observation and narration influence the objects of our observation. This is a basic assumption of quantum theory and also of the theory of relativity: in our equation of understanding nature, we have to take into account the tools and action we use for observation.

 

JL: Israel’s minister of Culture and Sport, Miri Regev, just proposed a “loyalty in culture” bill to the Knesset Education Committee, which would revoke government funding for artists or cultural organizations that deface the Israeli flag or other national symbols, or incite racism, terror, or violence. Your thoughts?

AP: We have three ministers involved in this – Ayelet Shaked, minister of Justice; Naftali Bennett, minister of Education; and Miri Regev. I believe that what they are doing can be explained in one of three ways:

Either they don’t really mean what they are saying, but want to be populist and get votes from ignorant people. Because they know that some of what they are proposing will never happen because of the Supreme Court, which still defends some values of democracy. Or, they don’t understand the meaning of democracy; they think it means the majority rules and doing anything the majority wishes to do.

They don’t understand that one of the main principles of democracy is defending minorities and individuals and enabling them to express their opinions.

The third option is that they understand what democracy is but don’t really want democracy. These three people are intelligent because they understand what voters want; they understand how the world works and what you have to do to be in power and win control. But I think intelligence is much more than that. They really don’t understand the value and importance of democracy, even if they understand what it is in a formal sense. They don’t understand that if we follow their path, we will soon be like primitive countries they don’t really want us to be like.

They are doing very dangerous things.

The discourse in Israel has changed. I had a confrontation with Miri Regev at Sapir College’s Cinema South Festival last June, where she first declared that she would not support cultural institutions that are not “loyal.” There is no such thing as “loyal culture.”

It’s not only that she doesn’t understand what democracy is; she doesn’t understand what culture is, or the contributions of art and culture to society. Artists, by definition, should be subversive. Art and culture grow out of deep dissatisfaction and critical observation of one’s self, family, and society. This is the case in any culture and country.

 

JL: Your latest film, “Present Continuous,” tells the story of a mother who breaks down under the stress of living in Israel just before the 2002 Intifada. One day, while her husband, her soldier-son and her teenage daughter are napping, she locks the family into their apartment. What motivated you to make this film?

festival present continuous

Feb. 11, “Present Continuous”

AP: The screenwriter, my friend Orit Kimmel, came to me with the script and we reworked it. One thing that immediately struck me was that the mother takes action. She decides to defend her family by keeping them at home.

We live in a tough situation. Like every parent, I have this fantasy that I can protect my children on many levels: one level is to protect them from going to the army and from living in this crazy situation. When I was a child, we believed that Israel was doing everything it could to gain peace, and that war was caused by our enemies. You could believe this until 1977, when Sadat came to Israel. Then, we learned more that our beliefs weren’t true: we have at least 50 percent of the responsibility for the conflict. In this crazy situation, we live from war to war, we raise children, and then send them to the army.

This fantasy of the mother in my film – “I’m going to do something different” – is of course crazy. You cannot do it in reality, and the film shows that it’s impossible. But as a filmmaker, you can have this fantasy and try to realize it.

I have seen both right-wing and left-wing people identify with the film. People relate to the mother’s instinct to protect her children and her inability to do so. If someone looks deep enough, there are a lot of elements in the film that express the complex way I see the situation. But the film doesn’t say anything about the government, or about possible political solutions to the situation.

 

JL: How do you think the work of acclaimed Palestinian-Israeli author and screenwriter Sayed Kashua fits into Israeli culture, especially in light of the proposed “loyalty in culture” proposal?

AP: Sayed Kashua left Israel to teach at the University of Illinois two years ago and he continues to write for Haaretz in Hebrew about being an immigrant in America and about his complex relations with Israeli culture and with American culture. He is an Israeli, a Palestinian-Israeli, and for me, what he is writing is important to our culture. Palestinian writers enrich our culture and enlarge our sensitivity and understanding of the Palestinians’ complex situation in Israel, where they are 20 percent of the population. I hope that Sayed Kashua will keep taking an active part in the growing Israeli culture. But I can understand if he finds his way in America. I feel sorry that people like Miri Regev, Ayelet Shaked, and Naftali Bennett are not making it easier for him.

What you see in Israel is very paradoxical. On one hand, people are tolerant at a lot of levels and understand the problems of the Palestinians. On the other hand, people have become more racist and narrow-minded. I keep seeing both things when I read the papers, when I speak with my students, when I watch their films. I think there is something very irrational in everything that is going on in Israel. We live in an insane situation and the current government is making it more and more difficult.

Ninth Annual Ring Family Wesleyan Israeli Film Festival: Thursdays through March 3, 8 p.m, at Goldsmith Family Cinema, 301 Washington Terrace, Middletown. Admission and parking are free.

Aner Preminger will introduce the next two films: Feb. 11, “Present Continuous” 
Feb. 18, “Zero Motivation”

Other films in the festival line-up:
Feb. 25 – “The Farewell Party”
March 3 – Screening of three episodes of the Israeli TV show “Fauda” 

For information: iff.site.wesleyan.edu/

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