From Israel: Politics And Romance At The Movies

The Israel Film Festival is running in Los Angeles. It features a wide range of subjects, including highly personal documentaries and a romantic comedy about a Mexican salsa dancer disguised as a nun. Host Michel Martin speaks with the founder and executive director of the Israel Film Festival, Meir Fenigstein.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

If you like your TV programs with complex characters, tightly written scripts with one foot firmly planted in the real world, then you are probably a fan of "Homeland."

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION SERIES, "HOMELAND")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Unintelligible) at 2300, two (unintelligible) black hawk (unintelligible) lit the target with over 8,000 rounds.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: During the sweep, one of the deltas found something else.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3 ACTOR: I'm an American.

MARTIN: But what you might not know is that American TV show, "Homeland," which airs on Showtime, is based on a hit Israeli television series. That connection is being honored at the Israel Film Festival, which is currently underway in Los Angeles. The festival is in its 26th year and more than 30 titles are showcased this year with everything from feature length films to documentaries and student shorts and all kinds of subjects, including - and we really need to hear more about this - a film about a Mexican salsa dancer disguised as a nun.

Here to tell us more about all this is the founder and executive director of the Israel Film Festival, Meir Fenigstein. Thanks so much for joining us. Thanks so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk with us.

MEIR FENIGSTEIN: Thank you very much for having me.

MARTIN: You know, so much of the news out of Israel, especially, you know - now, pertains to political conflict, but we notice that the subject matter of the festival is quite diverse. Has it always been that way?

FENIGSTEIN: It change with the years. Now, it's a little bit different - what it used to be. Ten, 20 years ago, when I started the festival, we showed a lot of films about the conflict, about the Israeli army. We don't have those films anymore. Most of the films are personal films and that's why, as you mentioned, we have films like "Salsa Tel Aviv" or "My Australia" that is 70 percent in Polish and "Salsa Tel Aviv" is 70 percent in Spanish.

MARTIN: Well, we have to talk about "Salsa Tel Aviv." It is about a - let me make sure I have this right. It's about a Mexican salsa dancer who disguises herself as a nun who goes to Israel to work so she can send money home, but what develops is a love story. And we'll play a short clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SALSA TEL AVIV")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Welcome to Israel.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign Language Spoken).

MARTIN: Well, you get a flavor there, so. What did you like about this film?

FENIGSTEIN: First of all, it's a telenovela. You know, it's not exactly a film, you know, and what's interesting about it is the director, Jorge Weller, decided to make a film. He's Argentinean. He made what they call aliyah to Israel - came to Israel - about 20 years ago and this is his first feature film and the actors - the star of the film is Angelica Vale. She's very, very famous in telanovela in Mexico. Her mother is playing, too. Her name is Angelica Maria and she is like Miss - the sweetheart of Mexico. And this is, you know, the connection, the cultural exchange between Spanish and Hebrew or, you know, if you can say between the Latin community and the Israeli community. That's what intrigued me to show this film in the festival.

MARTIN: You also have documentaries, as I said, and they deal with some - I don't know. How can we just say this? Some difficult subjects, both personal and political subjects. One in particular that caught my eye was "77 Steps." Will you tell me about that and tell me why you like this film?

FENIGSTEIN: I really wanted to mention another film that I was more intrigued than "77 Steps," if you don't mind.

MARTIN: OK.

FENIGSTEIN: Is "The Dolphin Boy" because "The Dolphin Boy" is a film about an Arab-Israeli that was bitten by his friend or in his neighborhood and he was so hard bitten that he was basically out of - you know, he was not a human being anymore. And his Israeli doctor decided to take him to a treatment that is unusual, to take him to Eilat. It's the city south of Israel that has a dolphin area.

And he was there for three years and was swimming with the dolphin and got in love with the dolphin. He couldn't say one word and, after three years, he came back and came back to his family and it's all because of the dolphin. And I think this is a very, very powerful film and I really recommend people to see this film because it's really fascinating.

MARTIN: What do you like about it?

FENIGSTEIN: The relationship. How somebody can, you know, get related to a fish, basically, to a dolphin and, through his love and the relationship with the dolphin, he gets cured. It's amazing.

MARTIN: We're talking about the Israel Film Festival. It's currently running in Los Angeles. With us is the founder and executive director of the festival, Meir Fenigstein.

Tell me about how - again, we were talking at the beginning of our conversation about how the festival has changed over the years. What are some of the things that you've tried to do with it over the years as you've developed it? And what gave you the idea to begin with?

FENIGSTEIN: First of all, my background is, I used to be in a rock band. I used to be a drummer in a group called Kaveret or Bee Hives. My nickname is Poogy, P-O-O-G-Y. And this group is known in Israel as The Beatles of Israel, and this group was established in the beginning of the '70s.

From the music side, I decided to go to study in Berklee College of Music in Boston and there - where I came with the idea of the festival in 1983, that I want to change from music after I've been already, you know, performing for 400,000 people in Tel Aviv, to do something else and I wanted to stay in the United States and decided to bring Israeli films to America because I thought it's very important to showcase Israeli culture in America.

MARTIN: Well, what do you think is important to showcase, though? I mean, a lot of Americans go back and forth. I mean, is it the - you know, they go back and forth. People have family ties and so forth. Is it part of what you're hoping people will see, is what? Beyond the headlines or the vibrancy of the culture...

FENIGSTEIN: Absolutely.

MARTIN: ...as it continues?

FENIGSTEIN: Absolutely. That's really what it is. It's beyond the headlines and I think that, because, you know, through the Internet, everybody wants to know a little bit more personal stuff about the other cultures now. It used to be that everybody, you know, when we didn't have the Internet, we didn't know. We didn't want to know. Now, you can just put something and be in Italy right now, in Venice and see what you want to see in Venice. Or know or speak Italian or, you know, any language.

But what I'm saying is that the festival gives an opportunity to the public, and it doesn't matter if they are Jewish, Israeli or anybody, to view the Israeli society in the best way and the real way. And that's, I think it's very, very important, not just for Israel, for any country.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, I did want to ask why you felt it was important and why the festival is honoring the American television show, "Homeland," which, as we said, is based on a hit Israeli series. Why do you think that's important? Because some people would say, well, you're copying me.

FENIGSTEIN: It's not exactly copying. This showed kind of a connection between the Israeli television and the American television because they basically bought the rights for the miniseries, "Hatufim." It's an Israeli miniseries. And they shot it and they created "Homeland" from that. And this was very important for the festival to really emphasize this point, that it's a real connection between the Hollywood community and the Israeli film community.

MARTIN: Meir Fenigstein is the founder and executive director of the Israel Film Festival, which is now in its 26th year and he was kind enough to join us from NPR West in Culver City, California.

Mr. Fenigstein, thank you so much for joining us and congratulations to you.

FENIGSTEIN: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Just ahead, talking about HIV and AIDS is hard for many people. There's fear. There's shame. For others, what makes it even harder are cultural taboos.

MELVIN HARRISON: In most small communities, it's really hard to talk about sex and homosexuality and so forth, but on the Navajo Nation and other small native communities, it's very, very difficult to talk about those topics.

MARTIN: We'll tell you how Navajo activists are trying to help the Nation tackle the threat of HIV. That's just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Spring is just about here. You might be making plans to clean out the closets, the garage or the basement. How about using this season to tidy up your finances? An expert organizer offers tips for spring cleaning your financial life, which she says might tidy up other parts of your life. That's next time on TELL ME MORE.

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