Columbus Jewish Film Fest to Bring World-Renowned Director for 10th Anniversary Celebration
For acclaimed Israeli film director Avi Nesher, religious devotion and artistic expression are two sides of the same coin, inextricably linked in their extreme opposition. Speaking to this idea is his latest film, The Wonders, which will premiere in Columbus at 6:30 pm on November 2 as it kicks off the 10th annual Columbus Jewish Film Festival. In a rare treat, Nesher will travel from Israel to join Columbus audiences to discuss the film following the screening at the Lincoln Theatre.
“I believe in the redemptive power of cinema. Art in many ways is like a religion to me,” explained Nesher, who wanted to explore other devotions and sensibilities, while treating the surreal backdrop of Jerusalem as another character of the film.
The Wonders mixes genres of fantasy, comedy, and psychological thriller while plunging into an intriguing plot that is one part film noir, one part Alice in Wonderland, and totally, uniquely from the mind of director Avi Nesher, who brings a hybrid American-Israeli sensibility to his filmmaking, having grown up in America where he was educated at Ramaz Yeshiva and Columbia University.
“This is the first time we’ve been able to bring in a film director from overseas, and we couldn’t have selected a better one. Avi Nesher is one of the most highly esteemed directors in Israel. His name is a household word there,” explained Film Festival Co-Chair Linda Katz.
Nesher will be on-hand following the screening for a special Q&A session with Wexner Center Director Sherri Geldin to be followed by a dessert reception during which he will available to shmooze with the audience. The film, which investigates oppositions and dives into the seedy underbelly of Jerusalem’s criminal underworld, was Nesher’s way of talking back to the rising culture clash within the borders of his homeland.
The Wonders addresses the chasm between secular and religious Jews in Israel. “It’s very close to coming to blows, to Civil War,” said Nesher. “In many ways, this is a movie where a very secular man and a very religious man find a common language.”
Interestingly, Nesher pointed out, in Hebrew, “The word for belief is emunah, while the word for art is omanut. So it’s the same letters. And belief is similar to art. Art is the religion of the secular world. Secular people believe in art. I’m very familiar with the religious world, and I’ve always thought that we are much closer to each other than one would think. An atheist is just as extreme as the one who believes completely. There’s something about the extremity of being fanatically against religion that’s almost as unreasonable as being fanatically religious.”
In The Wonders, as with much of his work in filmmaking, Nesher aims to bridge worlds and appeal to Orthodox as well as secular Jews, laying the groundwork for a dialogue where commonality can be found. “I think that is one’s responsibility as an artist,” he said. Exploring devotion from both angles, Nesher wanted to open himself and the audience up to a different point of view.
To that end, the film utilizes a variety of visual elements. Film Festival Co-Chair Jody Altschule added, “As we watch The Wonders reveal its message, the conflict between the Ultra-Orthodox and the secular in Israel becomes very apparent. Director Avi Nesher takes us into a world filled with fantasy, including animation and many unlikely characters. The film will provoke lots of questions, and we are thrilled that Nesher himself will be with us on Opening Night to answer them!”
Inspired by a true story, The Wonders follows graffiti artist Arnav who lives near the Old City of Jerusalem. By night, he paints walls, hoping that his ex-girlfriend, who recently “found religion,” will come back to him. When Arnav sees a mysterious stranger being forced into his apartment building by three men, the plot thickens as it turns out the captured man is part of a religious cult that believes he can see into the future. From there, the line between fantasy and reality becomes increasingly thin.
“I thought it would be interesting to develop a whole visual language for the graffiti artist in different animation, to show the abstraction of the graffiti artist’s mind. I wanted it to have nothing to do with the actual plot, just to show the way the artist thinks. We had to have a visual language, so the animation represents the artist’s mind—you see what he sees.” Nesher likened Arnav’s story to that of Alice in Wonderland, traveling down the rabbit-hole into a world that becomes more and more bizarre. “He falls into Wonderland. We, [the audience]… go with ‘Alice,’ and he is our guide on this journey.”
For Columbus audiences, the visual style and fast-paced action of the film will be especially appealing. While Nesher aims to make films that are relevant to the Israeli discourse, his movies tend to have American elements because of his American education. “It’s just the way I think. It’s what comes naturally to me. There’s something very sensible and very smart and very democratic about the way American filmmakers share a story with an audience. If you want to share a point of view, you also need to entertain at the same time.”
Nesher believes that American audiences will still be able to relate to the message of his film despite its focus on divisions within Israel. “Because this is not a unique problem to Israel,” he said. “Within American society, as well, you know you have the South and the North for example, and the role of religion has crept into politics slowly but surely. The world is becoming more and more religious all over. G-d is making a great comeback. The more reliant we become on technology, the more we need to believe in something abstract. In almost every country, it seems the secular world has to contend with the religious world and vice-versa, and one has to figure out ‘where do I fit in’?”
Fitting into the story, too, is Jerusalem—the city itself a main character. “For me, places have tremendous importance,” said Nesher. “Whenever I make a movie, place is always a character. And Jerusalem is like a jigsaw puzzle, you have all these contradictions. The film holds the mysteries and the promise of Jerusalem.”
But, unlike in America, Nesher added, “In Israel, there is no separation between Church and State. So now we have a situation where religion is political and politics are tilted by religious parties and everybody is at each other’s throat. It’s gotten to a point where somebody has to step in and say, ‘Wait! We are still part of the same nation. We may have different points of view, but it’s not as bad as you may think.’” And I thought this film could play a role like that.”
While Nesher himself identifies with Arnav, the artist who, as the protagonist of the film, shares his perspective throughout, The Wonders is meant to pay respect to multiple viewpoints, including those of Orthodox Jews. “When you make a movie, it’s an opportunity to exchange opinions. I was very careful to be non-derogatory. In the end, nobody pays. The bad guys don’t get punished. Nothing really changes, but the people get a bit wiser.”
As for whether the world will become any wiser after seeing his film, Nesher only said, “I don’t think the world will change, but if the world will get a bit wiser, that’s a step forward.”
To see The Wonders or any of the many amazing films celebrating the Columbus Jewish Film Festival’s 10th year showcasing a diversity of perspectives, visit www.cjfilmfest.org or call 614-231-2731 to order tickets and learn more. And, for a limited time, now through October 24, in honor of the 10th anniversary of the Columbus Jewish Film Festival, buy three tickets to The Wonders and get the fourth free. Mention this special offer, too, when buying individual tickets to opening night, and you can get $5 off!