Film Festival Offers Documentaries and Features That Explore Many Different Sides of Israel

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A celebration is in order for a 21st birthday.

Except instead of hitting a bar, you can hit the movies.

The Israeli Film Festival of Philadelphia kicks off its 21st year on March 4, and founder and Artistic Director Mindy Chriqui is excited for the 13 cinematic offerings this year — though she can’t choose just one.

“I really can’t say,” she laughed, “but what I can say is we have wonderful documentaries this year, and we probably have more documentaries this year than we’ve had in the past and they really are all outstanding.”

Chriqui is excited by how the festival has grown increased in value to viewers and attendees.

“Every year, we find that it’s more and more crucial that we bring to our audience here in Philadelphia and the suburbs the enormous creativity and enormous output that comes from the Israeli cinema,” she said. “These films are going to show so many different sides of Israel that if people want to understand what’s going on there, then they really owe it to themselves to come to these films.”

Here is a look at two films that will make a splash at this year’s festival, which runs through April 2. A full lineup and schedule can be found at iffphila.com.

‘On the Map’

Tal Brody is celebrated by teammates after the historic victory in Tel Aviv. Shmuel Rahmani

Sports fans and history enthusiasts alike will probably enjoy the latest from director Dani Menkin (Dolphin Boy, 39 Pounds of Love) in which he takes a look at the “Miracle on Hardwood.”

It’s 1977 and Israel’s Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team is set to play in Verton, Belgium, against the favored Soviet Union team, CSKA Moscow, which had previously refused to play against Israel in the European Cup Championship.

What happened next is best remembered by captain Tal Brody’s legendary quote: “We are on the map. And we are staying on the map, not only in sports, but in everything.”

Israel defeated its opponent 91-79 in a victory documented in On the Map, featuring interviews with Brody along with other players on the team, basketball Hall of Fame member Bill Walton and past NBA Commissioner David Stern.

“It tells a very important story in our history and I could not believe that there was not a film about it,” Menkin said during a phone interview.

Along with his team of producers — including Nancy Spielberg — he searched “whatever he could get his hands on” for archival footage of interviews (there was only one TV channel at the time). The project was great fun for Menkin, who lives in Tel Aviv and remembers watching the game as a 7-year-old.

“This is my country and this is my team, and I love films and I like sports and I like Israel where I’m from. I was like a kid in a candy store,” he laughed.

“Hopefully people around the world will be able to see that Israel has a lot to offer not only in terms of what they know about us from the news but also in other ways, and people around the world will be able to see we are definitely on the map.”

For Brody, a Trenton, N.J., native and International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame inductee, the joyous rallying cry that Menkin has immortalized was completely in the moment.

“It was something that just came out of my heart, not something which was prepared,” said Brody, who gave up a shot at an NBA career to play professional basketball in Israel after he finished school at the University of Illinois. “It just came out of the excitement of the moment.”

That moment is something he’ll always remember: the team winning, the crowd dancing the horah and singing Israeli songs, celebrating in the packed gymnasium in Belgium.

Now 73 and living in Israel with family — including eight grandchildren, one of whom plays in a basketball league — Brody said he is excited for a new audience to learn the story.

“It’s not a basketball movie, but a basketball story that has influenced a country in such a way — that picking up the spirit and pride and such tough periods of time, and that’s what they see, the influence and culture and education,” he said.

He owes a lot of his success to Philadelphia-based Maccabi USA, he said, and he’s excited to return to the city that invited him to compete in Maccabiah when he was at rookie camp with the then-Baltimore Bullets.

“It’s been a beautiful journey for me not only for the basketball, but the experience in life in Israel and for our team … for this movie to be put together,” he said.

See On The Map with Brody and Menkin March 12 at 7 p.m. at The Ritz East; March 13 at 7 p.m. at Hillel at Drexel University; (or March 25 at 8:45 p.m. at Gratz College). For more info on the movie, visit onthemapfilm.com.

‘Operation Wedding’

Edward Kuzntesov and Anat Zalmanson-Kuznetsov attend the premiere of Operation Wedding in Tel Aviv. Jane Kravchik

Depending on who you ask, Anat Zalmanson-Kuznetsov’s parents are either heroes or terrorists.

In 1970, Sylva Zalmanson and Edward Kuznetsov were leaders of an effort with 10 others to escape the Soviet Union by pretending they were going to a wedding and hijacking a plane to fly to freedom in Israel.

The KGB caught them before they even boarded. Kuznetsov was one of two given the death sentence; Zalmanson, two of her brothers and others involved were given lengthy sentences in the Gulag. Thousands around the world protested and fought for their release.

In her documentary Operation Wedding, Zalmanson-Kuznetsov provides a moving, deeply human telling of her parents’ story, in which — unlike a 2010 Russian film interpretation — her parents are not terrorists.

She wanted people to see her parents as she sees them, she explained, which also meant involving herself — something she didn’t want to do initially.

“When I was telling people what I’m doing, I told them I’m making a film about a group of Jews who tried to hijack a plane to escape from the Soviet Union, they don’t look so interested for some reason. And when I say the leaders are my parents, people light up,” she laughed.

Combining archival footage such as newspaper clippings and TV reports of their arrests, imprisonments and protests calling for their freedom along with her own footage — including a powerful scene in which she and her mother revisit the prison where Zalmanson spent 10 years — Zalmanson-Kuznetsov, who also interviewed former KGB officers, creates a well-told story about the power of an individual.

“We thought, ‘What is the meaning of the film? What is the meaning of the story?’ And then we realized it was the power of the individual to change history,” she said.

While her parents didn’t talk about what happened while she was growing up, now she knows more about the events than probably anyone else, she said. Making this film brought her closer to her parents, who are now divorced and live in Israel, as well.

“What made my parents so strong is even though they’ve been through so much — and I can’t even begin to understand how they managed to go through all that suffering for so long — they’re not bitter, they didn’t lose their sense of humor, they don’t complain and they don’t regret it because they feel like they did something not for them, for other people, it was worth it,” she said.

“At the beginning, I also thought a lot about is this a human rights story or a Jewish story, until I realized it was a Jewish human rights story,” she said, despite that there were three non-Jews in the group.

It’s a dramatic story, she added, “but after you watch the film, I want you to feel uplifted, I want you to feel victory and strong, and this is my parents’ essence as well.”

Join Zalmanson-Kuznetsov for a screening of Operation Wedding March 11 at 8 p.m. at KleinLife. For more info about the film, visit operation-wedding-documentary.com.

For tickets and information about these films and others, visit iffphila.com.

Contact: [email protected]; 215-832-0740

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