Karlovy Vary Film Festival Explores Israeli-American Connections in ‘America’ and ‘June Zero’

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KVIFF

For director Ofir Raul Graizer, everything changed in Karlovy Vary. In 2017, the Israeli filmmaker brought his feature debut “The Cakemaker” to the Czech film festival, entering the spa town an unknown and leaving a rising star.

If the route that carried Graizer to his Karlovy Vary world premiere was dotted with eight years of false starts and rejection letters from international film funds, after the romantic drama received an historic 12-minute ovation – so ardent that people still talk about it until this day – Graizer’s path forward was set. Not only would “The Cakemaker” sweep Israel’s Ophir Awards (thus becoming that country’s Oscar submission), the film’s galvanizing reception opened new doors into the European industry.

And so, when Graizer’s more ambitious follow-up “America” made its world premiere at this year’s Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, the project did so as the first Israeli-German-Czech co-production, carried on the waves of “Cakemaker” applause still echoing until this day.

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Of course, “America” earned plenty of applause all on its own. A tonally subdued but visually radiant melodrama hitting the three points in an unconventional love triangle, Graizer’s sophomore feature has a novelistic sprawl and an intimate bent, following three well-drawn characters in chapters devoted to each one.

We begin in Chicago, where thirtysomething Eli (Michael Moshonov) has forged a new life under a new name. Fraught with perhaps undue resonance, the film’s title is something of a misdirect, because the weight that hangs over the young swim instructor is found in his native Tel Aviv. Soon enough, inheritance matters pull Eli back into the world he so successfully fled, and back into the life of his former best friend, Yotam (Ofri Biterman).

Best friend might just be the starting point, as the duo clearly shared something more – though, for all the hints that it leaves, the film plays oddly coy as to the precise nature of their bond. Whatever the case, Yotam is now engaged to the florist Iris (Oshrat Ingedashet) and the couple looks to a bright future until, well, all of a sudden they don’t. This is a melodrama, you’ll recall.

It is an appealingly summery melodrama, bright and verdant and attuned to the languor of the Middle East heat (a subject that comes up often enough in dialogue). Indeed, “America” so richly evokes the rhythms and textures of suburban Tel Aviv that it shuts down any ironic reads of the title – the grass could never be greener on the other side because no grass could be lusher than what shows up on screen.

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In Iris – an entirely fittingly named florist who remodels gardens in her spare time – the filmmaker finds a clotheshorse and an on-screen arranger for his more eye-popping compositions. There’s more than a hint of Almodóvar in this tale of a taciturn lot finding expression in primary colors, though Graizer’s compositional eye and authorial voice stand out all on their own.

Moving from an Israeli filmmaker’s “America” to an American filmmaker’s recreation of 1960s Israel, director Jake Paltrow’s “June Zero” circles around the 1962 execution of Adolf Eichmann from the perspective of three characters on the periphery. Never showing Eichmann head-on, Paltrow’s 16mm camera shoots the Nazi mastermind as an enigma, allowing little more than limbs and hair to enter the frame.

“We didn’t want to have a human figure,” Paltrow told TheWrap. “Even if we could dissect the psychology and find his true nature, what would that do for anybody now? (Instead) we started with an image in mind: Let’s put Eichmann out of focus and see what happens in the background.”

Paltrow and co-screenwriter Tom Shoval have instead opened a detailed window into the past, focusing on characters at the intersection of various political and social tensions. From the Libyan immigrant boy — an Arab Jew in a culture that sees those identities as mutually exclusive — to the factory workers, many of them Holocaust survivors, asked to build a new oven to incinerate Eichmann’s body, to the prison guard protecting his charge from his countrymen’s wrath (and losing his mind in the process), every character in “June Zero” feels tied into the zeitgeist.

“Everyone who lived in the country in those days felt like they were a part of history,” co-writer Tom Shoval said. “And we wanted to explore that tension of how to serve your country using the stories of characters on the sidelines. It’s about seeing a period of time in all its complexities. Every point of view is in another color, and you see this place full of conflict and contradictions.”

For the Israeli-born Shoval, Paltrow’s American perspective gave the project a wider scope. “I feel Jake is more Israeli than most people I meet,” Shoval said, laughing. “But when you’re an Israeli director, you have a set of beliefs and an education that kind of creates your identity and shapes your world. Then comes Jake, who sees things in a very panoramic way, so it was liberating to look back at these times without a narrow ideological point-of-view — to just take in the whole thing.”

“It’s part of a tradition that’s so American, but that hasn’t been exported as much,” Paltrow said. “There’s a kind of adventurism that’s well-suited to making movies. So many international filmmakers have brought their points of view to American cinema, so why shouldn’t that happen the other way?”

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