"In the Bible, nothing takes place in Haifa. This may explain why Jews and Arabs live there peacefully nowadays,” says Yona Yahav, the mayor of the big northern Israeli city, is known for his offbeat personality.
The cohabitation between the two populations “is part of the essence of Haifa,” insists Yahav during the opening of the first edition of "Mix" pitch competition, one of the events of the international film festival taking place in his city during the festive period of Sukkot.
Young filmmakers just finished presenting seven minute-long pitches for full-length movie projects in front of a jury comprised of professional filmmakers. There is one key guideline: the project must be carried out by at least one Jew and one Arab, "a prerequisite that matches the spirit of Haifa."
The drive behind this initiative by the Gesher Multicultural Film Fund, the Haifa Festival and the Union of the Israeli filmmakers is a desire to see Jews and Arabs work and create together, particularly after the wave of violence that hit the country this year, and which weighed heavily on the relations between the communities.
Obviously this is not the first time Jews and Arabs work hand in hand on a film production. The latest example, Sand Storm, an Arabic-language drama focused on the Bedouin community by Jewish filmmaker Elite Zexer, was chosen the best film of the year last month at the Ophirs Awards (the Israeli equivalent of the Oscars), and will be Israel's entry at next year's Academy Awards.
However, the goal of the "Mix" project is to encourage and boost this kind of collaborations. Convinced that "cinema has the power to change the world," project organizer Tsilla Levy feels that now it's "important to place creativity at the core of coexistence."
To that end, mentors were assigned to eight projects, whose authors now must convince a very eclectic and demanding jury that theirs is the pick of the bunch.
The presence of seasoned professionals could allow the young hopefuls take their ambitions to the next level. The experienced directors and script writers are expected to provide counseling and give straightforward advice without concession. Above all, their expertise must help the youngsters to meet international standards and be prepared to face the ruthless realities of the film industry.
Because having a good idea is not enough: one must be able to present the narrative as convincingly and alluringly as possible.
The competition takes place in the small Hecht museum atop Mount Carmel. The tension is palpable among the participants. Besides the prize of 250,000 shekels that's up for grabs, a win could open many doors in the future.
Outside the museum, the public came in great numbers to attend one of the 280 sessions of the festival, while inside, the pitches commence. These Jews and Arabs worked together several months to be ready today, and as they muster all their charm and guile to seduce the judges, their synergy is striking.
The scripts are diverse and take on several cinematographic registers: a noir set in Acre (Saint Jean of Acre), an exploration of sexual assault and familial conflict in the Bedouin community, a quirky comedy on the traditions and rituals of Pesach, a historic epic on the Arab citizens of Haifa during the 1948 war or yet a love story between a Jewish girl and an Arab set in Jaffa…
After two intense hours of presentations, a break is necessary. While awaiting the jury’s decision, the participants analyze their performances as the jury deliberates.
One jury member, the French producer Guillaume de Seize reminds everyone that winning the pitch competition does not guarantee that the film woudl be produced.
"The road is lengthy," he warns. "Making a film may take between three to four years, and the foreign producers are less inclined these days to co-produce Israeli films as the industry in this country sees a downturn in funding, particularly of politically charged films.
"Oddly enough, the golden age of Israeli cinema has come to an end with the passing away of Ronit Elkabetz and her last film, Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem,” claims the producer, a veteran of festivals and pitch competitions.
If it is true that with her passing, the emblematic figure of the Israeli cinema has left the entire industry orphaned, there's plenty of candidates to take up the mantle, and talents are not lacking.
The participants of the “Mix” project are a living testimony of that.
Jeremie Elfassy is a journalist and writer with i24News' French site