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Berlin film festival slammed by Netanyahu honors Israeli films

“Skin” by Guy Nattiv stars Jamie Bell as a tattooed skinhead struggling to put behind this hateful world
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Unlike in past years, this year's Israeli films largely step away from politics -- at least on the surface.

Eleven Israeli films and filmmakers will be featured this year at Berlin’s International Film Festival, Berlinale, opening on Thursday. One of them, “Synonymes” by Nadav Lapid, will be competing for the festival's grand prize, the Golden Bear, in a first for an Israeli film since 2011.

The Berlinale festival recently found itself in the middle of controversy in Israel, however, over its featured films's portrayals of local politics.

In a letter delivered by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to German Chancellor Angela Merkel during her visit to the Jewish State in October, the German government was asked to cut federal funding of institutions critical of Israel and its policies towards Palestinians.

The Berlinale was one of the cultural institutions named in the letter, which claimed that the festival regularly features supporters of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.

Indeed, the Berlinale is no stranger to Israeli politics. It has in the past screened several films by Israeli filmmaker Udi Aloni, an outspoken critic of the Israeli government. In 2016, at a Berlinale screening of his film “Junction 48” – which later won the Panorama Audience Award for best fiction film – Aloni slammed the Israeli government as "fascist" during a Q&A session and urged Germany not to supply it with a then-under negotiation deal for German-made submarines.

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In other years, the festival has screened two films produced by the far-left human rights organization B'Tselem in the Berlinale Shorts category.

"Smile, and the World Will Smile Back" from 2014 documented a nighttime search by Israeli soldier it the home of a family living in Hebron, while 2017's “The Boy from H2” from followed 12-year-old Muhammad Burqan as he tries to get by on the streets of the divided flashpoint city.

Last year, filmmaker Ines Moldavsky's “The Men Behind The Wall” -- which chronicled her Tinder encounters with Palestinian men -- snagged the Golden Bear in the shorts category.

The festival’s director Dieter Kosslick rejected the Israeli criticism, stressing that the Berlinale is free in its selection of films and has never encountered pressure from BDS activists.

"The founding idea of the Berlinale was to contribute to the understanding between peoples,” which included the portrayal of different perspectives on the world, Kosslick told local newspaper Tagesspiegel in December. “The views can be controversial, but our job is to stand for freedom of the arts within the framework of democratic order. Freedom of the arts and freedom of expression are fundamental rights.”

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On the eve of the festival, Kosslick again dismissed Netanyahu’s claims. “I can imagine that he doesn’t like the films that we are showing but that isn’t of particular interest to us. He also does things that we don’t like, so...”

But the Israel-related films featured this year largely step away from politics, at least on the surface.

The French-language “Synonyms” tells of Yoav, a young Israeli arriving to Paris eager to change his language, erase his origins, and put down roots in a new place. He befriends a French couple that has strange ideas on how to help him.

Another film, “The Operative” by Israeli director and scriptwriter Yuval Adler, is included in the Berlinale's top category although not competing for the grand prize. Based on the novel by Yiftach Reicher Atir, a former Israeli secret service employee, it depicts the exploits of Rachel (played by Diane Kruger), a Mossad agent sent to Tehran to spy on a local businessman, and becomes a possible threat when she attempts to quit. Martin Freeman plays her handler Thomas.

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Three more films are features in the Panorama category: “The Day After I’m Gone” by Nimrod Eldar, about a single father and daughter trying to find the way back to each other after her attempted suicide; “Chained” by Yaron Shani about a veteran police officer, whose world is shaken when he is suspended from duty; and “Skin” by Guy Nattiv and starring Jamie Bell, about a tattooed skinhead struggling to put behind this hateful world.

The latter is based on a short film of the same name, also by Nattiv, which is now nominated for an Academy Award in the category “best live action short film.”

In addition, the Berlinale will mark the 30th anniversary of the founding of the prestigious Jerusalem-based film school Sam Spiegel, with a tribute: a special program titled “A Scarred Generation” that comprises of six short films produced by students from 1997 to 2015, focusing on the lives of young Israelis in a setting marked by conflict and siege. The Festival also chose to honor the school when it tuned 15.

The Berlinale will run until February 17th and its screenings will also be open to the general public.

Polina Garaev is i24NEWS's correspondent in Germany.

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