La Cinémathèque Film Club: Israeli Film Series at SOPAC

By Dominique McIndoe

SOUTH ORANGE – In the South Orange Performing Arts Center (SOPAC) on a cold, November afternoon, members of the La Cinémathèque Film Club exited through the double doors of what is called the Loft, a mid-sized, cozy room with high ceilings, dim lighting, and a large projector used for film screenings.

An elderly pair, a man and a woman, were the first to take their leave from the Loft. The woman held a stone-faced expression and avoided eye contact with those around her as the man helped her to put on her coat. Another gentleman exited the Loft with wide eyes. Similar dispositions and reactions were painted on the faces of other film club members.

One woman came out of the double doors and began speaking rapidly in French with Mr. Gerard Amsellem, French filmmaker and artist who is the curator and host of the La Cinémathèque Film Club.

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“It’s the only way I can describe my feelings right now,” the woman said.

The woman began pacing after her lively conversation with Mr. Amsellem and stopped an unassuming passerby in the hallway.

“Did you see the film?” She asked. “It was so shocking! I’m 71-years-old and I’ve never seen a film like this. Israel- it’s not the land flowing with milk and honey that I was taught. There’s poverty, there’s slums, there’s prostitution.”

These reactions were a result of watching the 2004, independent Israeli film titled “OR (My Treasure)” as a part of the Israeli Film Series at SOPAC on Nov. 20. According to kinolorber.com, “OR” is an “urban chronicle and a… modern tragedy that… sidesteps preachy social outrage and knee jerk moralizing, while savagely indicting street prostitution… through uncompromising realism and compassionate storytelling.”

The film is about a high school student in Tel Aviv named Or who tries to save her mother from prostitution, but ends up slowly falling into the same addiction and lifestyle in the process. This coming-of-age story is the third of five films in this Israeli Film series that all center on Israeli culture, as well as the social, economic, and political issues that are prevalent in the country. It presents a chronological approach to the history of Israel and Israeli cinema over the last 30 years through an introduction to the film, educational materials, and post-film discussion with Amsellem and the film club members. One film is shown every month for five months.

Gerard Amsellem first created this series at SOPAC in the autumn of 2011 and said that since then he has had a loyal following of avid filmgoers who are really interested in going deeper in understanding film. Film has been one of his passions since he was a college student and he has also done other film series prior to La Cinémathèque, he said.

The purpose of these film series is to “share knowledge of cinema and expose people to different things by watching a quality film,” Amsellem said. “Each series brings different elements. There’s really nothing like this out there.”

Previous series have centered on locations such as Iran, Italy, Germany, Spain, Eastern Europe, Japan, and Russia, among others. One series even featured films by Ingmar Bergman, who is recognized as one of the most accomplished and influential auteurs and directors of all time, according to a 2007 New York Times article at the time of his death.

Amsellem said that the process of choosing a handful of films out of many is a long process and requires researching, watching every worthy film he can get his hands on, and even traveling to the location that the series would be based on.

The Israeli Film Series is also joined by Dr. Muli Peleg, the director of development for the M.A. Program in UN and Global Policy Studies in the political science department at Rutgers University. He teaches about society, culture and politics through cinema prior to the film viewing. Amsellem said that Dr. Peleg’s contributions provide a balance to the film learning process for members: Dr. Peleg with his historical and political knowledge and Amsellem with his filmmaking and film production knowledge.

“I think that the experience of showing a movie and discussing it is very fulfilling and very rich because when you highlight all kinds of nuances and angles, it brings a broader perspective and helps the audience reach new heights with the film,” Peleg said in a recent phone interview with EssexNewsDaily. “It becomes more than what you see, but rather how you see it, and it can enrich how you see them and you can watch even familiar films and discover them anew.”

Amsellem is currently working on his own artistry: a new film, “When If Not Now,” and two documentaries, “The Eternal Questions” and “La Création jusqu’au bout.” He also teaches World Film at Livingston High School and has directed several short films. Amsellem said that once the Israeli Film Series is complete with its fifth viewing at SOPAC in January, the next La Cinémathèque Film Club series will feature a comparison between the first and latest films from a French director and an American director.

During post-discussion of the film “OR (My Treasure),” Amsellem discussed the complexities and cinematographic work of the Israeli film director Karen Yedaya.

“The depth of emotion that the film evokes is remarkable,” one film club member went on to say. “I didn’t feel this way watching Pretty Woman,” he said, causing laughter among the other moviegoers. Amsellem agreed.

“The movie is real and raw,” Amsellem said. “It is very different but very powerful.”

A number of film club members said they had an emotional connection with the film – whether it be compassion, sadness, or rage.

“Filmmaking isn’t just picking up a camera and shooting,” Amsellem said with regards to good films having the characteristic of making the viewer feel something. “I want to ensure that people watch good quality films.”

Tickets for film club membership are $75 and any questions about La Cinémathèque Film Club can be directed to Gerard Amsellem at linguavision@gmail.com. For more information, visit http://www.sopacnow.org/film_club_israeli/.

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