It's a change three decades in the making, said the founder and executive director of the Israel Film Festival: a real coming of age of Israeli cinema.
"We had a lot of films about the Arab-Israeli conflict," said Meir Fenigstein, who has presented about 900 movies in his festivals. "That is what the filmmakers were interested in."
But thanks to strong film schools, financial help from the government and the contributions of Jewish emigres from around the world, Fenigstein said, this year's screenings include historical dramas, comedies and even a Mafia tale.
The festival opened its 28th edition Thursday evening at the Steve Tisch Cinema Center at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills with the West Coast premiere of "Next to Her." The drama won star Dana Ivgy the supporting actress Ophir from the Israeli Academy of Film and Television, and the festival is honoring her with its Cinematic Achievement Award. Producer Arnon Milchan ("Gone Girl") will receive the Visionary Award, and producer Mace Neufeld will receive the Lifetime Achievement Award.
The celebration of Israeli cinema, which includes 28 narrative and documentary films, continues through Nov. 6 at theaters in and around Los Angeles. Events also are taking place in New York and Miami.
The festival is showcasing films that were Israeli Academy winners and nominees, including director Talya Lavie's dark comedy "Zero Motivation," which is having its Los Angeles premiere. Ivgy also won the best actress award for the film, about three female secretaries at a remote army base. "Zero Motivation" also earned the Tribeca Film Festival Founders Award for narrative feature this year.
Other films in the festival also are getting their U.S. premiere, including director Shay Kanot's mafia-esque tale "Kicking Out Shoshana"; Dani Menkin's road movie "Is That You?" starring Alon Aboutboul; and Riki Shelach Nissimoff's "Tubianski," which tells the story of an Israeli Defense Forces officer accused of treason, tried and executed within a four-hour span in 1948, only to be found innocent of all charges later.
Fenigstein himself is featured in "The Story of Poogy," a documentary short directed by Ofer Naim. The film chronicles Fenigstein's experiences as a drummer for Kaveret, one of the country's legendary rock bands. "A year and a half ago, we had our 40th anniversary," Fenigstein said. "We had two concerts, and 100,000 people showed up."
The documentary also chronicles his relationship with his daughter, whom he didn't know until she contacted him when she was 18. Now 34, she will be at the festival screening, Fenigstein said.
Hilla Medalia's "The Go-Go Boys: The Inside Story of Cannon Films," a documentary about Israeli-born producer cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, also will have its U.S. premiere at the festival. Medalia will do a Q&A, and a panel discussion will focus on Golan, who died this summer.
The "Go-Go Boys" has taken on a poignancy since Golan's death, Medalia said by email.
"I feel very privileged to have spent all this time with Menahem," Medalia said. "I do feel in many ways it is a testimonial to his legacy and his work."
The festival is also honoring actor-filmmaker Assi Dayan, who died this year, with a screening of the 2013 autobiographical documentary "Life as a Rumor." Another tribute will honor the award-winning TV series "Shtisel" about an Orthodox Jewish family in Jerusalem.
Israel Film Festival
Where: Steve Tisch Cinema Center, Saban Theatre, Beverly Hills; Writers Guild Theater, Beverly Hills; Laemmle's Music Hall 3, Beverly Hills; Laemmle's NoHo 7, North Hollywood; Laemmle's Town Center 5, Encino.
When: Ends Nov. 6.
Admission: $11-13; $50 for special screenings