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A conversation with Meir Fenigstein, Founder of the Israel Film Fest

A conversation with Meir Fenigstein, Founder and Director of the Israel Film Festival
Founded and directed by former Israeli rock star (“Kaveret”) Meir Fenigstein, the Israel Film Festival has grown to become the largest showcase of Israeli films in the US. In the last two decades, the Festival has presented over 700 feature films, documentaries, television dramas and short films to more than 750,000 attendees. Under Fenigstein's leadership, hundreds of Israeli filmmakers have come to the US, giving them the opportunity to show their work to the American audience, and meet with major industry players.
Israel Film Festival’s 22nd annual edition kicks off on Wednesday March 7th with Shemi Zarhin's Israeli Film Academy Award recipient "Aviva My Love" at the Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood, and wrap with closing night film Dror Shaul’s “Sweet Mud”, which got selected in the best foreign film category of the Oscars and, won the Sundance World Cinema First Prize Award. This year’s festival will present over 40 films, including documentaries, television dramas and student films from March 7th to March 22nd.
Stephanie Ronnet met with Meir Fenigstein, a visionary man with an atypical personality.

SR: What led you to create the Israel Film Festival in the US over two decades ago?
MF: I was a musician and did some acting in Israel in the 70’s, and later on decided to study at the Berklee College of Music in Boston for a year. This is when I came up with the idea of a film festival. There were very few film festivals in the world in those days. There was hardly any competition, and I felt like there was something in the air. It was an exciting idea.

Can you tell a little bit about the history of the Israel Film Festival?
I started the festival in 1982 in Boston, screened six movies, didn’t really know what I was doing, and it turned out to be a success. On the second day a man asked me why there was no ad announcing the festival in the Boston Globe. I replied that I couldn’t afford it. He then told me to send him the artwork, and that he’d put an ad in the Sunday’s edition of the Boston Globe! It made a huge difference, no question about it! Nine months later, I moved out to New York, which is a very difficult city, and took the festival over there. It took me a year to raise money, but again there was a spark. I felt like I had to pursue it. The commitment was there.

Did you make any profit?
No. I just covered my expenses. Festivals are usually not profitable. They primarily depend on sponsors, and it changes from a year to another. You never know if they’re going to support your festival. In addition, dealing with Israel, a country that is afflicted with war, political crises, strikes and so on, makes it even harder. I’ve learnt that there might be a strike in Israel today, making it impossible for the filmmakers to come to the Festival. Luckily it didn’t happen, but this is the kind of problems you’re confronted with, while dealing with Israel.

How many films are being produced in Israel nowadays?
About fifteen feature films and over a hundred documentaries a year. Israeli documentaries are incredibly powerful. Among the best in the world I think. We’re going to show ten of them in the festival.

How do you select the films shown at the IFF? How many submissions do you get?
I know the industry, I know what’s coming up, who’s doing what., and I also attend the Jerusalem Film Festival, the Haifa Film Festival and go to the Israeli film academy. I listen to the rumors too. As far as submissions are concerned, we receive about a hundred of them, yet mostly documentaries. There are not that many feature films submissions. This year, we’re screening eleven features that are amongst the best Israel can offer.

How many films do you get to see for the festival?
About a hundred films, and thirty of them are selected.

What percentage of films shown at the IFF, will get released in the U.S?
I would say less than twenty per cent. We are also looking for distributors.

What changes have you observed over the years?
For every festival, it’s the same process really. It’s like pregnancy. You know it takes nine months, and when you deliver, you look at the baby and go wow! It was worth the suffering! You have find the financing, select the films, implement a marketing plan, the advertising and so on -- and that’s what it is, it is a creative process.

What’s keep you going?
The next step. The novelty. It’s exciting!. I can’t even imagine how it’s going to look. You go out there and you see your dream. It’s the vision. This year, it’s the first time we’re having an Inaugural Gala Awards Dinner to celebrate our opening. Amy Pascal, (Co-Chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment) will receive the IFF Visionary Award from the hands of Adam Sandler, and Dustin Hoffman will give the Award for Outstanding Achievement in Film to Sacha Baron Cohen, (Borat). It’s a new Award we created.

What kind of audience do you have?
It depends on the city. In Los Angeles, the audience is mostly Israeli, in Miami, it’s fifty-fifty, and in New York primarily American.

What is the average budget of an Israeli feature?
Usually it’s between one and two million dollars.

I hear that Frozen Days got made for 25.000 dollars
That’s true. I still find it hard to believe to make a film that looks like that for so little money.

What is the moment since your first launched the Israel Film Festival, that you’re the most proud of?
There are hundreds! I can tell you that last year we paid tribute to David Brown – a veteran producer of ninety years old (Jaws, The Verdict, A Few Good Men…) – after the festival, he sent me a letter that said how honored he was to be on stage next to the director Haim Bouzaglo (Zinzana) -- Later, I called him to be co-chairman of the festival, and he told me how proud he felt. You know, he’s ninety years old!!! he’s a living statue to me, he’s a legend. It’s amazing!!. He’s coming to the festival, and he’s staying to see the movie of a first-time director. And then, he tells me “I’m so touched and honored that you called me”. The connection between the human-being, the legendary producer, the young filmmakers and the Israel Film Festival, this is something that is very touching.

Stephanie Ronnet

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