Barry Frydlender, Flood, 2003, color print, 49 3/16“ x 7' 10”.

EPOS, ISRAEL’S ANNUAL INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL of art film and film about art and artists, belongs to a small and exclusive club, of which FIFA, Montreal’s International Festival of Films on Art, is the best-known member. This year, Epos’s third, it clearly made its mark on the Israeli arts scene, hosting forty-nine films from seventeen countries and ten guest artists, drawing some twelve thousand spectators to the Tel Aviv Museum’s new building at the center of Israel’s culture kilometer. The festival’s mandate: to acknowledge the international, to support the periphery, to elevate the local.

As the screened films conversed, a number of questions arose: Is the art/artist firmly resident in one place, one culture, one nation? What is the impact of itinerant artists, forging alliances that span national borders? Are filmmakers and artists negotiating new forms of community? Are filmmakers and audiences interested in “genius,” “outsiders,” “my life/my art,” “buzz”? What Epos proposed was the possibility of entering into a meaningful intercultural meditation on the nature of artmaking. It was clear that the issue of “nation” was not at all as obsolete here as it is in certain artistic or political circles. Nation and community were core concepts, still perceived as relevant to imagination and key to understanding complex cultural structures. And so, Epos exists first of all for us, its audience, who packed the halls, who came to have art experiences different from daily life, to view world arts without an airline ticket, to tell ourselves our own stories, and, as Polish filmmaker Lech Majewski, auteur-in-residence, put it, “to spend time with artists.”

Majewski’s haunting visual style in The Mill and the Cross, his dense, layered cinematic meeting with Bruegel’s masterful painting The Way to Calvary, 1564, held its audience in thrall, and his discussion of the artistic team’s work on the film, three years in the making, was a highlight of the festival’s artists’ talks and workshops. Majewski’s description of the figures in the painting—“they don’t give a flying fuck about you”—could perhaps only be delivered before an open mike in a seminar room filled with young filmmakers. “Bruegel draws you in by ignoring you,” Majewski continued, “just as he hid his hero, Christ, covering him with daily life.” Astonished at discovering seven different junctions of perspective in the Bruegel, each with its own POV, he noted the 147 layers then needed to bring these perspectives together on a computer, and the nine months to complete the editing. It’s an electronic alchemy of the painting’s activities and atrocities, allowing a leap from Mill to Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others, compelling us to acknowledge the shock and awfulness of both looking and looking away. Mill brought a unique Polish intensity to a country that carries its own founders’-generation baggage. Just as Bruegel created a Flemish Calvary, Majewski created a Polish Flanders, borrowing the film’s language from a Polish village whose citizens, ancestors of sixteenth-century immigrants, spoke a fossilized Flamand, now recorded. On what burial mound of Poland, I asked him, does your work on Mill rest? “Ultimately,” he said, “you carry your nation and culture’s inner landscape, so that if you haven’t sold your soul, you bring back the music of your formative years. You are from where you are from; it’s inescapable.”

Left: Lech Majewski, The Mill and the Cross, 2011, still from a color film, 92 minutes. Right: Michal Rovner, Makom II and Makom IV, 2011. Installation view, the Louvre, Paris. Photo: Ardon Bar-Hama.

Art in Israel is not possible without political reflection. The local is violent and abnormal. Every artwork then becomes a model of how to construct meaning, creating art alongside unsolvable problems. Michal Rovner, one of the subjects of Karen Goodman and Kirk Simon’s Out in the World: Four Israeli Artists, gathers stones from the ruins of houses in Jerusalem, Nablus, Jenin, Ramallah, all problemed places. Calling her work Makom (Place), Rovner looks for a way to construct habitat from the stones, to speak of cultures destroyed and disappeared. She and her craftsmen—Arab, Jew, Druze—do the nigh impossible, for she will not cut the stones to have them fit one another. “I wanted the stones and the people who work with the stones to be from different places, to come together.” The ravaged and stunning structures she creates are neither Arab nor Israeli. Makom found its place on the huge public plaza before the pyramid entry to the Louvre in Paris, thus melding the artwork’s geographic specificity, its ties to its home-space, with a conferral of authority abroad.

Photographer Barry Frydlender shoots from out his window. A group of children wait to enter an army museum. The downtrodden Tel Aviv neighborhood is near the sea. It’s raining. The atmosphere is dark. Flood. Frydlender’s images are made over time: “It’s not one instant; it’s many instants put together,” he explains. There are lots of vantage points, hidden points of view, no one center. You actually have to read the image. His Flood is based on four hundred images that took two months to photograph, six months to edit. “During this time,” he says, “I introduce the meaning into the image. I always leave some marks to show the artifice that only the computer enables.” In 1988 Frydlender joined a group of photographers on a guided tour of the occupied territories. He photographed the photographers taking their shots. After that there were a few years in which he didn’t photograph at all. “My days: I wake, I walk, I sit with friends, I swim—a way to deal with the tension. There is not another city that has so many missiles targeting it as Tel Aviv.”

Finally, there is Wisława Szymborska, Poland’s Nobel Laureate in Literature (1996) addressing film and art and artists in her acceptance speech:

Great films can be made of the lives of scientists and artists, but poets offer far less promising material. Their work is hopelessly unphotogenic. Someone sits at a table or lies on a sofa while staring motionless at a wall or ceiling. Once in a while this person writes down seven lines, only to cross out one of them fifteen minutes later, and then another hour passes during which nothing happens. Who could stand to watch this kind of thing?

Film seems to belong to us. Art, in its filmed evocations, assures us that parts of us will not collapse, that, as the title of Katarzyna Kolenda-Zaleska’s 2010 documentary on Szymborska declares, Life is bearable at times.

Annabelle Winograd

Epos 3 ran February 1–4, 2012 in Tel Aviv.