Award-winning Israeli screenwriter to speak at film fest

He already has a prestigious award under his belt for "Aaron Cohen's Debt," which explores "the dirty laundry of Israel," and he continues to earn critical international acclaim for that film and several others.

So what will screenwriter Alon Bar do now?

"Has anyone written a Jewish musical since 'Fiddler on the Roof'?" ponders thirty something Bar with a cheerful laugh and a thick Israeli accent. "Maybe I'll write a Jewish musical."

Well, at least the Los Angeles resident didn't say he was going to Disneyland.

But fans of the Israeli-born writer and panelist in the upcoming sixth annual Contra Costa International Jewish Film Festival should not hold their breath for Bar's Broadway debut.

With an expectant wife and several projects to juggle, including a collaboration on a cinematic American thriller with writer, director and comedian Carl Gottlieb, Bar currently has his hands full.

He will, however, take some time out from his busy schedule for the film festival's panel discussion on Israeli cinema and the Bay Area premiere of "Aaron Cohen's Debt" on Sunday, March 4 at the Contra Costa Jewish Community Center in Walnut Creek.

The film is the story of a man unnecessarily arrested for a missed alimony payment and forced to spend the night in an overcrowded jail cell despite his infected ulcer and repeated attempts by his daughter to bail him out. It has received worldwide accolades and interest, winning the Rockie Award in 1999 for Best Made-for-TV Movie at the Banff Television Festival in Canada.

Told in a non-linear fashion from four different characters' perspectives, the movie successfully weaves together issues of police brutality, bureaucratic ineptness and the inability to break the human spirit.

"Most of my movies have an undercurrent of an issue that is important to me," said Bar in a telephone interview. "With 'Aaron Cohen's Debt,' I hoped to shed light on some of the dirty laundry of Israel. It really explores those dark corners of Israel democracy and brings them to light."

The film is in Hebrew, with English subtitles, and is actually based on a true story of an Israeli man arrested for negligible reasons and left for dead in his jail cell in 1993.

But unlike the real story in which the police were cleared of any misdoing, the film ends on a more optimistic note, leaving hope for a just conclusion.

Bar's film struck such a universal and widely appreciated chord among viewers that he was asked to write an American version of the film, to be produced sometime in the future. And although the Israeli police were resistant to the film during the production process, they now use it as a training video for their new recruits.

Despite its universal themes, Bar said that the manner in which the film unfolds, with four different versions of the truth, is an inherently Jewish story-telling style.

"Just look in the Bible," said Bar. "The story of Creation is told twice in Genesis, the second a bit different than the story told previously. It's the biggest Jewish story of all time: the story of a man who didn't do anything to anyone…told by many different witnesses and never the man himself."

Jokingly, Bar added: "Even today if you ask a Jewish person his opinion, you'll get four, and two will probably contradict one another."

"Aaron Cohen's Debt" was written over a four-year period while Bar was finishing up his master's degree at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. It was then made in Israel while Bar remained in L.A. Because of the time difference, Bar and director Amalia Margolin could fax one another back and forth without missing a beat in the production process.

"This was better because as the writer, it's sometimes frustrating to see the production process," said Bar. "And I was lucky because Amalia was right on the note and was blessed by this ensemble of actors."

The film stars Moshe Ivgi, a winner of several Israeli Academy Awards, in the lead role of Aaron Cohen.

"He was like a saint sent from heaven for us," said Bar, noting that Ivgi and the rest of the ensemble truly bring the script to life.

"You wouldn't ever guess how gentle the actor who plays the brutal police officer actually is in real life," he added.

"You really fall in love with the characters, the nice ones as much as the not nice ones. You truly understand their reasons and motivations even though their actions lead to horrifying, terrifying consequences."

Once the Contra Costa film festival ends, Bar will return to his current projects, which aside from writing his thriller with Gottlieb, include scriptwriting for an Israeli television series called "The Squadron" and working with a group of well-known, unnamed actors in Hollywood on creating an American television drama. All deal with social issues including the environment, bravery and family life.

"For me this was never about becoming famous," Bar said. "I prefer to promote issues I really care about."