Jerusalem has long been a city holy to three major religions, and a place of mystery, beauty and fascination to people all over the world. Yet in spite of its mythical place in world history, when it comes to Israeli movies, it’s taken a back seat to Tel Aviv – until now.
With the help of the Jerusalem Film Fund, founded five years ago to promote film-making in the capital, a host of new and varied films are being released that showcase the complexity and quirkiness of a city that is home to the most diverse population in Israel.
Avi Nesher, the acclaimed Israeli director (The Troupe, Turn Left at the End of the World, The Matchmaker), whose latest film, The Wonders, is set in Jerusalem and will be released in June, says, “Jerusalem is the most cinematic city I have ever encountered – almost everyone who walks the street seems embroiled in one sort of drama or another. There is not much ‘ordinariness’ in Jerusalem – it is a place where the human experience is pushed to the limit.”
The Wonders, which combines live action with animation, tells a complex film noir story infused with literary and biblical overtones – of a graffiti artist/bartender who becomes involved with a kidnapped rabbi. The film, co-written by Shaanan Street, the frontman for the hip hop/funk group, Hadag Nahash, features original music by the band. The movie brings together many of Jerusalem’s subcultures – the ultra-Orthodox, artists, denizens of the city’s nightlife scene – and presents a fictional city as vibrant and varied as the real one.
The Wonders is one of several upcoming films that spotlight Jerusalem, and which have received substantial funding from the Jerusalem Film Fund, founded on the model of regional European film funds, to turn the capital into an essential part of the film industry.
Yoram Honig, director of the Fund, notes: “From 1948 to 2008, there were over 700 movies made in Israel, and only about 30 were filmed in Jerusalem. And of those filmed in Jerusalem, about 90 percent featured stereotyped religious characters. But since we started up, in five years, we’ve funded 30 films set in Jerusalem, and also some television series.”
OTHER UPCOMING films include Reshef Levy’s Hunting Elephants, which stars Patrick Stewart as an eccentric British lord, part of an elderly gang of master thieves who get together for one last job at the urging of a 12-year-old.
Sweets, directed by Joseph Pitchhadze, stars Makram Khoury as an Israeli-Arab merchant who starts a chain of candy stores.
There is a track of this fund that helps finance international productions made in Jerusalem, which helps support the Israeli film industry by providing work for actors and crews, as well as jobs for students at the film schools in Jerusalem. The city is home to several important film schools, among them the Sam Spiegel School for Film and Television (one of the most prestigious film schools in the world), Maaleh (which caters to religious students), and Bezalel, popular with animators.
The recent German feature film, Hannah Arendt, was shot partly in Jerusalem.
The films set in Jerusalem in the past have largely focused on the religious communities here, but the portrayal of those communities has undergone a fundamental change recently. The best-known previously released film that the fund has supported is Joseph Cedar’s Oscar-nominated Footnote, a drama about modern- religious Talmud scholars.
Srugim – a television series about national religious singles in the capital – also received support from the fund.
But in Footnote, while the scholars may focus on the writings of ancient rabbis and sacred texts, the characters are very much focused on the rewards in this world. And the characters in Srugim, far from being saintly, are like any other young people, but have to balance their desires with the demands of their religion.
Notes Honig, “These projects featured characters who were human beings, not cartoons.”
While it’s not surprising that these early projects from the Jerusalem Film Fund focused on the religious community, The Wonders and several other upcoming projects feature an even wider canvas. In retrospect, it may seem odd that the movie industry has overlooked the capital, where much of the drama of Israeli life – notably the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the religious-secular divide – is centered.
IT’S NOTABLE that Nesher, who lives in and grew up in the Tel Aviv area, chose to film in Jerusalem. The director, currently developing another feature set in the Holy City, says filmmaking and Jerusalem go together naturally.
“After all, Jerusalem is where the holy and the profane meet, where the divine comedy has been playing out for 4,000 years. Jerusalem is anything but that dull center of the universe that religious leaders have been pushing on us for years,” he says.
Adds Nesher, “I love movies where urban space plays a real role in the narrative and texture of the piece. Be it Carol Reed’s Vienna in The Third Man, Woody Allen’s New York in Manhattan, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Paris in Amelie, or Wim Wenders’ Berlin in Wings of Desire – each city creates a context in which the characters operate and a cultural heritage that dictate the story’s rules of engagement.
“Jerusalem – which in my mind is the most fascinating city in the world – has never been featured in a context that drew upon Jerusalem’s unique magic. I was greatly attracted by the wonderland quality of Jerusalem, a city where the real and the surreal are interwoven tightly. It’s a city of great passions – for belief systems, for social systems, for enlightenment, for redemption. It is inhabited by the strangest mixture of Jews and Arabs, mystics and bohemians, pilgrims, expatriates and locals.”
As filmmakers begin to find inspiration in that strange and fascinating mixture, it seems that the Israeli film renaissance is heading east – for good.