Forget the Spaghetti Westerns of the United States, the Israeli movie industry of the 1960s and 1970s had its own tasty dishes to present to audiences – the so-called “Boureka Movies,” which drew viewers to the cinema in droves.
Taking their name from the filled dough pastries found on every street corner in Israel, these hugely popular films portrayed the – often comedic – struggle of immigrants from North African countries, such as Morocco, Yemen and Iraq, to fit into the European society found in Israel at the time.
The difficulties, hardships and confusion of the immigrants was portrayed most famously in Israel’s first Academy Award-nominated film, Sallah Shabati, which tells the story of a newcomer from Yemen, played by Chaim Topol (who went on to win great acclaim for his role as Tevye the Milkman in the 1971 musical Fiddler on the Roof.)
The movie, which was made by first time director Ephraim Kishon, became a local smash hit and was nominated for “Best Foreign Film” at the 1965 Academy Awards. (Another Kishon film, The Policeman (HaShoter), was nominated for an Oscar in 1972. Although it did not win, it took home a Golden Globe award and accolades from a number of film festivals including best foreign film in Barcelona and best director at the esteemed Monte Carlo film festival.)
These early films, which have become cult classics, are still influencing Israeli movies today. In 2004, Avi Nesher, who directed and produced the 1978 hit The Band (HaLakha), wrote, directed and produced the box office hit Turn Left At The End Of The World (Sof HaOlam Smola). With its portrayal of a group of Moroccan and Indian immigrants in the Negev desert – the end of the world of the title – Nesher’s film is a modern take on the films of 40 years ago.
Like in the heyday Boureka genre, the Israeli film industry is still looking at “the other,” but today’s films are a far cry from their predecessors of the 1960s. While no Israeli film has won an award at the Oscars, nine films have been honored with a nomination in the “Best Foreign Film” category. The most recent film to be entered for an Academy Award was Ajami, which was the first Israeli Oscar-nominated movie in which most of the dialogue was spoken in Arab.
From humble beginnings, the Israeli film industry has developed into a strong force on the international entertainment scene. Although the current crop of movies are well worth seeing, to really understand the roots of Israeli cinema – and culture – check out some of the classics such as Halfon Hill Doesn't Answer (Giv'at Halfon Eina Ona), a satire about the Israel Defence Forces; The Big Dig (Taalat Blaumilch) another Kishon comedy about a lunatic with a penchant for digging who turns Allenby Street in Tel Aviv into a canal; or Avanti Popolo, an anti-war move that portrays the journey of two Egyptian soldiers making their way home to Cairo after the Six Day War of 1967.
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