BERLIN – The Jerusalem Sam Spiegel Film School (JSFS) was honored with a tribute Tuesday at the 69th Berlinale, the Berlin Film Festival, celebrating the school’s 30-year anniversary.
The tribute was held in the presence of JSFS’s founding director, Renen Schorr, and two of the filmmakers whose graduation projects were screened: Michael Alalu, who made How I Killed Rabin, and Noa Gusakov, the director of Lookout.
Created and led by Schorr, the JSFS has become one of the most acclaimed film schools in the entire world. Its students’ films have won thousands of awards around the world, at festivals such as the Berlinale, Cannes and Venice, and in the 90s was already the subject of a tribute by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the first for a film school.
Asked about the school’s place in world filmmaking – whether it aligned itself with Europe or the US – Schorr said that while technically it competed in some European arenas, “it’s a Mediterranean school and it’s part of Mediterranean cinema.”
When the school was established in 1989, the Israeli film industry was at a particularly low ebb. “No one in the film industry at the time thought that Israel should have good mainstream cinema,” recalled Schorr, saying that movies at the time were meant only to provide fodder for discussion in Tel Aviv cafes, and not to speak to audiences. “We designed a new way of storytelling for Israeli cinema.”
The theme of the tribute was a “scarred generation,” and the six films examined the complex ways in which Israeli identity informs coming-of-age experiences. Maryanne Redpath, the director of the Generation section of the Berlinale, who curated the tribute with Schorr said, “The JSFS consistently delivers ambitious works of extraordinary quality. This outstanding tribute-program addresses controversial subjects, and at the same time takes a good hard look at the difficult process of growing up in a conflict-driven region.”
The films, which were made between 1997-2015, showcased the filmmakers’ creativity as well as their command of storytelling.
Schorr said that the films had been chosen out of approximately 900 graduates’ films. “The point of attack is that the films are mostly autobiographical, and they have a lot to say about youth, army service and student life.”
Alalu’s film tells the story of a young Jerusalem teen whose life is dominated by magical thinking that verges on obsessive compulsive disorder. When he and his family attend the rally where Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin is assassinated, the boy is certain that his failure to follow his own crazy rules and his focus on kissing a girl from his youth movement caused the prime minister’s death.
“The school is small and intense, it’s sort of a kibbutz in Jerusalem,” said Alalu. “Sam Spiegel teachers never leave you alone in the darkness.”
Gusakov’s Lookout is a similar blend of personal development and national realities, as a whimsical young female soldier who monitors army operations thinks that she has caused the death of a soldier who is her roommate’s boyfriend.
The other films in the tribute were Omri Levy’s Bedouin Sand, about a boy on vacation with his family in Sinai, whose desire for a bottle of colorful sand sold by a nomad literally leads him and his father into a minefield; Nadav Gal’s A Different War, presents the story of a boy with a personal style that is traditionally feminine who is forced into a macho role that makes him uncomfortable, and is set against the backdrop of Gilo during the second Intifada; Yaelle Kayam’s Diploma, about a young Palestinian woman in Hebron who risks arrest and disobeys both the Israeli army and her overprotective brother to celebrate her graduation; and Aleeza Chanowitz’s Mushkie, about a religious American student who gets herself into an outrageously funny bit of trouble as she explores her sexuality.
The school, which also runs the Jerusalem International Film Lab, a program that brings young writers and directors from around the world to Jerusalem and matches them with mentors who help them complete their scripts, is constantly developing and expanding its focus. The Jerusalem International Film Lab recently announced that it will honor Michael Barker, Sony Pictures Classic’s co-president and co-founder, with this year’s Force-of-Nature filmmaking award in July. The first recipient of this award was Dieter Kosslick, the director of the Berlinale.
It also announced $600,000 in new awards for lab participants, $550,000 of which is being given by the DCR Finance Corp, a New York and Los Angeles-based media finance firm formed by Academy Award-winning producer Mark Damon, acclaimed film producer Jordi Rediu and New York financier, Adi Cohen. Another $50,000 is from New Mandate Films, owned by Matti Leshem, which develops film and television projects dealing with Jewish and Israeli topics. This is in addition to the $120,000 in prizes that are awarded by the Beracha Foundation, ARP Selection France and the Sam Spiegel Estate.
Answering questions from the Berlinale audience, Schorr was asked why the JSFS was established in Jerusalem, rather than in Tel Aviv, which has always been the center of the Israeli film industry.
“Tel Aviv is the capital of escapism,” said Schorr. “Jerusalem is the capital of conflict and cinema is conflict. . . Our job is to create new heroes of Israel today, and courageous ones.”