When Lazlo Nemes’ Son of Saul won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film there was jubilation in Israel, and not only because the movie is about the Holocaust and breaks new ground in its realism. The founders and staff of the Sam Spiegel International Film Lab, launched in 2011 by the Sam Spiegel Film & Television School, Jerusalem, were especially pleased, because Son of Saul was developed in the Lab.
Speaking not long after the win, Renen Schorr, the founding director of the Lab, as well as of the Sam Spiegel School, and Ifat Tubi, the Lab’s associate director, reflected on what this triumph means, the Lab’s other successes and their plans for the future.
“This is only the third [film] lab in the world,” said Schorr, noting that the other two are at Sundance and in Torino. “This is the only one in the Middle East, and the only one started by a school... It was a total gamble and took some chutzpah, and since it’s started by a school, it’s on a shoestring budget.”
It is certainly a gamble that has paid off.
Each year, the Sam Spiegel International Film Lab brings 12 talented young director- writers who are at the advanced stages of writing their first or second full-length feature film to Jerusalem. Usually half are Israeli and half are from abroad. All participants write for a seven-month period, and are invited for two periods of writing and discussion in Jerusalem under the mentorship of three of the world’s top script editors, who are filmmakers themselves.
While Son of Saul, which also won the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival (a rare honor for a debut film), is its highest profile movie to date, an extraordinary percentage of movies developed in the Lab have already been made. Many have been shown and won awards at film festivals around the world. Others are currently being shot, or have been completed and will premiere soon.
That is no accident, according to Schorr and Tubi.
“It’s in the DNA of the Lab that the films developed here are films that should be made and will be made. The scripts developed are scripts that when you read it, you it want to see it on the screen,” said Schorr.
Tubi said that part of the process is making sure that the directors are realistic about their projects: “They don’t know to how to write a script that people will want to make and be able to make. The mentors teach them and we work with them on that.”
The mentors and staff coach the director/ writers in both mundane and wide-ranging matters that insure that the projects are viable.
Among those films developed in the first edition of the Lab, nine out of 12 projects have been released, are in post-production or are shooting. Among them are Philippe Lacote’s Run, which was shown in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival in 2014 and was the Ivory Coast’s official selection for Oscar consideration; Nadav Lapid’s The Kindergarten Teacher, which was also shown at Cannes in 2014, in the Critics’ Week, and which was on the top 10 list of two New York Times’ critics; We Are Young. We Are Strong by Burhan Qurbani, which was shown in the Berlin Film Festival; Mr. Kaplan, by Álvaro Brechner, which was Uruguay’s official selection for the Oscar, and which was shown in the Busan International Film Festival; Michal Vinik’s Barash, which was at the San Sebastian Film Festival; and Malik Vitthal’s Imperial Dreams, which won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival.
Son of Saul was developed in the second Lab, in 2013. Another film from that year, Maximiliano Schonfeld’s The Black Frost, premiered recently at the Berlin Film Festival.
Seven of the 12 movies from the second year are nearing completion, among them Talya Lavie’s The Current Love of My Life, her follow-up to her smash-hit debut, Zero Motivation, and Photograph, the second feature film by Ritesh Batra, who made the international hit The Lunchbox.
Filmmakers who have participated in the Lab are from countries around the world, including the Sri Lanka, Iceland, Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Singapore, Mexico and India, as well as most European countries and the US.
Given the renaissance in the Israeli movie industry over the past decade, the Lab’s international component may seem like an obvious step. But in all honesty, it is a revolutionary development. When I started covering movies for The Jerusalem Post in 2000, if someone had told me that in a little over a decade aspiring directors from all over the world would come to Jerusalem to learn filmmaking, I would have laughed.
But Schorr and Tubi have proved that if you will it, it is no dream.
Schorr said, “People don’t realize how lonely and frustrating it can be to write a film. The Lab gives filmmakers freedom from all the noise in their life – the pressure to make a living and so many other things – but it also gives them the support they need. They form a community. They are each other’s first audience.”
The Lab culminates in a pitching event that is held during the Jerusalem Film Festival in the summer. The Lab invites seven international movie experts each year to serve as the jury at the Lab’s pitching event.
After the pitching event, the jury awards production prizes totaling $70,000, donated by the Beracha Foundation. Schorr cites the winner of the top prize in 2014, Alamork Marsha’s Fig Tree, as an example of the international spirit of the lab. The director is an Ethiopian-born Israeli and the movie, which was shot partly in Africa, is an autobiographical story of her experiences in war-torn Addis Ababa.
Among the Lab’s other sponsors and contributors are the Jerusalem Development Authority and Mifal HaPayis Council for the Arts and Culture.
“We are happy,” said Schorr, who along with some of the school’s graduates, was honored by a tribute to the Sam Spiegel School at Cambridge University. “But we’re never happy... We are never satisfied. We’re always thinking about the next class of the Lab. If after four years, our Lab brings a Hungarian movie to win the Oscar, now there are more expectations... The best thing in our eyes are the informal connections that the filmmakers make between each other... For Run, Philippe Lacote took a Sam Spiegel graduate to be his cameraman, the cameraman learned French to work on it. The evolution of these screenplays creates partnerships that are truly multicultural.”
Asked about what advice they would give to potential applicants, Tubi said, “To make a movie, you should a deep passion, a will to make your film against all odds, to realize your unique vision. If you’re ready, you should surrender your ego, and come.”