Play it once again, Sam

Israel has had many success stories, but few have been as dramatic as that of the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School in Jerusalem, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary.

sam (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Sam Spiegel School for Film and Television, Jerusalem, which just celebrated its 25th anniversary last week, is one of the greatest success stories in the history of Israel.
Establishing a serious film school in Jerusalem was “the perfect marriage” of school and location, said Adam Spiegel, son of Sam Spiegel, the Oscar-winning Hollywood producer whose foundation was instrumental in creating the school. Adam Spiegel was in Jerusalem to participate in the festivities, which took place in a lavish ceremony at the YMCA building in Jerusalem.
“It wasn’t always obvious but now seems entirely so.
The obstacles to creating a film school in Jerusalem were considerable, but now it looks like an inspirational idea. Everyone’s drive and determination – especially Renen [Schorr, the school’s founding director]’s – has now made what wasn’t obvious possible,” said Spiegel, a distinguished theatrical producer in England.
The school’s accomplishments are remarkable, and have played a key role in turning Israel from a cinematic backwater in the ‘80s and ‘90s to the world leader in the movie industry it is today. Although today there are 15 film schools in Israel, when Sam Spiegel started, no one predicted that it would be the success it has been.
“In the early days we would come to visit the premises and it felt like something special was happening, something unusual,” said Spiegel, looking back on the 25-year history of the school. “The early short films were pretty special... Jerusalem is a unique city. Stories that can be told against the backdrop of Jerusalem are always going to have a certain power, and the movies I’ve watched from the students and graduates of Sam Spiegel have always had a dry and but immensely powerful point of view about life in Jerusalem. And now it feels very obvious that there should be a film school in this city, given its geopolitical significance.” Speaking of his father, who was born in Austria and lived in Israel as a young man, Spiegel recalled the “joy that coming here brought him.” He also has fond memories of those who helped Schorr found the school, among them the late mayor of Jerusalem Teddy Kollek, Jerusalem Foundation President Ruth Cheshin, Spiegel’s cousin, Judge Raya Dreben, and lawyer David Bottoms.
In the past 25 years, the school has won 16 best film school awards at international festivals; its students’ films have received over 400 awards at international festivals, among them Cannes, Berlin and Venice; it has been honored with over 180 international film festivals retrospectives in 55 countries; and was the subject of the Museum of Modern Art’s first tribute to a film school.
Renen Schorr is proud of the high numbers of awards the school has won, but he’s equally proud of another statistic: “Seventy percent of our graduates work in the film and television industries.”
Its graduates include Talya Lavie, whose first feature, Zero Motivation, won the Best Narrative Feature Prize at the Tribeca Film Festival last year, as well as six Ophir Awards, the prizes of the Israeli Film Academy; Mihal Breizis and Oded Binnun, whose short film, Aya, was nominated for an Oscar this year; Rama Burshtein, whose 2012 film, Fill the Void, won the Best Actress Award at the Venice International Film Festival for its star, Hadas Yaron, as well as a European Film Award for its cinematographer, Asaf Sudri; Nir Bergman, the director of the recent film, Yona, whose two previous films, Broken Wings and Intimate Grammar, both won the Grand Prix at the Tokyo International Film Festival; Nadav Lapid, the director of The Kindergarten Teacher and Policeman, which was shown at the New York Film Festival; and many, many others.
The silver jubilee ceremony had a Lawrence of Arabia theme, to honor one of the three films for which Sam Spiegel won his Best Picture Oscars (the others were The Bridge on the River Kwai and On the Waterfront), with famed chef, Moshik Gamliel of the restaurant Mona preparing a “Lawrence of Arabia in Jerusalem,” menu especially for the event. Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and many others spoke at the event.
The ceremony also featured a new documentary about Sam Spiegel, called Sam Spiegel, The Last Tycoon, by Gilad Tocatly.
Perhaps the most anticipated moment of the evening was the announcement of the winner of the Sam Spiegel Alumni Fund for First Feature, which comes with an award of $100,000, half of which was raised by the Sam Spiegel School and half of which was donated by the distribution and production company, ARP Selection France. Nimrod Eldar’s The Day After I’m Gone, the story of a single father and his daughter, won the prize.
The international jury for this prize included Schorr (who in addition to running the film school directed the movies Late Summer Blues and The Loners); Ari Folman, who directed Waltz with Bashir; Cameron Bailey, the artistic director of the Toronto International Film Festival; Alberto Barbera, director of the Venice Film Festival; and producer Michele Halberstadt of ARP Selection.
Another of the school’s ongoing projects is the Jerusalem International Film Lab, which was launched in 2011 and each year brings 12 promising young filmmakers to Jerusalem to work on their projects. They are paired with a veteran director who is their mentor.
The participants are from Israel and around the world, from countries including Sri Lanka, the Ivory Coast, Brazil, India, Argentina and Greece. Six of the movies developed in the lab in previous years have been produced and have been screened at festivals such as Cannes. This year’s participants will be meeting with their mentors at Mishkenot Sha’ananim in Jerusalem over the coming week.
Spiegel attributed much of the school’s success to Schorr. “Renen is a power, he is a force of nature. As soon as the school had started to develop its identity in Israel, he immediately began thinking about how it could develop internationally... He has relentless energy and determination... If he wanted Sam Spiegel to be a kind of international cauldron of creativity, it would become this.”
Schorr, interviewed in his office before the ceremony, was eager to talk about his plans for the school’s future, especially initiatives to reach out to Israelis with cinematic aspirations who live in the country’s periphery.
“If from our ugly headquarters in the industrial section of Talpiot, our pincers found someone in the Ivory Coast [Philippe Lacote, who developed his film, Run, in the International Screenwriters Lab], where there isn’t even cinema, isn’t it our role to find people in Shlomi, or Sakhnin, or Bnei Brak? If we succeeded so far abroad in giving filmmakers a voice, shouldn’t we make the effort to help people here tell their stories, to help us understand each other?... Films can break down the stereotypes that keep us apart. That’s bigger than who gets an Oscar nomination or who brings in half a million viewers.”
It’s a lofty goal, but one that seems within reach for Renen Schorr and his Sam Spiegel family.