It's all in the eyebrows. When I used to tell people I wrote about Israeli movies, their eyebrows would furrow downward, into an unmistakable expression of pity. Now they raise their eyebrows, and they often murmur that, "Oh," that shows they're impressed. "Interesting job," they'll say.
The significance of cultural trends should not be measured in eyebrow shifts alone, but there's no denying that both the reality and the perception of Israeli movies has improved immeasurably over the past decade. This has been the most significant decade for the movie industry in the country's history. Let's take a brief look at just how far they've come.
Ten years ago, Israeli movies were rarely, if ever, shown at international film festivals. Now, it's unusual for a significant film festival to conclude without one winning a prize. It's incredible that a small film industry, which produces about 20 features a year, has won more than 200 prizes at international festivals over the last decade. And, if you add in prizes for documentaries, shorts and student films, the total would come to well over 500.
While the Oscar has eluded us, the movies nominated in the past two years were considered serious contenders. Joseph Cedar's Beaufort, a drama about the IDF withdrawal from Lebanon, was the 2007 Oscar nominee, and Ari Folman's animated documentary about the First Lebanon War, Waltz with Bashir, was a nominee the next year (Waltz did win the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film). This year's official selection for Oscar consideration, Yaron Shani's and Scandar Copti's Ajami, a gritty drama about crime in Jaffa, has a real shot at a nomination as well.
While a small, unreasonable minority has called for a boycott of Israeli films recently, the list of prestigious awards won at festivals during this decade is long and impressive - and growing. Shmuel Maoz's Lebanon just won the Golden Lion, the top prize, at the Venice International Film Festival. Cannes is arguably the most prestigious festival of all, and Israeli films are regularly shown in the main competition there. Two, Keren Yedaya's Or (2004) and Shira Geffen's and Etgar Keret's Jellyfish (2007), won the coveted Camera d'Or Prize for first-time filmmakers, while several others, including Ajami and Eran Kolirin's The Band's Visit (2007) won Special Jury prizes in this category. Tawfik Abu Wael's Atash won the FIPRESCI (foreign film critics' award) at Cannes in 2004.
Israeli films won the top prize at several other international film festivals, including The Band's Visit (which won a phenomenal total of more than 35 international awards) and Broken Wings (2002) at the Tokyo International Film Festival, Dror Shaul's Sweet Mud (2006) at Sundance, David Volach's My Father My Lord (2007) at Tribeca and The Syrian Bride (2004) at the Montreal Film Festival. Joseph Cedar was awarded the Silver Bear for Best Director at the Berlin Film Festival in 2007, while his film Campfire (2004) won a Special Mention there.
Israeli actors were also recognized abroad for their work: Hanna Laszlo took Best Actress honors at Cannes for Free Zone in 2005 (a win that was considered a particular surprise since she faced stiff competition from actresses such as Juliette Binoche and Sharon Stone); Ohad Knoller won Best Actor for Yossi & Jagger at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2003; and Sasson Gabai won Best Actor for The Band's Visit at the European Film Academy Awards in 2007.
Nearly all of these films played abroad and several, notably Dover Koshashvilli's A Late Wedding (2001) and Eytan Fox's Walk on Water (2004), earned several million dollars overseas, unheard of sums for low-budget, subtitled Israeli films in the past. Their box-office earnings in the US are on a par with subtitled films from other countries with more established film industries, such as France and China.
In the documentary field, there are from 50 to 100 films made here each year, and many go on to international festivals. Lia van Leer, the founding director of the Jerusalem Cinematheque and the Jerusalem Film Festival, told me a couple of years ago that the toughest part of her job was choosing documentaries for the 10 to 15 slots in the Wolgin Competition for Israeli films - one year she received more than 70 entries. Short films, many made by students at local films schools (more on them later), have been phenomenally successful, winning hundreds of prizes. And they compete at virtually every festival in the world.
BUT PROBABLY the most important fact about the success of the film industry over the course of this decade is that local audiences now enjoy locally made films. I don't believe a film industry can flourish in the long run if its films don't resonate with its own citizens. If films are made primarily to please the juries of foreign film festivals, in the end, the movies will lose all sense of place and authenticity. But happily, that is not the case here. Although Israeli films will never outsell Spiderman 7, I've been pleasantly surprised to find that I've had a hard time getting a good seat at commercial showings.
And the major distribution chains show Israeli movies, even at multiplexes, for a single reason - they want to sell tickets. And they do sell tickets. In a good year, local films sell more than a million tickets locally. In 2007, the year The Band's Visit and Beaufort were released, that figure was a million and a half. Avi Nesher's Turn Left at the End of the World sold more than 600,000 tickets in 2004. New releases routinely break the 100,000 viewer mark. Ajami, which was released in September, is a case in point. Again, by Hollywood standards, these numbers are small. But in a country this size, where several million don't speak Hebrew as their first language and several hundred thousand (at least) don't see movies for religious reasons, these figures are phenomenal.
Of course, local audiences don't always go for the same films as foreign audiences. For example, a movie like Lost Islands (2008), about two brothers' coming-of-age in the early 1980s, is filled with jokes, music and nostalgia, and appealed (and was designed to appeal) much more to local audiences than foreign viewers.
These attendance figures may not sound so astounding, if you forget that before 2000, four or five feature films were made (in a good year) and would play to empty houses here for a few weeks before closing and vanishing without a trace. Their only shot at going abroad was Jewish and Israeli film festivals, where audiences went out of curiosity or to support Israel, not to see good films.
When I was living in New York in the 1990s, I planned to see a movie at New York's Israel film festival with an Israeli friend. Looking over the schedule, she sighed and said, "I don't know - they're all about Holocaust survivors who move to a kibbutz and become incest victims." My friend wasn't exaggerating (much), but that was then.
Up until about 2000, there were two basic streams of Israeli movies. One of these were the sirtei burekas (burekas movies), like the Eskimo Limon series, silly comedies aimed at high-school kids. Then there were the painfully earnest dramas, that were about either Holocaust survivors, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or god-awful dysfunctional families. Few saw these films other than the cast, crew and their close relatives. Most of these were made with money from the Israel Film Fund, that, to be fair, probably weeded out scripts that were even worse than the ones that got made.
The awful domestic dramas continue to be made, and follow such a predictable formula that I have dubbed them TAMP films, an acronym for Tel Aviv's Miserable People. But a few bad films are inevitable. Katriel Schory, the head of the Israel Film Fund, likes to say, "Quantity is quality," meaning that there will only be good films if a critical mass of movies gets made.
There were a few good films made during the first five decades of the state, although not as many as some nostalgia addicts would have you believe. Israel had six nominations for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar prior to 2007, and several of them were excellent, particularly Sallah, the Ephraim Kishon satire starring Haim Topol as an innocent immigrant. The 1971 nominee, The Policeman starring Shaike Ophir (the actor for whom the Ophir Awards, Israel's Oscars, get their name), may be the most beloved Israeli film of all time, but although Ophir shines in his role, it's not a movie that holds up all that well. The same is true of I Love You, Rosa (1972) and The House on Chelouche Street (1973), both Oscar nominees. As for Operation Thunderbolt, the 1977 nominee tells of the heroic rescue at Entebbe, and its inclusion in this category is simply proof of the American Academy's love for the Jewish state.
The 1984 nominee, the highly political Beyond the Walls, about two prisoners, a Palestinian (Muhammad Bakri, whose son Saleh starred in The Band's Visit) and an Israeli (Arnon Tzadok), who bond in jail to fight the system, still works pretty well as a prison drama and is certainly one of the finest Israeli films ever made.
There were other films here and there that shone, among them Renen Schorr's Late Summer Blues, about a group of high-school students during the last month before they are drafted. But Schorr then turned around and founded the Sam Spiegel Film School in Jerusalem and did not direct again until he made The Loners, which will be released next week. But the good films were few and far between. Very, very far between.
SO WHAT happened?
A few factors came together to bring hidden or slumbering cinematic talent to the surface. The first was the birth of commercial television in the early 1990s. It's fashionable to denigrate television, but it nurtured a generation of directors, crew members and actors. By 2000, for the first time, a director who got behind the camera had a good chance of having had at least a couple of years' experience, and the same can be said for actors, writers, etc. It made a huge difference.
Most actors and directors tend to go back and forth between the big and small screen even today. You can see Lior Ashkenazi on television soap operas or in some of the highest-profile local films, including A Late Wedding and Walk on Water. Ditto for virtually every other actor. There is no substitute for experience.
But it's a two-way street: Directors who have made films go back to television and the quality of the TV programming increases. Nir Bergman, who made the acclaimed 2002 drama Broken Wings and who was a star student at Sam Spiegel, went on to become one of the creators of Betipul, a series about a psychiatrist that had the nation glued to its screens. So brilliantly conceived was this show that it was actually adapted by HBO into the series In Treatment, which won two Emmy awards and a Golden Globe. Who could have imagined in 2000 that the network that brought the world The Sopranos and Sex and the City would take ideas from Israeli television?
To blur the lines even further, the cable companies invest heavily in the movie industry and some films originally meant for television, such Eytan Fox's Yossi & Jagger, turned out to be so good they got a theatrical release.
The second significant change was the passage of the Cinema Law in 2001, which greatly increased the government budget for supporting the film industry. It has been cut several times, but in response to pressure from across the political spectrum, it was restored. I was skeptical at first that investing more money would help, but there is no question that it did. The film industry here is so small, taxes so high, red tape so cumbersome and private investors so unwilling to put their money into local product, that without this infusion of cash, the film industry would have not reached the heights it has.
The proof is that after the funding was cut, the industry output dropped from 24 of the best-reviewed films in the nation's history in 2004, to a handful of mostly mediocre films the following year. Part of what this funding does is give filmmakers grants so they can spend a year or two rewriting scripts, and the difference shows up on the big screen. For example, Joseph Cedar spent a year and a half rewriting the screenplay of Beaufort along with Ron Leshem, the novelist on whose book the film was based. And that time costs money.
But it also generates money. When foreign investors saw how good Israeli films had gotten, they began investing heavily in this industry. The money comes mostly from France and Germany, but The Band's Visit got some funding from Japan. There has been some controversy about this trend, with critics saying that films made with this coproduction money are more likely to be made with foreign audiences in mind. That danger is certainly there, but the reality is that local filmmakers are in no position to turn down money from any source. And the success of the industry is also a product of contributions from several privately held Israeli film funds.
The third factor is the development of a sophisticated movie culture here, through the cinematheques and film schools. It was the cinematheques that came first, and the woman who started them, Lia van Leer, has done more to develop the local film industry than any other single person. A great movie lover, she started a cinema club with her late husband, Wim van Leer, in Haifa in the 1950s, which she developed into the Haifa Cinematheque. In 1973, she created a small-scale version of today's Jerusalem Cinematheque, which was expanded in 1981.
The cinematheques show a mix of Hollywood classics from the huge archives she acquired and the best contemporary and classic art films. Van Leer made sure they provided a showcase for upcoming local directors. Both of these cinematheques began film festivals in the early 1980s, modeled after the large European festivals, with hundreds of films shown in 10 days or so.
Van Leer quickly succeeded in attracting the crÃ¨me de la crÃ¨me of international moviemaking to the Jerusalem Film Festival. The list of directors who have attended includes virtually every art film director you've ever heard of, and such actors as Robert De Niro, Jeanne Moreau, Warren Beatty and Lillian Gish. In recent years, Debra Winger and Jeff Goldblum have attended Jerusalem, while Elliott Gould, Harvey Keitel and Willem Dafoe have been at Haifa.
But more important than any other contribution, these festivals showcased and nurtured local directors through their high-profile Israeli film competitions. There are now cinematheques based on the model van Leer started in cities across the country, including Tel Aviv, Sderot, Rosh Pina, Holon and Herzliya. Before DVDs and the Internet, the cinematheques and festivals provided budding cineastes with their only exposure to classic film and helped develop a true film culture here.
Next, the young people who became movie lovers wanted to make their own movies, and so the film schools stepped in. The Sam Spiegel Film School in Jerusalem is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. But it is by no means the only film school here. There are several others including one at Tel Aviv University, Camera Obscura and Sapir College. The Ma'aleh Film School in Jerusalem, which is also celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, is geared to religious students.
The advent of Ma'aleh is striking because in the past filmmaking was a strictly secular industry. It is still dominated by secular filmmakers, but that is changing. Joseph Cedar is modern Orthodox, and his first two films, Time of Favor and Campfire, dealt with issues in the modern Orthodox community in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Shuli Rand, who had had a career as a secular actor, became religious and made Ushpizin (which he scripted and acted in), a very effective drama set in the haredi community. And with more religious filmmakers completing the course at Ma'aleh every year, surely there are more such films on the way.
BUT IT wasn't only that religious filmmakers got in on the act. Many other groups whose voices hadn't been heard in the past, when most filmmakers were Ashkenazim from established families, began making films. The year after Cedar's Time of Favor won the Ophir Award, the 2001 prize went to Georgian immigrant Dover Koshashvilli for A Late Wedding, a jaundiced look at the Georgian community here. In 2002, Eytan Fox, a gay filmmaker, triumphed with Yossi & Jagger, a love story about two male soldiers. Interestingly, both Fox and Cedar are the children of American immigrants.
While many films had dealt with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there had been few films by Arab filmmakers here. But in 2004, Tawfik Abu Wael, an Israeli Arab, made Atash, a look at the tyranny of an isolated Arab family that may or may not be read as an allegory against patriarchal tyranny. Suha Arraf, an Israeli-Arab screenwriter, cowrote (with Eran Riklis) The Syrian Bride in 2004 and Lemon Tree in 2008, bringing her point of view front and center. There are several other Israeli-Arab filmmakers, most notably Hany Abu Assad (who made Paradise Now, about two suicide bombers) and Elia Suleiman (Divine Intervention), who live abroad, don't take money from Israeli sources and prefer not to be known as Israeli-Arabs. But they were born and raised here.
This year, a new trend may be on the horizon with the directing team of Scandar Copti, a Christian Arab from Jaffa, and Yaron Shani, an Israeli Jew, who made Ajami, a film in Arabic and Hebrew, with both Jewish and Palestinian characters.
Women filmmakers are out there, but it's still a male-dominated industry. Keren Yedaya, the director of Or, and Shira Geffen have had the highest profile successes in the feature film category. Ronit Elkabetz, a critically acclaimed actress, turned her hand to writing and directing and has made two films (with her brother, Shlomi), based on her Moroccan family, To Take a Wife (2004) and Shiva (2007). More women, such as Anat Zuria, a modern Orthodox director, are making their marks in the documentary field.
So the film industry has become far more representative of the population, is enjoyed by millions of Israelis and is winning an unprecedented number of awards worldwide. Where's the downside? Well, when there's a party, there are always party poopers. Many on the Right tend to dismiss Israeli film as a bastion of knee-jerk leftist politicking. While it is true that most directors are on the Left, this kind of blanket condemnation inevitably reveals more about the complainer's own ignorance than the true state of film in this country.
I've had arguments with otherwise serious people who told me they didn't need to see local films to know they were bastions of self-hatred. But is it an expression of self-hatred when directors who served in Lebanon, such as Shmuel Maoz, Ari Folman and Joseph Cedar, make films from the soldiers' point of view, showing how emotionally wrenching their experience was? If you accept that young people in this country need to serve in the army, it would seem to be a given that some filmmakers will make movies about their experience there. Many movies made here do celebrate Israeli life, and anyone who has actually bothered to see these films won't need to argue the point.
Where is the film industry going and where will it be in 10 years? Opinions vary widely. At a recent seminar to mark Sam Spiegel's 20th anniversary at the Jerusalem Cinematheque, Tawfik Abu Wael, who has made one feature, argued for more grant money going to first-time filmmakers. Three-time director Joseph Cedar said the film industry won't develop unless an investment is made in more experienced directors. Who's right? Along with large numbers of filmgoers, I look forward to finding out. And I look forward to seeing people's eyebrows rise even higher when Israeli films are mentioned.