Beyond Hollywood: A look back at some Israeli film gems

As more and more Israeli films are recognized internationally here is a reminder of some of the highlights from the past decade.

ajami directors 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
ajami directors 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
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Robert Altman once said what film lovers already know, that filmmaking is a chance to live many lifetimes. The new crop of Israeli films such as Strangers No More - winner of the Best Documentary Short Subject in 2011, and recent  Academy Award nominations for Ajami (2010) and Precious Life (2011) nominated for Best Documentary Feature can provide a glimpse into life in Israel.
Israeli film doesn't have a long and glamorous history, like Italian or French films. In the years leading up to Israel's independence in 1948 and in the early years of statehood that followed, most films centered on the ideals of Zionism, heroism and the importance of settling the land. 
The 1970's saw a huge boom in the Israeli film industry. Movies of all kinds, art films, action films, dramas, and musicals were wildly popular. Television was state-run and broadcast only one channel (in black & white) and so Israelis turned to the local cinema for entertainment. Like the theater on the stage, screenings featured intermissions so the patrons could talk and enjoy refreshments. Most popular of all were the so-called "boureka" films. Boureka films were unassuming, easy-to-watch films, comedy farces - with a generous measure of melodrama - that often gently pitted the "uptown" Ashkenazim against the "downtown" Sephardim.
The Israeli film industry took a hit in the 1980's with Israelis becoming tired of the formulaic and low-brow boureka films. Some successful Israeli producers and directors left to work in Hollywood.  The popularity of the VCR made more foreign produced films available to Israeli audiences. In the early 90's multi-channel television became available.  Budgets became tight, and fewer Israeli films were produced. 
Beginning in the 1990s and continuing until today, Israeli cinema came of age. The population and economy grew at a terrific pace. More Israelis traveled overseas, and with that the insular view of Israeli society began to broaden. Israelis, long known to be defensive and thin-skinned about showing Israel "warts and all", attend and appreciate films with a more comprehensive look at Israeli society. This has led to big changes in the quantity and quality of Israeli film.
Many online sources list movie reviews by country of origin, here is an incomplete list of recently released popular movies - with many thanks to the original reviewers!
A Late Marriage (2001)  
Zaza is a 31 year-old bachelor, from a tight knit family originating from the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. His family, in the accepted tradition of his home country, is trying to arrange a marriage for him - although he is secretly dating a divorcée with a 6 year-old daughter. The movie reminds us that although arranged marriage may be an outdated custom in the West, it still flourishes in many other parts of the world.
Broken Wings (2002)
Broken Wings tells the aching story of Dafna, a recently widowed, cash-strapped mother and her four grieving and troubled children. The film is characteristic of recent films by exploring the stresses of Israeli life without alluding directly to the political situation. The unexpected cause of the husband's death is not revealed until late in the film, and Dafna finds a surprising friendship from a newly arrived Russian immigrant, part of the huge wave of new Russian immigration to Israel in the 1990s
The Syrian Bride (2004)    
The Syrian Bride unfolds between checkpoints at the Israeli and Syrian borders. This area is tiny enough to allow people on either side to converse by bullhorn. The Salman family traveled to the border to bid goodbye to Mona, who is leaving home to wed a cousin, a Syrian television star she has never met, in an arranged marriage. Once she crosses the border into Syria, she can never return. The monkey wrench involves the stamping of her passport. Because Syria and Israel have no diplomatic relations, travelers with Israeli-stamped passports cannot enter Syria, which still considers the Golan Heights part of Syria. Neither of the officials at the checkpoints - a sympathetic Israeli who throws up his hands, and a bored Syrian who would rather watch television than deal with the crisis - will break the deadlock.   
Ushpizin (2005) 
Ushpizin is a the rare collaboration between secular and ultra-Orthodox Israelis.  Ushpizin, roughly translated from Aramaic, means "holy guests" and is pronounced OOSH-piz-in. It's the eve of Sukkot, and Moshe and Malli have neither the money to build a sukkah or even to buy food for the weeklong feast. Both pray continuously and loudly for God's help. Lo and behold, miracles arrive. A donation of money and a sukka arrive. What appears to be another miracle occurs when Moshe's old friends knock on their door. The appearance of guests during a holiday celebrating hospitality must be another sign from the Lord. Unknown to Moshe and Malli, the guests have just escaped from prison and are actually hiding from the police.
Beaufort  (2008)
Based on a true story,  Beaufort is about the young Israeli soldiers left defending the Beaufort Castle in the last days of Israel's war in Lebanon. While Hezbollah intensifies bombings, so that the retreat appears to be a resounding defeat, the soldiers struggle to complete their mission on the Crusader mountain fortress. The growing casualties provoke not only fear and anger but also questions. Why hold on to Beaufort for so long? Why are they here in the first place? Some of the soldiers direct their frustration at their officers, and at each other, while others at the peace demonstrations back home who some believe are forcing their withdrawal. 
Waltz With Bashir (2009)
Waltz With Bashir takes another look at the Lebanon war, this time with animation.  According to the film's website, one night at a bar, an old friend tells director Ari Folman about a recurring nightmare in which he is chased by 26 vicious dog  - every night, the same number of beasts. The two men conclude that there's a connection to their army service in the first Lebanon War of the early eighties. Ari is surprised that he can't remember a thing anymore about that period of his life and begins to explore his army service in a series of meetings and flashbacks.
Ajami  (2010) 
Ajami is a collaboration between an Scandar Copti (a Christian Israeli Arab, born and raised in Ajami) and Yaron Shani (a Jewish Israeli).  Copti was born in Ajami, a neighborhood in Jaffa which is part of Tel Aviv and characters in the movie are played by amateur actors from the community. The film tells five stories of Muslims, Jews and Christians, in a melting pot of culture and conflict and often, violence.

Precious Life (2011)
Precious Life is the story of Mohammed Abu Mustafa, a 4-month-old Palestinian baby suffering from a rare immune deficiency. Israeli journalist, Shlomi Eldar helps the infant and mother go from Gaza to an Israeli hospital for lifesaving treatments, raising money for the operation with a televised appeal - and the money is donated by an Israeli Jew whose own son was killed during military service. There are no straight plot lines - when the infant's Palestinian mother, Raida, who is harassed by fellow Gazans for having her son treated in Israel, blurts out that she hopes he'll grow up to be a suicide bomber to help recover Jerusalem, Eldar is devastated and stops (temporarily) working on the film. The devoted doctor treating Mohammed is summoned for military reserve duty in Gaza in the middle of the film. The precious goal of saving one life gets murky in a much larger war.

Strangers No More (2011)  
In the heart of Tel Aviv, there is an exceptional school where children from forty-eight different countries and diverse backgrounds come together to learn. Many fled poverty, political adversity and even genocide.  The film introduces us to the several students, and their struggles to acclimate to life in a new land while slowly opening up to share their stories of hardship and tragedy in this amazing school community.
Martha Kruger writes for Travelujah, the leading Christian social network focused on travel to the Holy Land.