Putting Israeli documentaries in the limelight

Home-grown documentaries have become a staple on international film festival circuits in recent years.

kibbutz children 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
kibbutz children 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Not that long ago, Israeli documentaries were seldom seen at international film festivals or on TV abroad. But things have changed dramatically. Today, Israeli films participate in most major festivals and are frequent prize-winners. They also are regularly featured on TV stations such as PBS in the US and ZDF in Germany. "Like Scottish whiskey and Belgian chocolate, there is now the Israeli-made documentary," says Orna Yarmut, quoting an American film festival organizer describing the reputation of Israel's documentary film industry. So how have Israeli documentaries come to be so successful? Enter CoPro, a non-profit organization that Yarmut, a former documentary producer, founded in 1998. In the past 10 years CoPro has raised more than $4 million for Israeli filmmakers, and played a hand in launching more than 130 international co-productions. "Until about 10 years ago, relying on Israeli funding sources alone, local producers were unable to break into the international market," Yarmut explains. A crucial part of producing high-quality films is obtaining adequate funding. "At the time local producers had little contact with overseas commissioning editors and producers," she continues. "I realized that if we could create a framework that brought overseas and local producers together then that would be the start of something." The framework that Yarmut created revolves around an annual five-day event which brings key TV and film decision-makers to Israel. "There are only about 100 or so festival organizers and TV executives who decide on what films are shown in most of the North American, European and Asian markets," says Yarmut. "Our organization reaches out to those decision-makers and brings them to Israel." During the annual CoPro event, Israeli producers pitch their project proposals to panels of potential film buyers. The pitches have a high success rate, explains Yarmut, because of the preparatory work done ahead of time. The process begins with CoPro's staff screening hundreds of proposals submitted by film producers and selecting about 25 of the best. The producers are invited to attend master classes where they are coached on how to present themselves and their projects. Each producer is given a chance to pitch their project in a simulation session in front of a panel of industry veterans. This year's panel included film producers from Italy and Denmark. "By the final pitching session, the presenters and their presentations are quite polished," admits Yarmut. One example is the hit film Children of the Sun about the communal children's homes on kibbutzim which director Ran Tal pitched at the CoPro marketing forum in 2006. One panelist impressed by Tal's presentation was Clair Aguilar, the commissioning editor for the US public broadcasting authority ITVS. "After meeting with Tal and listening to what he wanted to do I was convinced that he would produce a film with a distinct style," she recalls in an interview with ISRAEL21c. Aguilar decided to invest $100,000 in the project, about half of the total budget, the rest of which Tal obtained from Israeli sources. After successful showings in movie theaters and on TV in Israel and Europe, Children of the Sun is now doing the film festival circuit in the US where it will be featured at the San Francisco International Film Festival in May and broadcast on TV on the Sundance Channel later this year. The CoPro film marketing model has proven so successful that it has now been adopted by a number of other countries. This year's event is scheduled for May 27. (ISRAEL21c/ www.israel21c.org)