Religious filmmakers join the New Wave

Celebrating its 20th year, the Ma’aleh film school in Jerusalem has produced religious directors and movies that have claimed an increasing share of the limelight.

311_family movie (photo credit: Courtesy)
311_family movie
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Jerusalem Film Festival, 2004: At the sold-out screening of Ushpizin, the story of a haredi man with a criminal past, the film’s star and screenwriter, Shuli Rand, takes the stage at the Jerusalem Cinematheque. Rand and director Gidi Dar invite the cast and crew to join them onstage, as is customary at a film festival screening. But then Rand, an actor who became haredi as an adult, assures the audience that the film was made with the approval and supervision of his rabbi. Rand then introduces the rabbi, who takes out pamphlets and says, “I’d like to read you some of Rabbi Nahman’s thoughts. He wrote about theater, but they will apply equally to film.”
The audience is comprised of two groups: haredim who have come to support Rand, and the usual festival audience of mostly secular Jerusalemites. These Cinematheque regulars seem a bit stunned. They sit in polite silence until, one by one, they get up and leave. The rabbi is eventually persuaded to step off the stage so that another screening can take place in the auditorium.
Ushpizin receives good reviews and goes on to a successful theatrical run. But it is widely seen by industry observers here as a novelty, rather than a new direction.
JERUSALEM FILM festival, 2010: The most hotly anticipated film this year is Avishai Sivan’s The Wanderer, about a haredi young man who learns that he is infertile. Shown in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, arguably the most prestigious festival in the world, last May, it has garnered attention in the international film press. It’s up against new movies by some of the country’s best-known directors, Nir Bergman (Broken Wings) and Dover Kosashvili (A Late Marriage). Nevertheless, everyone is intrigued by this movie from a first-time director. It’s not “the religious movie” – it’s “the movie that was at Cannes.”
Over the past few years, religiously observant directors and movies on religious themes have claimed an increasing share of the limelight and have become part of mainstream local cinema. In decades past, religious characters could often be seen as the butt of jokes in silly comedies, a.k.a. sirtei burekas. But these new films take their religious characters seriously.They have also sold tickets both here and abroad, and have won prizes at festivals around the world.
Some of the most prominent of these movies include Joseph Cedar’s Time of Favor (Hahesder), a look at a group of yeshiva students planning to bomb the Temple Mount, and Campfire (Medurat Hashevet), about a national religious widow and her daughters, both of which won the Ophir Award, the Israeli Oscar, for best movie; My Father My Lord by David Vollach, about the curious child of a stern rabbi, which won the top prize in the world dramatic category at the Tribeca Film Festival; Eyes Wide Open, Haim Tabakman’s look at a haredi struggling with his homosexuality, which won the top prize at the Ghent International Film Festival in Belgium; Avi Nesher’s The Secrets, about a women’s Bible college where the students delve into mysticism; and Avraham Kushnir’s Bruria, which stars cowriter Hadar Galron as an Orthodox woman questioning her role. These films are perceived, at home and abroad, as Israeli films rather than religious films. And there is every reason to think that filmmakers will continue to make more, not fewer, films dealing with religious characters and religious dilemmas. There are also a number of documentaries on religious issues that have attracted attention here and abroad.
One of the most prominent of these documentary directors is Anat Zuria, who has made films on the laws of family purity, the divorce courts and the segregation of women and men in haredi society. Her films have been shown widely both here and abroad.
AS WITH most changes, this was brought about by a combination of factors, but two developments stand out. The first is that the local film industry has become more inclusive over the last decade, making room for many voices that were not heard in movies in the past. The second is the development of the Ma’aleh film school in Jerusalem, currently celebrating its 20th year. Ma’aleh offers a religious perspective on moviemaking, and has developed a whole generation of young, mostly Orthodox directors, who are quietly remaking the cinematic map and insuring that the local film industry is not only by and about those who live in the Tel Aviv area. These trends have come together to produce a renaissance in films about the country’s various religious communities.
“WE DON’T feel we are outsiders in Israeli society,” says Neta Ariel, the director of Ma’aleh, who has been at the film school for more than 15 years. “We feel we represent an integral part of Israeli society.”
It’s very clear as you thumb through the program at the this year’s Jerusalem Film Festival, which started on July 8 and runs through the 14th at the Jerusalem Cinematheque, that religious filmmakers and films about the religious community are part of the program in virtually every category. In the Israeli Short Film Competition, for example, three out of the 16 films are from students at Ma’aleh.
The films couldn’t be more different in style and tone and cover different subjects. Eliran Malka’s 71 Square Meters is a lyrical look at the memories an old house about to demolished evokes in the young man who grew up there.
In Blessed, directed by Hadas K. Schlussel, a couple struggles with their conflicting obligations – to Jewish law, the army and each other – while in Yosef Noble’s Keeper of the Covenant, a boy about to celebrate his bar mitzva is confused by his erotic impulses.
It isn’t only Ma’aleh graduates who make films with religious themes, of course. Shalom Hager’s Shrouds, competing in the Anat Pirchi Competition for Best Israeli Drama, tells the story of a young Orthodox husband, tormented over the death of his child, who volunteers in a hevra kadisha to prepare bodies for burial.
But it’s not the numbers that matter so much as the fact that these films simply take their place side by side with films about the secular world. What was once a subject to be remarked upon is now just part of the program. In many local festivals, films on religious themes blend in seamlessly with the other offerings. For example, in the recent Reframing Reality Festival at the Jerusalem Cinematheque, a festival devoted to movies by and about people with disabilities, short films by Ma’aleh students came in first, second and third in their category. At the Cinema of the South Festival, held in June at the Sderot Cinematheque, Ariel Chen, a Ma’aleh student, won the student category for an autobiographical film about an illness in his family. And in the DocAviv Documentary Film Festival, held at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque in May, Golan Rise’s The Breakfast Parliament, about a group of elderly men on a religious kibbutz, took second prize in the student film competition.
“We’re open to talent, and we have students from a mixture of backgrounds,” Ariel explains. “At one time, most of our students were national religious. But we have people who are more religious, less religious. In recent years, we’ve gotten some haredi students, those from the less restrictive groups. And at the school, there is great harmony and a collaborative spirit among all these students.”
In recent years, there has been an increase in applicants from all groups, as well as an increase in requests to screen films by Ma’aleh students at festivals of all types abroad.
“At these festivals, they are not necessarily looking for religious films,” she says. “They’re looking for the best films.”
AND THE best television. No discussion of religious filmmaking would be complete without mention of Srugim (Crocheted Kippot), the television series created by Ma’aleh graduates Eliezer (Laizy) Shapiro and Chava Divon, a soap opera about young, national religious Jerusalemites. The line between film and television production has long been blurry here, as directors and actors go back and forth between these different media. The irony about Srugim, currently filming its third season, is that although it might sound like the tamest of scenarios, the series is addictive fun and has reached a wide television audience.
“I now believe in miracles more,” says Shapiro about the success of his show. Shapiro, who grew up modern Orthodox in Jerusalem in an English-speaking family, says, “I never expected this show would get on television, although I knew we had a good idea that I really believed in. Today on TV, everything has to be very in-your-face” in terms of sex, violence and crudeness. But Srugim attracted a wide audience, Shapiro thinks, “because, on the one hand, it’s universal and familiar. But [for secular audiences] it’s in a new world with new codes. So that makes it interesting.”
Shapiro, who never thought of studying film anywhere other than at Ma’aleh, says, “The show wouldn’t be possible if the school didn’t exist. There’s a certain power we got from going to the school.” He hires fellow Ma’aleh graduates as often as he can, and says, “Our producer, Yonatan Aroch, who’s been in the business a long time, says he’s never seen a staff with so little ego, that works so well together. Maybe it’s because we were raised with a certain modesty; maybe because we believe in a higher power.”
But as much as graduates such as Shapiro found themselves at home at Ma’aleh, there are other religiously observant filmmakers who have chosen different paths. The most Cedar, whose last film, Beaufort, about an IDF unit stationed in Lebanon, was the first Israeli movie to be nominated for an Oscar in 24 years, does not emphasize his religious affiliation.
Although his first two films were about national religious characters, he doesn’t see anything religious about his stories or themes.
Cedar, who is currently editing a new film, Footnote, about professors competing for the Israel Prize, sees the rise of religious filmmakers as part of a larger trend of various groups of Israelis finding their voices on film. Although at one time, movies tended to be made by a small group of secular Tel Aviv residents, in recent years, directors from various groups of recent immigrants, including those from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopians – such as Joseph Pitchhadze, Dover Kosashvili and Mushon Salmona – have made movies that tell stories from their communities. Filmmakers from every sector of society have made well-regarded films, including Mizrahim, gays and lesbians, disillusioned soldiers, Israeli Arabs and Palestinians. While Cedar recognizes that these developments are important, for him, it’s all about the movies and their quality.
“Movies used to be made by a small group, and also were about them. Now, there is much more variety,” he notes.
But is there a risk that religious filmmakers will be ghettoized by having a school like Ma’aleh and just given a small niche in the industry here? Ariel doesn’t think so, although she does admit that “it’s easier to get films that are on religious themes into film festivals” like the Jerusalem Film Festival. “They’re more comfortable seeing films about specifically religious problems” than movies by Ma’aleh students that don’t deal with these issues.
Perhaps the more important questions are: Do religious filmmakers change the communities they come from, and do their films alter secular perceptions of the religious community?
ARIEL IS sure that the answer is yes, on both counts. “These films represent reality and they’ve been changing it. Quietly. They’ve taken taboo subjects and made them easier to talk about” within the religious community.
She mentions the impact of one film in particular, V’ahavta, by Ma’aleh graduate Chaim Album, about a yeshiva student who is homosexual but doesn’t want to leave the world of Jewish studies. “That film sparked an enormous amount of discussion. There were chats on the Internet; it gave legitimacy to people to talk about these issues. It didn’t make the world perfect, but it helped some people heal.”
But there are other topics, perhaps less controversial but no less important, that Ma’aleh students have explored, such as problems of failed marriages, infertility and doubt in one’s faith.
Pazit Lichtman, a Ma’aleh graduate, began work on her film, Willingly, not long after she realized her recent marriage was going to end. She had thought of dropping out of school, so upset was she by her upcoming divorce, but her teachers urged her to use her pain and make a movie out of it. She recently returned from a series of well-attended screenings of her film in Los Angeles, in front of both secular and religious audiences.
“I broke up my fear [of getting divorced] into small parts. I did everything I could to tell this story in a way that would touch other people.” She tells of a rabbi at one screening who stood up and told his students about his own divorce, something he had never spoken of before.
Lichtman, Shapiro and Ariel all acknowledge that Ma’aleh has come in for criticism by some in the religious community who feel it is “wrong to air our dirty laundry in public, as they put it,” says Ariel.
“Some people think our movies should be all about the love of religion and God, that it should all be good public relations,” says Shapiro. But through Srugim and films by Ma’aleh students and other members of the religious community, “people come to see us as real people, with real problems, and sometimes even a sense of humor. How can that be bad?”