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The Sam Spiegel Film & Television School has been the subject of 160 tributes and retrospectives at film schools. As the institution celebrates its 20th birthday, director Renen Schorr talks about its journey from fledgling film school to cinematic powerhouse.

Renen Schorr (photo credit: Moshe Shai)
Renen Schorr
(photo credit: Moshe Shai)
Lots of people act as if they are extremely busy but Renen Schorr, the director and founder of the Sam Spiegel Film & Television School in Jerusalem, really does have a lot going on. As we meet in his office in a once remote and dilapidated but now unwittingly hip alley in the industrial area of Talpiot (an alley that was renamed Sam Spiegel Alley five years ago), he apologizes for changing our meeting several times and asks what project I’d like to talk about.
The truth is, as the Sam Spiegel School celebrates its 20th birthday, there are quite a few of them. But since I mention that I’d like to start with the recently released DVD of student films, Schorr, who looked a bit tired when I came in, springs to life.
For most film schools, that would be a nice little event, and you would expect the film students and their parents to order copies. But the Sam Spiegel DVD is selling for NIS 99.90 at the Third Ear stores around the country, and people are buying it.
“We put a lot into the DVD,” says Schorr. “We got a panel of film experts, people who run film festivals, to vote on the top 20 Sam Spiegel student films. Most of them are the students’ graduation projects,” he says.
While these judges are not famous outside the film world, some of them, particularly Richard Pena, the director of the New York Film Festival, are major figures within it.
In a speech at the Israel Film Center at the JCC in Manhattan in March, Pena talked about why he feels Sam Spiegel is such an important school: “I think when we’re talking about Israeli cinema, we really can use designations such as BSS and ASS, ‘before Sam Spiegel’ and ‘after Sam Spiegel.’ It seems to me that the creation of the Sam Spiegel School marked a moment when the Israel film industry really blossomed, where an industry that had occasionally put out works of interest suddenly became one of the most exciting cinemas in the world. The idea that the Sam Spiegel School had something to do with it is widely shared by colleagues and friends around the world... I can’t really say what it is they teach at Sam Spiegel, but I can tell you the things I love about watching their shorts. First, there’s a wonderful respect for the craft of filmmaking. They’re such beautifully made shorts that there’s never a moment where you go, ‘Well, that’s a student short,’” said Pena.
“That was a wonderful speech,” says Schorr. For most other film schools, praise like this would have been a front-page event. But Sam Spiegel is not just well respected abroad but extraordinarily celebrated.
How celebrated? Films by Sam Spiegel students are shown at approximately 100 international film festivals annually, and the school has been the subject of 160 tributes and retrospectives at film schools and institutions, including the Museum of Modern Art in 1996 (the first time MOMA had ever paid such tribute to a film school) and the Berlin Film Festival in 2004. The school was voted Best Film School in the world 15 times at various festivals, and its student films have won 295 prizes at international festivals around the world. That last statistic would be worth boasting about for any film school in the world, but for a relatively new school in a country where the film industry barely got going until the last 10 years, it’s staggering.
The film that came in first in the 20 films is Elad Keidan’s Anthem, which won first prize in the Cinefondation category at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival. It tells the story of man who goes out to buy milk in Jerusalem just before Shabbat and whose simple errand takes him on a surprising journey.
The films on the DVD tackle a surprising range of subjects, from Mihal Breizis and Oded Binnun’s Sabbath Entertainment, about a young woman from a religious family who sneaks off to be with her friends and gets into a car accident, and Yaelle Kayam’s Diploma, about two Palestinian teens who go to pick up a diploma the same night a nearby Jewish settlement is having a costume party, to David Ofek’s Home, his chronicle of his own Iraqi family and their reaction to the First Gulf War.
“These films cross all kinds of cultural barriers,” says Schorr. Speaking specifically of Sabbath Entertainment, he says, “Lying to your parents is lying to your parents. Getting into trouble is getting into trouble. You don’t need to know all about being Orthodox or keeping Shabbat. Everyone gets it.”
Schorr, a director himself whose two highly acclaimed features, Late-Summer Blues and The Loners, were released nearly a quarter of a century apart, says, “There were some surprises” amid the judges’ selections for the anniversary DVD. The main one, he says, was that “almost all the films they chose were from the past decade” and not from the school’s first 10 years.
When the school was celebrating its 15th birthday, he also released a DVD of the top 10 films by its students, selected by a star-studded group of judges that included Paul Newman, Jeanne Moreau and Pedro Almodovar. Nir Bergman’s Sea Horses won first place then, and Bergman went on to expand the short into the feature film Broken Wings, which won prizes around the world, including the top prize at the Tokyo Film Festival. His next film, Intimate Grammar, also won the top prize at Tokyo.
While Schorr isn’t disappointed exactly that the 20th birthday judges preferred more recent films, he still feels keenly that getting the school off the ground at all – and producing crop after crop of talented students – was little short of a miracle.
While there were two film schools in Israel in the late 1980s – at Tel Aviv University and in the theater school Beit Zvi – when he started Sam Spiegel (the family of the late, legendary producer Spiegel began supporting the school in the mid-1990s), “no one was really making short films then.”
The students (and, in many cases, their teachers) lacked the know-how and budget to actually make films. And just as Israel is being swept today by a wave of social protest, Schorr recalls how his school came out of an earlier wave.
“The film students at Beit Zvi rebelled,” feeling they were not taken seriously. After a government committee analyzed the problem, then-education minister Yitzhak Navon recommended that the government invest in a film school if a city were willing to match its funding.
Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek and Jerusalem Fund director Ruth Cheshin saw a window of opportunity “to bring the ocean to Jerusalem,” and they acted fast.
Schorr, then a young director, reluctantly agreed when Kollek came to him and said, on July 1, that he had to have the school up and running by the end of October. “It was new and audacious. But we did it,” says Schorr.
His philosophy was that the school would be elitist, “a delicatessen, not a grocery store.” Citing Alfred Hitchcock, Schorr says, “The job of a director is not just to work with the screenwriter, the actors, the cameraman, the editor and the composer but to direct the audience.” And it was the job of Sam Spiegel students to create short films that were not simply an expression of their artistic sensibility (as too many student films had been up until then) but would tell stories that would engage the audience. And Schorr’s vision always included an audience, even though then many Israeli feature films played to empty houses. By 1993, Schorr’s persistence and vision began to pay off: Its students’ short films dominated the Jerusalem Film Festival and began to win awards around the world.
Now that the DVD is out, he is working on the school’s annual conference that kicks off the academic year. This year’s theme will be “the vision of the cinematic hero,” and he and his staff will be inviting some real-life heroes, as well as filmmakers, to take part.
He is also hard at work getting ready for the Jerusalem International Film Lab, which opens in December. It will be an annual event and will bring 12 talented young filmmakers to Jerusalem (four from Israel, eight from the rest of the world) who are close to completing their first or second full-length feature film. The participants will write their scripts over a period of seven months, during which time they will come to Jerusalem twice for periods of discussion and critiques with four of the world’s top script editors. A panel of international judges at the Jerusalem Film Festival will judge these scripts, and the top two projects will be awarded production grants totaling $80,000 to produce the scripts.
Another new project for Schorr is taking care that in future, all Sam Spiegel films will be subtitled in the language of the country where they will be shown. This might sound basic, but it isn’t at all. Normally, Israeli films going out to festivals are translated only into English. He got the idea while attending film festivals all over the world and realized that not everyone speaks English well.
On a recent trip to Shanghai, he got to see what it was like to show films subtitled in Chinese. “You see this skyline, that makes New York look like a slum, but the students know only minimal English. I was the first foreigner to teach in Shanghai, and when I showed Sea Horses there subtitled into Chinese, they all cried – the students and the teachers. It had such an impact. Since then, I’ve shown films in Istanbul subtitled into Turkish, and lots of other places in the original language. In Istanbul, I had to be with a bodyguard. It was tense, but then these students saw Israelis not as part of the conflict but in films. And they were sitting open-mouthed. They didn’t understand how we could make a film in Hebron; they didn’t understand how Israelis could get into the skin of Palestinian characters; they didn’t get ‘how did the army give you permission to make this?’”
Schorr took care to see that the 20th birthday DVD features subtitles in eight languages, including Chinese.
He talks about showing student films at festivals all over the world, even in Africa and remote corners of Asia, and for a minute I catch a glimmer of that look you see on the faces of James Bond villains as they spill the secrets of their plan for world domination. But we have nothing to fear from Schorr and his students, although other film school directors might want to watch their backs.