Jerusalem is ready for its close-up

Moviemaking in the Holy City has come a long way, as flimmakers find the capital’s varied landscapes to be interesting, mysterious and diverse

(FROM LEFT) Director Avi Nesher on the set of ‘The Other Story’ with actress Joy Rieger and singer Natan Goshen (photo credit: MICHAL FATTAL)
(FROM LEFT) Director Avi Nesher on the set of ‘The Other Story’ with actress Joy Rieger and singer Natan Goshen
(photo credit: MICHAL FATTAL)
Yoram Honig, the founder of the Jerusalem Film & Television Fund, was having a good day last Sunday, and he’s been having a lot of good days lately.
He had just learned that Eliran Malka’s feature-film debut, Unorthodox, would be opening the 35th Jerusalem Film Festival in July. Unorthodox, which stars Shuli Rand and dramatizes the founding of the Shas political party in Jerusalem, received a significant portion of its budget from the fund.
“It’s a terrific film, very interesting, and Eliran is a graduate of Ma’aleh,” the Jerusalem film school that caters to observant students, so it was all in the Jerusalem family.
Honig established the Jerusalem Film & Television Fund a decade ago to support and promote moviemaking in the capital, and it has been an extraordinary success. While once virtually all Israeli films took place in Tel Aviv (and the rest of the Gush Dan area), today about a third of all Israeli movies are set in Jerusalem.
“The varied landscapes of Jerusalem have been the focus of more screen time than ever recently, both in movies and television shows. Jerusalem is interesting, mysterious, diverse and very versatile, and it has been the setting for dramatic movies, comedies and fantasy stories for children.... From 1948 to 2008, there were over 700 movies made in Israel, and only about 30 were filmed in Jerusalem.... But since we started up, we’ve funded over 70 films and television series set in Jerusalem,” says Honig from his office in Beit Hansen, the renovated former hospital for Hansen’s disease (leprosy) next to the Jerusalem Theater which has become an arts center.
The very energetic and personable Honig based his film fund on the model of European regional film funds, which support movies made in specific areas and offer significant cash incentives to filmmakers and production companies. It’s no accident that a notepad on his desk bears the logo of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Film, Theater & Broadcasting, because Honig and his fund have taken on the task of bringing filmmaking and television to Jerusalem in the same way that the Big Apple’s film office has made New York a cinematic center.
In doing so, he had to combat the perception on the part of the Israeli filmmaking community that Jerusalem is a dull backwater compared with Tel Aviv, to be visited only for the Jerusalem Film Festival in the summer. Obviously, nothing could be further from the truth, but Honig had an uphill battle to change hearts and minds.
Just to give an example of the Tel Aviv-centered mind-set, a major corporation sponsored a film series about 10 years ago featuring movies “from the periphery” and included a movie made in Jerusalem. When I questioned a representative from the corporation how the capital could be seen as “the periphery,” she answered, “You know, it [“the periphery”] means anything not in Tel Aviv.”
What a difference a decade makes! “This year, the top movie at the box office was Maktub,” he says. “It had around 700,000 admissions; it’s the biggest blockbuster here in over 30 years.” No movie could be more Jerusalem-oriented than Maktub, which was written by, and stars, Guy Amir and Hanan Savyon, the duo who created the popular television series Asfur (also set in Jerusalem) and several others.
In Maktub, which was directed by Oded Raz, they play two small-time gangsters whose turf is the Mahaneh Yehuda market, where the rise in upscale restaurants and shops in recent years makes the place fertile ground for wise guys in the protection racket. But after they narrowly escape being killed in a terrorist bombing, they vow to change their lives and even put notes in the Western Wall. However, turning over a new leaf is not as easy as they imagined it would be.
I attended the festive premiere last fall at the Jerusalem branch of Cinema City – until Honig’s time, I don’t remember a movie ever having a red-carpet premiere in the capital – and I don’t think I’ve ever been in an audience that was enjoying itself more. In just about a month the movie had already sold over 100,000 tickets.
That would have been a big local entertainment story, but, surprisingly, the movie has gone around the world.
It played at Jewish film festivals and the Israel Film Festival in Los Angeles, of course, but it has also been shown at festivals with no Jewish or Israeli connection, including three international festivals where it won the Audience Yoram Honig, founder and director of the Jerusalem Film & Television Fund, has proven that the city is no dull backwater.
(Jerusalem Film & Television Fund) (Left to right) Veteran director Avi Nesher with actors Joy Rieger and Nathan Goshen on the set of ‘The Other Story,’ his third straight flm set in the capital.
(Michal Fattal)RELIGION | IN JERUSALEM 9 Award, always a gauge of how enjoyable a movie is: the Monte Carlo Comedy Film Festival, the Palm Springs International Film Festival and the Sarasota Film Festival.
And it achieved another milestone a few days ago, becoming one of a handful of Israeli movies to be offered on Netflix, the international streaming service, with subtitles.
The success of Maktub capped a banner year for Jerusalem movies supported by the Fund. Amichai Greenberg’s The Testament, which told a fact-based story of a Holocaust historian who discovers a family secret while investigating the location of a mass grave in Austria, won the Best Picture Award at the Haifa International Film Festival and was screened in the Horizons section of the Venice International Film Festival.
And then there is The Cakemaker, a feature film about a young German baker whose bisexual Israeli lover is killed and who comes to Jerusalem to work in the café run by the lover’s widow, who knows nothing of the real story behind his visit. The camera lingers over the details of wintry Jerusalem and how the young baker teaches the woman the secrets of making delicious desserts.
Directed by Ofir Raul Graizer, this very atmospheric and touching film has been shown at more than 25 festivals around the world and won several awards, including at the prestigious Karlovy Vary Film Festival. In addition, there is a US remake in the works.
Honig is particularly proud of this film, because, in spite of its fashionable subjects of baking and bisexuality, “We were the only [Israeli] film fund to support it.” The national film funds all passed on The Cakemaker, “which is so sensitive and beautiful.”
The film scene in the capital is blossoming: 2016 was the first time that 30% of all tickets sold in Israel were for Jerusalem movies, and it seems that there is no going back. But the ticket sales are only part of the story. The Jerusalem Film Fund’s more significant accomplishment has been to bring uniquely Jerusalem-oriented stories to the screen, giving a voice to the religious and Mizrahi communities, whose stories were rarely told before on screen.
Like Maktub, some recent movies about Jerusalemites that would never have gotten made in the past have been both local and international successes.
Emil Ben-Shimon’s The Women’s Balcony is a gentle comedy about a traditional, religious Mizrahi neighborhood in Jerusalem that faces a crisis after a charismatic young rabbi convinces the men there that there no longer needs to be a place for women in their synagogue. It’s a comedy with deep implications about the religious-secular tensions in the city, as well as about the emerging face of feminism in traditional communities. Based on the childhood of its screenwriter, Shlomit Nehama, who grew up in Jerusalem’s Bukharan Quarter, it might have seemed so esoteric that it wouldn’t even speak to most Israelis. But it touched a chord with viewers here, selling around 400,000 tickets. And, like Maktub, this very particular Jerusalem story had a successful theatrical release abroad, in the US and Europe, and was shown at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Another movie about the religious community, Rama Burshtein’s comedy The Wedding Plan, about a young woman who is determined to find a new groom in three weeks after her fiancé breaks up with her, was a hit both here and abroad. Avishai Sivan’s Tikkun, a surreal story about a Jerusalem yeshiva student facing a crisis, won awards all over Europe and Asia.
Eitan Anner’s A Quiet Heart, about a Tel Aviv pianist played by Ania Bukstein who moves to Jerusalem and struggles to coexist with her ultra-Orthodox neighbors, touched on another side of life in the capital.
And the Jerusalem Film Fund has presided over the transformation of Avi Nesher, the veteran director of such classics as The Troupe and Turn Left at the End of the World, a Tel Aviv native, into a Jerusalem filmmaker. He has just finished helming his third straight film, The Other Story, set in the capital.
The Other Story, which will be released this fall, was shot mainly in and around Baka and Givat Mordechai, and tells the story of a young woman (Joy Rieger) from Tel Aviv who has recently become haredi and is engaged to be married soon. Her estranged psychologist father (Yuval Segal of Fauda) returns from America to try to talk her out of the marriage.
The Other Story is the second part of Nesher’s trilogy of fact-based films about struggling with the past. The first part in this trilogy, Past Life (2016), much of which was filmed in the Talbiyeh neighborhood, told the true story of a young Jerusalemite woman who is a classical music composer and her sister, a wild child who publishes a porn magazine. It had the distinction of being the first movie to show nude models posing for a magazine shoot on the Mount of Olives.
In 2013, Nesher’s The Wonders, filmed mainly in and around Jerusalem’s Musrara neighborhood, told the story of an Top right: The animated ‘The Legend of King Solomon’ was made in Jerusalem with the fund’s backing. (Snowball Studios, Jerusalem) Bottom right: Rama Burshtein’s ‘The Wedding Plan,’ with Noa Koler at center, was a hit both here and abroad. (Haifa International Film Festival)10 IN JERUSALEM | JUNE 22, 2018 COVER artist and barman who tries to help a rabbi who has been kidnapped.
Like all of Nesher’s movies, these films were commercially successful in Israel and played theatrically and at festivals all over the world.
It’s hard to overstate the cultural significance of a filmmaker of Nesher’s stature turning his focus to the Holy City, and it’s fair to say that it’s unlikely that this transformation would have taken place without the support the Jerusalem Film Fund offers.
But it isn’t only serious dramas that are now being made in Jerusalem. One of the most popular movies of 2016 was Jonathan Geva’s Abulele, a fantasy for children about a boy who befriends a mysterious, magical creature, which sold more than 140,000 tickets. Brothers Doron and Yoav Paz realized that what Jerusalem really needed was a zombie movie, and JeruZalem, starring Yael Grobglas, takes place mainly in the Old City on Yom Kippur eve, as the city is overrun by winged zombies. It won the Audience Award at the Jerusalem Film Festival and is still popular on iTunes.
Honig envisions Jerusalem becoming a center for international production as well, and several high-profile international movies have been filmed in the city with the support of the fund. Israeli/American actress Natalie Portman chose to film her directorial debut, an adaptation of Amos Oz’s A Tale of Love and Darkness, in Jerusalem. Joseph Cedar’s Norman, which stars Richard Gere as a con man who befriends an Israeli politician, was set mainly in New York and was filmed partly in Jerusalem.
Audiences had no way of knowing it, but many indoor scenes were filmed in the capital, including the key moment where Gere purchases a fancy pair of shoes for the Israeli (Lior Ashkenazi).
Animation is another arena that Honig has been developing. The fund has founded the Hop, Skip & Jump program, a yearly international animation development workshop, which brings together aspiring animators with international mentors.
“It’s not just giving them money, it’s also tutoring and teaching them about the industry,” he says.
A number of animated movies have been made in Jerusalem with the backing of the fund, including The Legend of King Solomon, directed by Albert Hanan Kaminski. In addition, international animation companies work with Israeli animation studios such as Snowball Studios in Jerusalem and commission movies, such as Barbie Dreamtopia, that are made here. The fund has also begun a program to nurture young animation filmmakers and to help them produce short films.
Television is another important focus of the fund’s work. A number of television series have been made here, including the recent hit Shababnikim, which was co-created by Malka. About a rowdy group of yeshiva students, it’s been described as Entourage with black hats.
One of the first series made here, Srugim, developed by Malka’s fellow Ma’aleh alumni Laizy Shapira and Hava Divon, a wildly popular series about young Modern Orthodox singles in the capital, is still in reruns and is available on Netflix with subtitles.
Shtisel, a series about an ultra-Orthodox family whose son wants to be an artist, created by Ori Elon and Yehonatan Indursky, is being remade in the US.
Arab Labor, the story of a Jerusalem Israeli-Arab family, also received support from the Fund. And other Jerusalem-based series are in the works.
In addition, the fund is establishing labs for Jerusalem filmmakers who have completed film school – whether or not they studied in Jerusalem film schools such as Sam Spiegel, Ma’aleh and Bezalel – but have not yet made a first feature.
One lab will be done in concert with Kan, the Israeli broadcaster, and will focus on developing television dramas and documentaries. A second lab, run only by the fund, will help participants make their first feature film, by giving them support and teaming them up with established mentors.
The Jerusalem Film Fund has changed the composition of the Israeli film industry, and there is no going back. In just 10 short years, Jerusalem has become a filmmaking center.
Asked whether the fund is planning a big event to mark its first decade, Honig said there is no need: “Actions speak louder than words.”

Tags Avi Nesher