Amid COVID-19 lockdown, local art industry prepares for the future

CULTURAL AFFAIRS: Everyone involved in the Israeli arts and culture scene has scrambled to find a way to survive this period.

A PERFORMANCE OF the Jewish Playwriting Project, in accordance with social-distancing restrictions. (photo credit: Courtesy)
A PERFORMANCE OF the Jewish Playwriting Project, in accordance with social-distancing restrictions.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Politicians have promised many times that the cultural sector will be the first to reopen. But even if there is light shining at the end of the tunnel following the vaccination rollout, the thousands of people who make their living as performers and providers of culture are still in a frustrating waiting game.
Except for very brief periods with heavy limitations between the first and second lockdowns during which some theatrical and musical performances were allowed and museums were able to open in a scaled-down way, culture has been shut down for close to a year.
Everyone involved in the Israeli arts and culture scene has scrambled to find a way to survive this period. Some have had luck and have managed to find creative ways to work remotely, but many struggle to fill their days and pay their bills.
“The only business in Israel that has been shut down 100% since the middle of March is the movie business,” said Guy Shani, the CEO of Lev Cinemas, which has a chain of theaters and a film distribution company for art house films from Israel and abroad.
The movie industry, while it is arguably Israel’s most influential export other than hi-tech, is not deemed part of “culture” by the government, and those who work in film have not been eligible for the grants that went to government-sponsored cultural institutions such as the Habimah Theater.
Shani cannot hide his frustration with “politicians who talk about the arts but don’t do anything to help.” He notes that he has not gotten a break on rent or municipal taxes since the crisis began.
“In Germany, the government paid rent to landlords so the movie theaters didn’t have to, since they’re closed,” and German theater owners also did not have to pay municipal taxes.
When he realized “nobody is coming to help us,” he started a VOD channel which is available through the Lev Cinemas website and features recent films and classics. Lev collaborated with several online film festivals over the last year, including those of Jerusalem, Haifa and the Arava. The VOD platform also presents lectures about film and meetings with creators.
“It’s doing really well,” he said, and so are Lev’s partnerships with the satellite networks Yes and HOT. “We’re working with the festivals, and we’re very active with our movies,” meaning the movies the chain would have distributed this year, if not for the pandemic. “We are maintaining our brand.”
During the pandemic, he has traveled as much as he could to see movies that he might acquire for Lev, including at the film festivals that were held in the fall in Venice and Rome, which he feels were managed very well, with masks and other precautions.
But, of course, he longs to reopen the movie theaters.
“We hear a lot from our members,” he said (Lev Cinemas sells subscriptions for multiple admissions and has a very loyal community all over the country). “They want to come back as soon as possible. We’ve changed our model, but at the end of the day, we want to show movies on the big screen. We were hoping we would reopen on March 15, but now we don’t know. We are totally in the dark. We don’t know if there will be a reopening all over the country or whether every city will be different.”
Shani and several others in the film industry speak about important Israeli movies that are waiting to be released, among them Ruthy Pribar’s Asia, which won the Ophir Award this year and will represent Israel at the Oscars; Nir Bergman’s Here We Are, which was accepted to the 2020 Cannes festival, which was canceled; Eytan Fox’s Sublet, which opened the online version of the Jerusalem Film Festival this year; and Talya Lavie’s Honeymood, a dark comedy set in Jerusalem that is her follow-up to her popular 2014 film, Zero Motivation.
“There could be a traffic jam with all the unreleased movies,” said producer Assaf Amir, who is the director of the Israel Academy of Film and Television. “There are these great Israeli movies, and then there are all the American movies that have not been released.”
While movies are not being released, filming on television and movies continues – in between lockdowns and with restrictions – and Amir is a producer of Rehearsals, the show that has been a hit on KAN about a feuding couple working together on a show. But while he is currently working in television, he does not think that there will be a shift away from the movie industry.
“Once theaters can open, the hope is that the audience will come back,” he said.
FOR ISRAELI actors, this has not been an easy period. One of Israel’s top actresses, Joy Rieger, who starred in the television series Valley of Tears and in two of Avi Nesher’s movies, The Other Story and Past Life, has managed to keep working through much of the pandemic.
“Work stops and starts according to when there is a lockdown,” she said.
In November, she finished appearing in Nesher’s War of Independence epic, Portrait of Victory, and she also appeared in a television series this year, Playing and Singing, in which she plays a singer’s manager. But she was not able to go to Cyprus to do postproduction on a film she made there, and had to do it via Zoom. She has recently been recording an album of children’s songs written by Avishay Fridler and Ido Ofek, which she says will be “high-quality, like The 16th Sheep.”
What is most frustrating for her is the shutdown of theaters. She was appearing in the Cameri Theater production’s adaptation of the film Les Intouchables, when theaters were closed, and is in rehearsals online for another play.
One young actress who starred in an unreleased film – which has been shown in some online frameworks but not theaters – was working as a housecleaner until she got a government grant and some money from her grandparents. Like a lot of her actor friends, she moved back in with her parents.
“It’s frustrating, I’m basically just waiting around,” she said.
Daniella Crankshaw and her husband chose the end of 2019 to open an English-language theater in Ra’anana, Center Stage Israel.
South Africans who immigrated to Israel in the late ’90s, she and her husband were actors in their home country who did English community theater in Israel and felt there was a need for a professional English theater company.
In November 2019, with the help of investors, they were able to realize their dream. A bar that would host stand-up comedy and theater classes for children and youth would help support the theater, she thought. And then the pandemic hit.
“For the theater industry it has been absolutely devastating,” she said. When theaters were first closed down in March, “You don’t think it’s going to last so long, maybe three months.... We’ve invested so much, never mind the money, but the time and effort and work. This was our baby.
“After the initial shock, we realized we have to keep going,” she said, and they have made the best of the situation by starting a number of innovative projects, including an online chat show, On Cue, musical evenings, webinars on theater for businesspeople, youth theater and a short play program, as well as being a theater partner in the Jewish Playwriting Project. Some of their events were seen by as many as 6,000 viewers around the world.
But since Center Stage opened only at the end of 2019, she was not entitled to government compensation, and the debts have mounted. Still she remains optimistic.
Once the pandemic ends, “We can start off with small bits while we’re getting ready for bigger productions.”
KALEY HALPERIN, a singer-songwriter, community entrepreneur and mother of three from Jaffa, whose music “connects American folk to my Jewish roots and sounds from around the world,” has also struggled to find a way to work during the pandemic. After having a baby during the past year, she said she found it difficult to adjust when she had finished what would have been her maternity leave and nothing was reopening yet.
“In the second lockdown, I was starting to get depressed. I wanted to do something after being off the grid, and I started feeling really down,” she said. “But I made a decision that the fact that I’m locked in the house doesn’t mean I can’t be creative, it doesn’t mean I have to lock myself in.”
She has managed to work on online projects, and just finished appearing a Tu Bishvat Seder for the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality.
Those who work in the fine arts have also been affected, as museums and galleries remain closed. Lenore Mizrachi-Cohen, a conceptual artist whose work combines calligraphy, embroidery, collage, photography and light, moved to Jerusalem this year from Brooklyn.
Happy about the preschool and school options available for her two young children, she thought “this year would be my golden moment to work.”
But as soon as she had sorted out all the logistical issues presented by the move, the pandemic hit. Gone was her opportunity to connect with a women’s art collective here and the chance to show her work in public exhibits and projects. Not only that, but she found herself taking care of her children full-time as her husband worked from home.
“Art and culture are the No. 1 thing people turn to in a crisis, but they are the first thing that gets dropped,” she said.
Although she often takes commissions to create art for clients, it became impossible to do that during the lockdowns.
“I’m not taking on any large-scale projects now,” she said.
When she decided to offer a crafts workshop in the playground for her daughter and her friends, she was surprised at how eagerly parents jumped at the chance.
She is keeping busy with her children by now. “You have to believe the opportunities will come back soon,” she said.
For some, it’s been an especially dark time. One man who works as a freelance sound technician for musical events, who has struggled with alcoholism all his adult life, fell off the wagon after he lost his apartment.
“Basically, I became homeless,” he said. “I was staying with friends, different friends, and people around me were drinking and it was hard not to join in.” He does not blame his friends, but the stress of the situation.
At times this summer, he has found himself sleeping in various parks in Tel Aviv.
“I never made a lot of money, but I have never been homeless in my life before,” he said. “If it weren’t for my friends, I would probably be dead now. I used to complain in the past about not having enough work, but if I had half the work I used to in a typical month, I would be in heaven.”
A young man who works as a DJ and in graphic arts said he had turned to selling marijuana to get by. At first it was a sideline, but “now it is my main source of income and social interaction.”
He does not know when the arts will come back, but says he is not the only one he knows now who has moved into the drug trade during the pandemic.
Rieger, who says she still has online rehearsals for a new play, speaks for many when she says, “Yes, I’m rehearsing, but for what? Who knows whether anyone will be able to see this play?”