Despite coronavirus, Jerusalem Sam Spiegel Film School thrives

The entire faculty and staff switched to working on Zoom, but work continues.

DANA BLANKSTEIN COHEN: We didn’t stop for a minute. You can’t stop the creativity. (photo credit: EYAL NAVO)
DANA BLANKSTEIN COHEN: We didn’t stop for a minute. You can’t stop the creativity.
(photo credit: EYAL NAVO)
When Dana Blankstein Cohen took the reins as the new director of the Jerusalem Sam Spiegel School for Film and Television (JSFS) a little over a year ago, she had no idea what lay in store for the school, for her and for the world.
But in spite of the coronavirus pandemic, she has managed to keep the school going – and even thriving.
“You never waste a good crisis,” she said in a Zoom interview. “I didn’t say that; Winston Churchill did. But it’s definitely appropriate here.”
This week, the school made two major announcements.
JSFS said Wednesday that it would grant an honorary fellowship to the iconic Italian actress Sophia Loren, following a decision by its board of directors. The fellowship will be granted during the online school graduation event on February 22.
Loren said, “I am so touched by this fellowship. The future and the soul of our industry lies in the hands and hearts of these very talented graduates and many more around the globe just like them. It is an honor to be able to send them off into the world. I can’t wait to be moved and dazzled by the stories they will tell.”
Blankstein Cohen said, “It is a great honor for our school community to have legendary actress Sophia Loren accept this fellowship. It is especially poignant in these times when we miss the cinema so much. I want to thank Sophia and her son director Edoardo Ponti for their openness, their support and appreciation of our school, for our students and for championing the idea of educating towards meaningful, impactful cinema made by talented young filmmakers bringing fascinating and diverse voices to our screens.”
Each year, JSFL grants an honorary fellowship to a leading film professional or cultural figure. Past recipients have included director David Lynch and producer Lord David Puttnam.
In addition, plans for proposed UAE-Israeli cinematic cooperation are now official. There will be a landmark event on Thursday, January 28, where four short films from the Emirates and four from JSFS will be screened at the Cinema Al Qattara in Abu Dhabi. All the films will be shown with Arabic, Hebrew and English subtitles. Online viewers can watch on the Abu Dhabi Culture YouTube channel at
It was organized by the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi in collaboration with Image Nation, the Abu Dhabi Film Commission (ADFC), the Israel Film Fund (run by Lisa Shiloach-Uzrad) and JSFS.
Blankstein Cohen said, “I am delighted for this first joint event for our two countries. This historic event is an important bridge for creating a new path, forging cultural ties and opening opportunities and a variety of professional initiatives between Israeli and Emirati filmmakers. The films selected for this program by Emirati film professionals allow a peek into current and relevant filmmaking from talented graduates of our school. This is the beginning of a cultural, social and professional dialogue which we will build together with the belief in the creative tools of art as the inspiration for connection peoples and cultures.”
This is just one of the achievements that the school has managed to accomplish since Blankstein Cohen took over in November 2019. She was just hitting her stride in her new role and was preparing to open the second semester in mid-March when life was turned upside down by the pandemic.
“We didn’t stop for a minute. You can’t stop the creativity,” she said. And the event with the UAE was not the only recent piece of good news. Blankenstein Cohen said she was happy to report that applications to the school were up 20% this year.
THE SCHOOL has had to make adjustments to keep going this year. The entire faculty and staff switched to working on Zoom.
“We changed the whole syllabus in a couple of days” to adapt to the new remote reality. It was an adjustment for everyone, including Blankstein Cohen, who had never worked remotely before.
“Someone told me there is a thing called Zoom. That was all I knew about it.”
She got up to speed quickly and today is so comfortable Zooming from her home in Tel Aviv with that she uses a virtual background that displays a room at the school’s offices in the Talpiot industrial area of Jerusalem. Fittingly, the special effects are spot-on. Anyone who didn’t know there was a lockdown would be convinced she was in her office.
The school briefly was able to move to in-person learning in between some of the lockdowns, according to the “purple tag” regulations, with masks and in capsules, but most of the year has been held remotely. In addition to the classes, during the times when the morbidity went down, students were able to “go out into the world and film” and also to “build a sense of community to deal with the loneliness” among the 160 students and staff. The students study in three tracks: directing, screenwriting and producing. Some students ended up moving back in with their parents, others were alone in apartments. The school did its best to foster the full creative connection the students would have had in a normal year.
Crises are hardly new to JSFS, which was born in the midst of one. In 1989, film students at the Beit Zvi Art School rebelled and staged a protest, saying the school favored its acting students. Although the center of the Israeli film scene was in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek and Ruth Cheshin, president of the Jerusalem Foundation, pressed for a film school to be opened in the capital and chose film director Renen Schorr to found and run the school. In the mid-90s, the Sam Spiegel Foundation, run by the family of the late Academy-Award winning American Jewish producer, decided to support the school.
Schorr pushed the students to achieve creatively on a par with film students around the world and short films by the students have amassed thousands of prizes from every prestigious film festival in the world. Richard Pena, the former director of the New York Film Festival, said that Israeli film could be divided into two eras: before Sam Spiegel and after Sam Spiegel. The school’s many graduates include such internationally acclaimed filmmakers as Nadav Lapid, Talya Lavie, Rama Burstein, Nir Bergman, Ruthy Pribar and Noah Stollman.
The current crisis has inspired creativity and with funding from the Gesher Film Fund, the students are working on a project called “Stories from Quarantine.” Students have also been working on documentary films about the pandemic.
The school’s other flagship project, the JSFS International Film Lab, has had to make changes but is still going full speed ahead. Run by producer Aurit Zamir, this year’s edition of the lab – which has produced such internationally acclaimed films as the Oscar-winning Son of Saul – is up and running with six projects by Israelis and six projects by screenwriters from around the world with both Israeli and international mentors guiding them. Of course, it is now online.
“There was an opening-night event. Half of the participants toasted with wine and the other half with their morning cup of coffee, because they’re on opposite sides of the world,” she said.
The ability to adapt in the face of the crisis like this is “part of the DNA of this place,” she said.