Renen Schorr on the past and the future of the Sam Spiegel Film School

Schorr is usually too busy to reminisce, but he takes understandable pride in telling the school’s origin story.

Renen Schorr (photo credit: Courtesy)
Renen Schorr
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Renen Schorr, the founder director of the Jerusalem Sam Spiegel Film School has just retired – sort of.
Yes, he has left his position at the school and handed the reins to Dana Blankstein Cohen. But, he is still traveling the globe on behalf of the film school he created 30 years ago. His mission is still, and likely always will be, to spread the gospel according to JSFS.
Currently, he is busy helping to prepare a tribute to the school at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which will take place in the spring of 2020,  and which will actually be the second tribute it has had there.
The first was in 1996, when the fledgling school had shaken up the international film community – to say nothing of the Israeli film industry – with its ability to turn out students who actually knew how to make good movies, as opposed to students who were technically proficient and could conduct jargon-laden discussions of film theory but didn’t know how to tell a story.
During a recent interview in Mishkenot Sha’ananim, Schorr discussed his upcoming projects, and explained how his persistence back in the 1990s won over Larry Kardish, then senior curator of the department of film at MOMA.
“I’m like that, I’m very proactive,” he said. “I knew the strength of the school and I thought I had a chance.”
This second tribute has required less persuasion. JSFS, located in Talpiot on Sam Spiegel Alley, which was renamed for the school years ago, was named one of the 50 top film schools in the world  by Variety recently and has been on the Hollywood Reporter's list of the 15 top film schools outside the US for three years.
Student films by its graduates have won hundreds of awards at the most prestigious film festivals around the world, including Cannes, Toronto and Venice. Sam Spiegel students have gone on to make feature films that have won top prizes at major film festivals around the world, most recently Nadav Lapid’s Synonyms, which won the Golden Bear at the 2019 Berlin International Film Festival. Talya Lavie’s black comedy about women in the IDF, Zero Motivation, took the top prize at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2014, Rama Burshtein’s Fill the Void won a prize for Best Actress (for Hadas Yaron) at the Venice Film Festival in 2012, and so many others have won awards and been shown around the world.
In a speech at the Israel Film Center at the JCC in Manhattan in 2011, Richard Pena, who for years was the director of the New York Film Festival, said,  “I think when we’re talking about Israeli cinema, we really can use designations such as B.S.S and A.S.S., ‘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 SCHOOL has branched out over the years, under Schorr’s stewardship, into much more than a conventional film school. In 2011, it created the Sam Spiegel International Film Lab, which brings to Jerusalem 12 talented young director-writers who are at advanced stages of writing their first or second full length feature film. Usually half are Israeli and half are from abroad. All participants write for a seven-month period, and are invited for two periods of writing and discussion in Jerusalem under the mentorship of three of the world’s top script editors.
A large number of the films developed in the Lab have been produced and released, including László Nemes’s Son of Saul, which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival.
The school maintains an ongoing relationship with many of its graduates, who have created the Sam Spiegel Alumni Trilogy, three anthology films that are re-workings of classic Israeli movies: Footsteps in Jerusalem, a tribute to In Jerusalem by David Perlov; Voice Over, based on Avraham Heffner’s Slow Down; and, most recently, The Voice of Ahmad, inspired by Ram Loevy’s I Am Ahmad, the first Israeli film to feature an Arab protagonist. The trilogy was shown all over the world in 2013 at 50 venues in 41 countries and will be screened this year at theaters in five countries.
There’s also the IFP Marcie Bloom Fellowship in Film, in which JSFS graduates meet in New York with US film school graduates during the Tribeca Film Festival. Bloom is the co-president and co-founder of Sony Pictures Classics.
With a track record like this, it’s hard to believe that the school was created hurriedly in 1989, when Jerusalem Mayor Teddy
Kollek and Jerusalem Foundation president Ruth Cheshin came to Schorr, a well-known director whose 1987 film, Late Summer Blues has become an Israeli classic, and asked him to open the school in just three months. There had been turbulent protests over problems at the Beit Zvi school in Ramat Gan, and they feared that if they waited longer, another city would start a film school.
Schorr is usually too busy to reminisce, but he takes understandable pride in telling the school’s origin story.
“I was a lucky bastard,” he said. “I was in the right place at the right time. So I agreed. I said I would open it in three months’ time, no matter what. It’s in the DNA of the school to do everything with urgency.” That urgency fueled a sense of purpose, and of responsibility. “That was the joy, I just had to decide everything. Who were the students, who were the teachers.” A few years later, the Sam Spiegel Foundation, run by the family of the late, Oscar-winning director, came on board and contributed millions to the school.
What Schorr knew from the beginning was that, “I was opening a school for storytellers,” and the school focused on teaching students to tell stories that were important to them in a way that would make viewers connect to them.
Talking about Talya Lavie, whose student film, Sliding Flora, a surreal and intensely watchable film about a waitress in a café at the Monster (Mifletzet) playground sculpture park in Jerusalem, is one of the best ever produced at the school, Schorr said, “She had been a waitress. A lot of students have been waitresses. But from her truth, she was able to tell this amazing story.”
That goes to the heart of the school’s mission: “By telling the most Israeli stories, filmmakers touch a truth and can tell the most universal stories.”