Screen Sensations

‘Foxtrot’ and other Israeli movies making an impact this year.

A SCENE from Samuel Maoz’s critically acclaimed ‘Foxtrot.’ (photo credit: GIORA BEJACH)
A SCENE from Samuel Maoz’s critically acclaimed ‘Foxtrot.’
(photo credit: GIORA BEJACH)
THE CONTROVERSY surrounding the release and success of Samuel (Shmuelik) Maoz’s “Foxtrot” caps a year of triumph for Israeli films both at home and abroad, and leads into what looks to be an equally outstanding new year.
Ironically, the fact that a movie provoked so much debate is a tribute to the vitality of the Israeli movie industry. Indeed, it’s rare that people care so deeply about a movie.
Expectations were high for “Foxtrot,” Maoz’s second movie, which tells the story of a grieving family whose son is killed in the military, and features a shocking sequence of violence and an IDF cover-up.
The director worked on his first film, “Lebanon,” for over 20 years. The movie was set inside a tank during the first Lebanon War and was based on his own experiences as a soldier. It won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 2009.
“Foxtrot” generated a positive early buzz at industry screenings here and won the Silver Lion Grand Jury Prize at the Venice festival in early September. It also got a warm reception at the Toronto International Film Festival and the Telluride Film Festival.
The movie’s subject matter and its success abroad put it very much on the radar of Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev, as the Ophir Awards, the prizes of the Israel Academy for Film and Television, rolled around on September 19.
Regev made headlines at the Ophirs in 2016, after she stormed out of the ceremony when an Arab musician quoted lines from the poet Mahmoud Darwish in a song.
This year, “Foxtrot” was the heavy favorite going into the Ophir Awards, which didn’t sit well with Regev, who said after the film’s Venice win that it “undermined the State of Israel.”
Even though the minister lost all credibility with anyone serious about culture by admitting she had not seen the movie, her constant criticisms of the film stirred up a storm of hate against Maoz, the cast and crew. Death threats were made against them, and even against the five-year-old daughter of the film’s star, Lior Ashkenazi.
Regev charged that the easiest way to win international awards abroad is to make a movie critical of the Israeli government, but that is simply untrue. Many leftist political films have not been successful, neither in Israel nor abroad, while other movies without a strong political agenda, such as Eran Kolirin’s “The Band’s Visit” or Joseph Cedar’s “Footnote,” have won great acclaim the world over.
The “Foxtrot” controversy was a perfect storm of circumstances for Regev: a high-profile, high-quality movie with a leftist point of view that was released and received acclaim at a time of year when things were slowing down before the High Holy Days.
Ironically, by giving the movie so much attention, Regev raised its profile. “Foxtrot” is a brilliant, intricately constructed movie, and whether or not you agree with its director’s politics, it couldn’t be dismissed and wasn’t going to go away.
Academy president Mosh Danon disinvited Regev from this year’s Ophir Awards ceremony, where “Foxtrot” won eight awards, including Best Picture, Best Screenplay and Best Actor (Ashkenazi).
Regev made a speech before the awards, where she repeated her criticism of the movie and Maoz. She did not, however, condemn the threats of violence made against him and his crew, suggesting that they had brought such threats on themselves.
Because it won the Ophir Award for Best Picture, Foxtrot became Israel’s official selection for the Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar nomination. While more than 80 countries each year submit movies to be considered for the award, Foxtrot is already consistently being mentioned as one of the frontrunners.
Regev’s attack certainly made it more likely that it will get a nomination and it could very well be Israel’s first winner, after 10 nominations, in this category.
THE FACT that Regev looked to the movie industry again this year to try to get attention is a testament to how important Israeli movies have become, both at home and abroad. Movies tell viewers a great deal about the society in which they take place and have a strong influence on hearts and minds, which is what Regev, in her clumsy way, is trying to control.
One of the charges Regev has repeatedly made against the Israeli film industry over the past year is that it is an elitist, Tel Aviv Ashkenazi boys’ club. While that may have been true 20 to 30 years ago, this year’s movies handily disprove that notion.
The biggest story in the Israeli movie industry this year was not actually “Foxtrot,” but the rise of Israeli Arab filmmakers who identify as Palestinian, but who are working within the Israeli system, accepting financing from the Israel Film Fund, which, in another irony, gets its budget from the Ministry of Culture and Sports, among other Israeli film funds. Often, Jewish producers, actors and other crew members collaborate on these films.
In the past, the most prominent Israeli Arab filmmakers have cut their ties with Israel. Celebrated Arab directors such as Elia Suleiman and Hany Abu Assad, both of whom are from Nazareth, spend most of their time in Europe and make a point of not accepting any Israeli funding. So it’s notable that a new generation of Arab filmmakers are taking a different path.
The highest profile of these is Maysaloun Hamoud, whose film, “In Between,” about three Israeli Arab women sharing an apartment in Tel Aviv, is a moving and engrossing film about a world most of us know nothing about it.
“In Between” was a big hit here with audiences of all religions, winning two Ophir Awards this year for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, as well as more than 10 awards at festivals around the world, and it just opened all over the UK. Like “Foxtrot,” though, it has generated controversy.
Hamoud was criticized by some Arabs for accepting money from the Israel Film Fund. She has also received death threats from Islamic extremists because of an unflattering portrayal of an Islamic man. This is the first year where the directors of the Ophir Award frontrunners have both received death threats, albeit from different sources.
Another film in the Israeli-Arab movie trend was Maha Haj’s “Personal Affairs,” a comic and dramatic look at two generations of an Israeli-Arab family, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and won the top prize at the Haifa International Film Festival in 2016.
These two movies looked mainly at Muslim characters living in Israel, but Shady Srour’s “Holy Air,” which was shown at this year’s Jerusalem Film Festival, is the movie Woody Allen might have made if he were a Christian Arab in Nazareth.
In a surprising development, “In Between” and “Personal Affairs” were shown at the Toronto Palestine Film Festival in September, in spite of BDS calls to boycott all movies with Israeli involvement, along with three other films directed by Israelis.
But it wasn’t only Arab filmmakers who disproved Regev’s charge that the Israeli film industry is dominated by established Ashkenazi men.
Another film that showcases the diversity in the movie industry is “The Women’s Balcony,” a comedy-drama by Emil Ben- Shimon. It was written by Shlomit Nehama and is based on her experiences growing up in the Bukharan Quarter of Jerusalem. The movie is about a neighborhood Mizrahi synagogue that experiences a tragedy: its balcony collapses, gravely injuring its elderly rabbi and leaving the place in ruins.
During the course of the renovation, the men in the community come under the sway of a charismatic young rabbi who advises them to rebuild the synagogue without a women’s balcony, effectively banishing females from the most important place in the community. In response, the women revolt.
The quintessentially Israeli movie was the biggest hit of the year in Israel, selling over 340,000 tickets here during its first four months of release and grossing more than $1 million in the US.
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post last December, Nehama said, “What matters is how much you connect to the characters. If you connect emotionally, they can be from any culture.”
Another Israeli film that may have seemed to have limited appeal for international audiences but raked in nearly $1.5m.
in the US is Rama Burshtein’s “The Wedding Plan.” The movie won Ophir Awards in 2016 for Best Actress (Noa Koler) and Best Screenplay. It tells the story of an independent, newly ultra-Orthodox young woman who gets engaged, but whose fiancé calls off the wedding a few weeks ahead of time. Undeterred, the bride doesn’t cancel the ceremony and decides, instead, to find a new groom within three weeks.
This is Burshtein’s second feature film about the ultra-Orthodox community, and, like her first film, “Fill the Void,” it has found a warm reception all over the world.
AS WE move into the new year, many hotly anticipated films will be released, including by Avi Nesher, one of the Israeli film industry’s veterans.
Nesher’s first movie, “The Troupe” (HaLahaka), about an army entertainment troupe, is one of the classics of Israeli cinema and will celebrate its 40th anniversary in 2018.
Another one of his early films, “Rage and Glory” (1984), about the underground Zionist group Lehi and its struggle against the British Mandate, is being digitally restored for the Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival this winter.
But Nesher’s classic films from an earlier era stand alongside the five extraordinary movies he has made since returning from Hollywood, where he specialized in genre films in the ’80s and ’90s. “Turn Left at the End of the World” (2004), “The Secrets” (2007), “The Matchmaker” (2010) and “The Wonders” (2013) are all wonderful movies that deal with aspects of Israeli life that others have overlooked. In 2016, his latest film, “Past Life,” a fact-based drama about a classical musician and her sister struggling to find the truth about their father’s wartime past, was a hit commercially and critically, both in Israel and internationally.
In 2017, he is due to release “Pilgrim,” his third consecutive movie to be filmed in Jerusalem, which is increasingly becoming a filmmaking center, thanks in large part to support from the Jerusalem Film Fund. “Pilgrim” tells the story of a psychologist who left Israel and returns to try to persuade his newly ultra-Orthodox daughter not to get married. Yuval Segal, one of the stars of the TV series “Fauda,” plays the psychologist, and Joy Rieger, who was in “Past Life,” is the daughter. Israeli pop star Natan Goshen plays the daughter’s fiancé, and also wrote eight original songs for the film.
Two other movies that premiered at the Jerusalem Film Festival and will be released this year are Matan Yair’s “Scaffolding” and Eliran Elya’s “Doubtful.” Both look at high schools in working-class neighborhoods and the ways that teachers can and cannot help students change their lives.
Israeli movies are no doubt expanding their reach and gaining in quality. Though Regev may not be interested enough to see these films, audiences in Israel and abroad certainly are.