Filmmaking fascism

Igal Hecht accuses Israeli documentary filmmakers of demonizing Israel, and the state of overly funding and exclusively showing left-wing films.

Igal Hecht 370 (photo credit: courtesy)
Igal Hecht 370
(photo credit: courtesy)
Filmmaker Igal Hecht is fed up with what he calls Israel’s left-wing documentary film culture, and says every story, including those about Jewish suffering, deserves to be told.
The Ashkelon-born Canadian, who moved to Toronto as a child in 1988 and started Chutzpah Productions in 1999, has made over 50 films mainly about Israel and the Jewish world, on topics ranging from the settler movement to Jews for Jesus. While his films have been shown at festivals in Israel and around the world, and on documentary film channels in the US and Canada, they have never been shown on Israeli television. For Hecht, who studied television production at Seneca College and taught there for eight years, if you’re not on television here, you don’t exist as a filmmaker. He has also never received funding from Israel, including the New Israeli Foundation for Cinema and Television, for any of his productions.
Wearing a blue-and-white March of the Living sweatshirt, having just returned from filming a teen tour of the Nazi camps, his dark curly hair falling past his ears, Hecht is a man on a mission.
“There’s something about having them shown in your shechuna [neighborhood] that warms your heart,” he says during an interview with The Jerusalem Post at the capital’s cinematheque, during a short visit to Israel while he films another documentary.
But he claims the channels here don’t show his films because they prefer to show overtly left-wing works.
“There’s an equation,” he explains. “You want to win an award and get credits from France or get credits from Germany? Israel=bad=occupation. Israel is the worst country in the world. It’s very simple.”
Hecht accuses many Israeli documentary filmmakers like Udi Aloni, who creates films on the Israeli- Palestinian conflict and supports the creation of a binational state here, of receiving grants from their home country and then demonizing it unjustly to the world. He says anti-Israel voices are the only ones getting funded today.
“I do want to bring about a different political message where Israel is not always right but it’s not always wrong, and I’m tired of being outside of Israel and watching films. Some are legitimate, [but] some are pure propaganda that demonize Israel.”
While he’s been called a “Zionist fascist” by leftwing critics, Hecht, 35, who moved to Toronto with his Ukrainian-born parents and brother, says he strives for balance in his films, to provide viewers with context and allow them to make up their mind about sensitive subjects.
His latest documentary, A Universal Language, about the eight-day journey of six Canadian comedians performing in Israel before Arab and Jewish audiences, premiered at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival last month, and is showing on the Canadian documentary film channel this summer. The Jerusalem Cinematheque, also last month, showed two of his other controversial films – The Hilltops and My Flag.
At its heart, A Universal Language is a film about fighting censorship, and how comedians can push the boundaries and bring people together.
“The movie was brought on because of the idiotic and anti-Semitic attempts to boycott Israeli films at the Toronto film festival by filmmakers in 2009,” he says. “It’s shocking that a filmmaker would call for a boycott of other people’s films, especially when those people have the same opinions as you.”
CANADIAN COMEDY icon Mark Breslin, who owns Toronto’s Yuk Yuk’s Comedy Club, couldn’t understand how artists could call for the boycott of their Israeli peers, who shockingly included Aloni, and so he decided to arrange a visit to the Holy Land for a group of Jewish and non-Jewish comedians to interact with people here in a cultural exchange. Adi Khalefa, a Palestinian comedian, Israeli comedians like Shachar Hason, and Yisrael Campbell, an Orthodox comedian, performed with them. Khalefa left the audience in stitches over a joke about the airplane bathroom also being “occupied,” while Campbell mocked Israel’s catching of the so-called master bombmaker, who had no legs and one arm.
Hecht says audiences, Arab and Jewish, appreciated the at-times “filthy” Canadian humor – everyone except for members of left-wing NGOs in east Jerusalem who got up and left when the word “Israel” was said on stage.
“They broke a lot of rules here. They said the word f*** in Jerusalem so many times in front of an Orthodox audience. And people laughed.”
In The Hilltops (2009), Hecht interviewed settler activists including Daniella Weiss and documented their battle to retain the West Bank, in the process capturing a particular emotional scene of the IDF tearing down a makeshift home on a hilltop, while removing young boys who were clinging to the structure.
“The moment I had that I knew, I don’t need to film anything else, I have my movie,” he says.
From the get-go, Hecht planned to challenge his subjects while not presenting them in an inherently negative light, and he also wanted to focus on the women in the movement. This is a tactic not often taken by other filmmakers shooting in the settlements, he says, because it shows a softer, gentler side of the population. It’s easier to compare them to al-Qaida, he says, looking at religious men’s beards and kippot, but this does not fully portray the residents of Judea and Samaria.
Hecht tackled the myriad perspectives within Israel on the state flag in his 2009 film My Flag, approaching people on the street and asking what they think of the flag. While he’s usually careful to stay out of his films and keep his opinions to himself, in this film he becomes noticeably angry when he carries the flag through Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox neighborhood Mea She’arim, and people call the flag worthless and hang a sign that says, “Zionism is the Holocaust of the Jewish People.”
Hecht does not hold back his opinions on this when he’s off camera. “People hate the flag. It’s a beautiful flag. The people who hate the flag, they can go f*** themselves,” he says. “I’m tired of being apologetic and of being a scared Jew. If you’re going to come out against the State of Israel and you’re going to lie, I believe I have the right to expose you as the liar that you are.”
His 2005 film Qassam tells the story of Sderot residents living their lives under rocket fire, a topic that Hecht says no other filmmaker here has touched, despite Sapir College’s film school being near the town.
“There’s characters, there’s drama, there’s missiles, there’s war, there’s conflict,” he says, all the elements needed for a riveting story. “Why isn’t their suffering legitimate?... They just don’t care. Israeli suffering is not legitimate in the eyes of filmmakers.”
Hecht acknowledges that Palestinian suffering is legitimate and worthy of screen time, but he would like to see greater balance among funding for a range of filmmakers with different opinions.
“That’s sad that you are allowing for one voice and not the other. That doesn’t scream freedom of speech to me. That screams fascism. These are the people who are the ‘progressives,’ who are calling for freedom of speech, who are not willing to extend that freedom of speech to everyone. Why aren’t we able to challenge Gush Katif and what happened, and why 10,000 missiles have been raining down on the South of Israel? Where is that movie?” As a proud Sabra, Hecht is for the first time making a personal film, The Shtetl, about returning to Ukraine with his parents for 10 days and debating with them over issues of Jewish identity, pride and anti-Semitism.
His parents and older brother made aliya in 1974 when life there became unbearable. It took convincing for his mother to return and participate in the film.
During the trip, Hecht admits he became frustrated with his mother over her belief that Jews should stay quiet even in the face of blatant anti-Semitism, and her insistence on following her father’s advice that Jews should know their place. “I shouldn’t be judging her, but I do,” he says. “I believe I’m a Jew, you don’t like it, I’m going to bash your head in with a baseball bat if you come out against me because I’m a Jew.”
The film, in post-production, will raise questions about the impact Communism had on the Jews who lived under it and how their children deal with their parents’ attitudes. For a country that he proclaims an obsession with, Hecht always receives the inevitable audience question on why he does not make aliya. “I just don’t want to live here,” he says, recognizing the hypocrisy. He says his film and television career – he has made nearly eight seasons of an Israeli music show in Canada called Muzika – would not be possible in Israel.
“I live vicariously through Israel. I love this country. I’m obsessed with this country. I’m not willing to live here.”
Hecht will continue to make films about his beloved home country, with or without outside funding, he says, on issues no other filmmaker wants to touch.
“If nobody’s going to do it, I’ll do it. Or if they do, I’ll do it another way.”