Israel's smash-hit decade

More and more eyebrow-raising at mentions of Israeli film.

It's all in the eyebrows. When I used to tell peopleI wrote about Israeli movies, their eyebrows would furrow downward,into an unmistakable expression of pity. Now they raise their eyebrows,and they often murmur that, "Oh," that shows they're impressed."Interesting job," they'll say.The significance of cultural trends should not bemeasured in eyebrow shifts alone, but there's no denying that both thereality and the perception of Israeli movies has improved immeasurablyover the past decade. This has been the most significant decade for themovie industry in the country's history. Let's take a brief look atjust how far they've come.

Ten years ago, Israeli movies were rarely, if ever, shown atinternational film festivals. Now, it's unusual for a significant filmfestival to conclude without one winning a prize. It's incredible thata small film industry, which produces about 20 features a year, has wonmore than 200 prizes at international festivals over the last decade.And, if you add in prizes for documentaries, shorts and student films,the total would come to well over 500.

While the Oscar has eluded us, the movies nominated in the past two years were considered serious contenders. Joseph Cedar's Beaufort,a drama about the IDF withdrawal from Lebanon, was the 2007 Oscarnominee, and Ari Folman's animated documentary about the First LebanonWar, Waltz with Bashir, was a nominee the next year (Waltzdid win the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film). This year's officialselection for Oscar consideration, Yaron Shani's and Scandar Copti's Ajami, a gritty drama about crime in Jaffa, has a real shot at a nomination as well.

While a small, unreasonable minority has calledfor a boycott of Israeli films recently, the list of prestigious awardswon at festivals during this decade is long and impressive - andgrowing. Shmuel Maoz's Lebanon just won the Golden Lion, thetop prize, at the Venice International Film Festival. Cannes isarguably the most prestigious festival of all, and Israeli films areregularly shown in the main competition there. Two, Keren Yedaya's Or (2004) and Shira Geffen's and Etgar Keret's Jellyfish (2007), won the coveted Camera d'Or Prize for first-time filmmakers, while several others, including Ajami and Eran Kolirin's The Band's Visit (2007) won Special Jury prizes in this category. Tawfik Abu Wael's Atash won the FIPRESCI (foreign film critics' award) at Cannes in 2004.

Israeli films won the top prize at several other international film festivals, including The Band's Visit (which won a phenomenal total of more than 35 international awards) and Broken Wings (2002) at the Tokyo International Film Festival, Dror Shaul's Sweet Mud (2006) at Sundance, David Volach's My Father My Lord (2007) at Tribeca and The Syrian Bride(2004) at the Montreal Film Festival. Joseph Cedar was awarded theSilver Bear for Best Director at the Berlin Film Festival in 2007,while his film Campfire (2004) won a Special Mention there.

Israeli actors were also recognized abroad for their work: Hanna Laszlo took Best Actress honors at Cannes for Free Zonein 2005 (a win that was considered a particular surprise since shefaced stiff competition from actresses such as Juliette Binoche andSharon Stone); Ohad Knoller won Best Actor for Yossi & Jagger at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2003; and Sasson Gabai won Best Actor for The Band's Visit at the European Film Academy Awards in 2007.

Nearly all of these films played abroad and several, notably Dover Koshashvilli's A Late Wedding (2001) and Eytan Fox's Walk on Water(2004), earned several million dollars overseas, unheard of sums forlow-budget, subtitled Israeli films in the past. Their box-officeearnings in the US are on a par with subtitled films from othercountries with more established film industries, such as France andChina.

In the documentary field, there are from 50 to 100 films madehere each year, and many go on to international festivals. Lia vanLeer, the founding director of the Jerusalem Cinematheque and theJerusalem Film Festival, told me a couple of years ago that thetoughest part of her job was choosing documentaries for the 10 to 15slots in the Wolgin Competition for Israeli films - one year shereceived more than 70 entries. Short films, many made by students atlocal films schools (more on them later), have been phenomenallysuccessful, winning hundreds of prizes. And they compete at virtuallyevery festival in the world.

BUT PROBABLY the most important fact about the success of thefilm industry over the course of this decade is that local audiencesnow enjoy locally made films. I don't believe a film industry canflourish in the long run if its films don't resonate with its owncitizens. If films are made primarily to please the juries of foreignfilm festivals, in the end, the movies will lose all sense of place andauthenticity. But happily, that is not the case here. Although Israelifilms will never outsell Spiderman 7, I've been pleasantly surprised to find that I've had a hard time getting a good seat at commercial showings.

And the major distribution chains show Israeli movies, even atmultiplexes, for a single reason - they want to sell tickets. And theydo sell tickets. In a good year, local films sell more than a milliontickets locally. In 2007, the year The Band's Visit and Beaufortwere released, that figure was a million and a half. Avi Nesher's TurnLeft at the End of the World sold more than 600,000 tickets in 2004.New releases routinely break the 100,000 viewer mark. Ajami,which was released in September, is a case in point. Again, byHollywood standards, these numbers are small. But in a country thissize, where several million don't speak Hebrew as their first languageand several hundred thousand (at least) don't see movies for religiousreasons, these figures are phenomenal.

Of course, local audiences don't always go for the same films as foreign audiences. For example, a movie like Lost Islands(2008), about two brothers' coming-of-age in the early 1980s, is filledwith jokes, music and nostalgia, and appealed (and was designed toappeal) much more to local audiences than foreign viewers.

Theseattendance figures may not sound so astounding, if you forget thatbefore 2000, four or five feature films were made (in a good year) andwould play to empty houses here for a few weeks before closing andvanishing without a trace. Their only shot at going abroad was Jewishand Israeli film festivals, where audiences went out of curiosity or tosupport Israel, not to see good films.

When I was living in New York in the 1990s, I planned to see amovie at New York's Israel film festival with an Israeli friend.Looking over the schedule, she sighed and said, "I don't know - they'reall about Holocaust survivors who move to a kibbutz and become incestvictims." My friend wasn't exaggerating (much), but that was then.

Up until about 2000, there were two basic streams of Israeli movies. One of these were the sirtei burekas (burekas movies), like the Eskimo Limonseries, silly comedies aimed at high-school kids. Then there were thepainfully earnest dramas, that were about either Holocaust survivors,the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or god-awful dysfunctional families.Few saw these films other than the cast, crew and their closerelatives. Most of these were made with money from the Israel FilmFund, that, to be fair, probably weeded out scripts that were evenworse than the ones that got made.

The awful domestic dramas continue to be made, and follow sucha predictable formula that I have dubbed them TAMP films, an acronymfor Tel Aviv's Miserable People. But a few bad films are inevitable.Katriel Schory, the head of the Israel Film Fund, likes to say,"Quantity is quality," meaning that there will only be good films if acritical mass of movies gets made.

There were a few good films made during the first five decadesof the state, although not as many as some nostalgia addicts would haveyou believe. Israel had six nominations for the Best Foreign LanguageFilm Oscar prior to 2007, and several of them were excellent,particularly Sallah, the Ephraim Kishon satire starring Haim Topol as an innocent immigrant. The 1971 nominee, The Policemanstarring Shaike Ophir (the actor for whom the Ophir Awards, Israel'sOscars, get their name), may be the most beloved Israeli film of alltime, but although Ophir shines in his role, it's not a movie thatholds up all that well. The same is true of I Love You, Rosa (1972) and The House on Chelouche Street (1973), both Oscar nominees. As for Operation Thunderbolt,the 1977 nominee tells of the heroic rescue at Entebbe, and itsinclusion in this category is simply proof of the American Academy'slove for the Jewish state.

The 1984 nominee, the highly political Beyond the Walls, about two prisoners, a Palestinian (Muhammad Bakri, whose son Saleh starred in The Band's Visit)and an Israeli (Arnon Tzadok), who bond in jail to fight the system,still works pretty well as a prison drama and is certainly one of thefinest Israeli films ever made.

There were other films here and there that shone, among them Renen Schorr's Late Summer Blues,about a group of high-school students during the last month before theyare drafted. But Schorr then turned around and founded the Sam SpiegelFilm School in Jerusalem and did not direct again until he made The Loners, which will be released next week. But the good films were few and far between. Very, very far between.

SO WHAT happened?

A few factors came together to bring hidden or slumberingcinematic talent to the surface. The first was the birth of commercialtelevision in the early 1990s. It's fashionable to denigratetelevision, but it nurtured a generation of directors, crew members andactors. By 2000, for the first time, a director who got behind thecamera had a good chance of having had at least a couple of years'experience, and the same can be said for actors, writers, etc. It madea huge difference.

Most actors and directors tend to go back and forth between thebig and small screen even today. You can see Lior Ashkenazi ontelevision soap operas or in some of the highest-profile local films,including A Late Wedding and Walk on Water. Ditto for virtually every other actor. There is no substitute for experience.

But it's a two-way street: Directors who have made films go backto television and the quality of the TV programming increases. NirBergman, who made the acclaimed 2002 drama Broken Wings and who was a star student at Sam Spiegel, went on to become one of the creators of Betipul,a series about a psychiatrist that had the nation glued to its screens.So brilliantly conceived was this show that it was actually adapted byHBO into the series In Treatment, which won two Emmy awards and a Golden Globe. Who could have imagined in 2000 that the network that brought the world The Sopranos and Sex and the City would take ideas from Israeli television?

To blur the lines even further, the cable companies investheavily in the movie industry and some films originally meant fortelevision, such Eytan Fox's Yossi & Jagger, turned out to be so good they got a theatrical release.

The second significant change was the passage of the Cinema Lawin 2001, which greatly increased the government budget for supportingthe film industry. It has been cut several times, but in response topressure from across the political spectrum, it was restored. I wasskeptical at first that investing more money would help, but there isno question that it did. The film industry here is so small, taxes sohigh, red tape so cumbersome and private investors so unwilling to puttheir money into local product, that without this infusion of cash, thefilm industry would have not reached the heights it has.

The proof is that after the funding was cut, theindustry output dropped from 24 of the best-reviewed films in thenation's history in 2004, to a handful of mostly mediocre films thefollowing year. Part of what this funding does is give filmmakersgrants so they can spend a year or two rewriting scripts, and thedifference shows up on the big screen. For example, Joseph Cedar spenta year and a half rewriting the screenplay of Beaufort along with Ron Leshem, the novelist on whose book the film was based. And that time costs money.But italso generates money. When foreign investors saw how good Israeli filmshad gotten, they began investing heavily in this industry. The moneycomes mostly from France and Germany, but The Band's Visit gotsome funding from Japan. There has been some controversy about thistrend, with critics saying that films made with this coproduction moneyare more likely to be made with foreign audiences in mind. That dangeris certainly there, but the reality is that local filmmakers are in noposition to turn down money from any source. And the success of theindustry is also a product of contributions from several privately heldIsraeli film funds.

The third factor is the development of a sophisticated movieculture here, through the cinematheques and film schools. It was thecinematheques that came first, and the woman who started them, Lia vanLeer, has done more to develop the local film industry than any othersingle person. A great movie lover, she started a cinema club with herlate husband, Wim van Leer, in Haifa in the 1950s, which she developedinto the Haifa Cinematheque. In 1973, she created a small-scale versionof today's Jerusalem Cinematheque, which was expanded in 1981.

The cinematheques show a mix of Hollywood classics from thehuge archives she acquired and the best contemporary and classic artfilms. Van Leer made sure they provided a showcase for upcoming localdirectors. Both of these cinematheques began film festivals in theearly 1980s, modeled after the large European festivals, with hundredsof films shown in 10 days or so.

Van Leer quickly succeeded in attracting the crème de la crèmeof international moviemaking to the Jerusalem Film Festival. The listof directors who have attended includes virtually every art filmdirector you've ever heard of, and such actors as Robert De Niro,Jeanne Moreau, Warren Beatty and Lillian Gish. In recent years, DebraWinger and Jeff Goldblum have attended Jerusalem, while Elliott Gould,Harvey Keitel and Willem Dafoe have been at Haifa.

But more important than any other contribution, these festivalsshowcased and nurtured local directors through their high-profileIsraeli film competitions. There are now cinematheques based on themodel van Leer started in cities across the country, including TelAviv, Sderot, Rosh Pina, Holon and Herzliya. Before DVDs and theInternet, the cinematheques and festivals provided budding cineasteswith their only exposure to classic film and helped develop a true filmculture here.

Next,the young people who became movie lovers wanted to make their ownmovies, and so the film schools stepped in. The Sam Spiegel Film Schoolin Jerusalem is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. But it isby no means the only film school here. There are several othersincluding one at Tel Aviv University, Camera Obscura and Sapir College.The Ma'aleh Film School in Jerusalem, which is also celebrating its20th anniversary this year, is geared to religious students.

The advent of Ma'aleh is striking because in the pastfilmmaking was a strictly secular industry. It is still dominated bysecular filmmakers, but that is changing. Joseph Cedar is modernOrthodox, and his first two films, Time of Favor and Campfire,dealt with issues in the modern Orthodox community in the West Bank andJerusalem. Shuli Rand, who had had a career as a secular actor, becamereligious and made Ushpizin (which he scripted and acted in), avery effective drama set in the haredi community. And with morereligious filmmakers completing the course at Ma'aleh every year,surely there are more such films on the way.

BUT IT wasn't only that religious filmmakers got in on the act.Many other groups whose voices hadn't been heard in the past, when mostfilmmakers were Ashkenazim from established families, began makingfilms. The year after Cedar's Time of Favor won the Ophir Award, the 2001 prize went to Georgian immigrant Dover Koshashvilli for A Late Wedding, a jaundiced look at the Georgian community here. In 2002, Eytan Fox, a gay filmmaker, triumphed with Yossi & Jagger, a love story about two male soldiers. Interestingly, both Fox and Cedar are the children of American immigrants.

While many films had dealt with the Israeli-Palestinianconflict, there had been few films by Arab filmmakers here. But in2004, Tawfik Abu Wael, an Israeli Arab, made Atash, a look atthe tyranny of an isolated Arab family that may or may not be read asan allegory against patriarchal tyranny. Suha Arraf, an Israeli-Arabscreenwriter, cowrote (with Eran Riklis) The Syrian Bride in 2004 and Lemon Treein 2008, bringing her point of view front and center. There are severalother Israeli-Arab filmmakers, most notably Hany Abu Assad (who made Paradise Now, about two suicide bombers) and Elia Suleiman (Divine Intervention),who live abroad, don't take money from Israeli sources and prefer notto be known as Israeli-Arabs. But they were born and raised here.

This year, a new trend may be on the horizon with the directingteam of Scandar Copti, a Christian Arab from Jaffa, and Yaron Shani, anIsraeli Jew, who made Ajami, a film in Arabic and Hebrew, with both Jewish and Palestinian characters.

Women filmmakers are out there, but it's still a male-dominated industry. Keren Yedaya, the director of Or,and Shira Geffen have had the highest profile successes in the featurefilm category. Ronit Elkabetz, a critically acclaimed actress, turnedher hand to writing and directing and has made two films (with herbrother, Shlomi), based on her Moroccan family, To Take a Wife (2004) and Shiva (2007). More women, such as Anat Zuria, a modern Orthodox director, are making their marks in the documentary field.

So the film industry has become far morerepresentative of the population, is enjoyed by millions of Israelisand is winning an unprecedented number of awards worldwide. Where's thedownside? Well, when there's a party, there are always party poopers.Many on the Right tend to dismiss Israeli film as a bastion ofknee-jerk leftist politicking. While it is true that most directors areon the Left, this kind of blanket condemnation inevitably reveals moreabout the complainer's own ignorance than the true state of film inthis country.

ve had arguments with otherwise serious peoplewho told me they didn't need to see local films to know they werebastions of self-hatred. But is it an expression of self-hatred whendirectors who served in Lebanon, such as Shmuel Maoz, Ari Folman andJoseph Cedar, make films from the soldiers' point of view, showing howemotionally wrenching their experience was? If you accept that youngpeople in this country need to serve in the army, it would seem to be agiven that some filmmakers will make movies about their experiencethere. Many movies made here do celebrate Israeli life, and anyone whohas actually bothered to see these films won't need to argue the point.

Where is the film industry going and where will it be in 10years? Opinions vary widely. At a recent seminar to mark Sam Spiegel's20th anniversary at the Jerusalem Cinematheque, Tawfik Abu Wael, whohas made one feature, argued for more grant money going to first-timefilmmakers. Three-time director Joseph Cedar said the film industrywon't develop unless an investment is made in more experienceddirectors. Who's right? Along with large numbers of filmgoers, I lookforward to finding out. And I look forward to seeing people's eyebrowsrise even higher when Israeli films are mentioned.