Israeli movies in 2017: Controversy and diversity

A successful film industry doesn’t produce only films that win prizes abroad but also movies that local audiences enjoy.

‘THE WOMEN’S BALCONY’ was the biggest Israeli hit of the year. A comedy-drama by Emil Ben-Shimon, it takes place in the Bukharan Quarter of Jerusalem (photo credit: ETNIEL ZION)
‘THE WOMEN’S BALCONY’ was the biggest Israeli hit of the year. A comedy-drama by Emil Ben-Shimon, it takes place in the Bukharan Quarter of Jerusalem
(photo credit: ETNIEL ZION)
People argued about Israeli movies in 2017. They loved some and hated others, but best of all, they saw them. Movies ignited passions around the country and around the world, as they told new stories and retold old ones. Arguments and discussions over these movies are still raging, and they won’t die down anytime soon, because this year the movies were just too good to ignore.
The biggest story of the year, though, was actually about a movie – Shmulik Maoz’s Foxtrot – and the one person who refused to see it, Minister for Culture and Sport Miri Regev.
THE WOMEN"S BALCONY Trailer (YouTube/TIFF Trailers)
To no one’s surprise, Foxtrot won the Ophir Award, the Israeli Oscar, for Best Picture in September (as well as seven other awards), which made it Israel’s official entry for consideration for a Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award. Last week, it made the shortlist for this award, which consists of nine films out of the 92 submitted by different countries. Some of those involved in the byzantine process of choosing the nominees from the shortlist say that it is very likely to get an Oscar nomination. Israeli movies have been nominated 10 times in this category, including four nominations in the past decade, but none has ever won. If and when Foxtrot does receive a nomination in late January, you can expect the controversy sparked by Regev to reignite.
Foxtrot, Maoz’s second film, was very much on cinephiles’ radar prior to its release last fall because of the success of Maoz’s first film, Lebanon. That intense movie, which was set inside a tank during the First Lebanon War, was based on his own experiences as a solider. He worked on the film for more than 20 years, and the effort paid off in every precise, harrowing moment. It won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 2009, a rare triumph for a first-time director.
When the first clip from Foxtrot, which tells the story of a grieving family whose son is killed in the military, was released last winter – about 60 seconds showing a soldier dancing with his rifle at a checkpoint as a camel walked away – Israeli film lovers immediately posted and shared it. It had its world premiere at the Venice International Film Festival in September.
But the Israeli general public is not particularly interested in the Venice Film Festival, and it seemed that the movie would be a critical success that would play art houses here and abroad, without generating headlines, like Lebanon.
Enter Regev, stage right.
After the movie won the Silver Lion Grand Jury Prize in Venice, Regev said that it “undermined the State of Israel.” She was presumably referring to a disturbing sequence featuring violence and an IDF cover-up. Regev pointedly said she had not seen the movie and would not see it, confirming the incorrect assumption among a certain segment of the population that virtually all Israeli cinema is “anti-Israel” and so beneath contempt, unworthy of any consideration except condemnation. Never mind that the film is filled with compassion for the grieving family of an Israeli soldier or that it portrays soldiers as humane and complex people. In the minds of many, Foxtrot was the work of the enemy, and enemies must be fought.
It’s a sad truth that the importance of any achievement in the Middle East these days can be measured by whether it inspires violence or the threat of violence. By that standard, Foxtrot was a resounding success. Maoz received death threats. Its star, Lior Ashkenazi, received death threats. Threats were made against Ashkenazi’s five-year-old daughter. Regev did not condemn these threats but blamed the filmmakers themselves.
In the end, the Foxtrot controversy got people talking about movies, and there is no question that the Israeli movie industry is thriving as never before.
Foxtrot was just one of the important stories in the Israeli film industry this year, and anyone watching the Ophir Awards broadcast could see what another one was: the rise of Israeli Arab filmmakers, exemplified by the success of Maysaloun Hamoud’s In Between. The movie, which is about three Arab women – two Muslims and a Christian – who share an apartment in Tel Aviv, showed a world that most Israelis had never seen before. The characters were vibrant, vulnerable and attractive, struggling to create a life for themselves in a country where they are a minority, and fighting both for and against their own traditions. In keeping with the spirit of the Middle East, this movie also ignited controversy and death threats against its director, in this case from the Islamic religious Right, because of a religious Muslim character they felt was portrayed negatively.
Hamoud laughed off the threats, knowing she had made a movie that was too good to ignore and that this came with the territory. Two actresses from the movie, Shaden Kanboura (who quoted Martin Luther King Jr. in her acceptance speech at the Ophirs, which was very much in keeping with the spirit of the night) and Mouna Hawa, who won Ophir Awards for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, respectively.
The movie won other awards around the world, including the Women in Motion Young Talents Award at the Cannes Film Festival, which was chosen by actress Isabelle Huppert. Said Huppert, “I am delighted and moved to be able to shine a spotlight on the talent of one of today’s most promising female directors, Maysaloun Hamoud, through the 2017 Women in Motion Young Talents Award. The free-spirited and joyful women that she portrays, torn between their desire for emancipation and the traditions that sometimes stifle them, are true heroines of our time.”
There were other Arab filmmakers who told their stories this year as well. Maha Haj’s Personal Affairs, the graceful, meticulous and moving story of a complex Muslim family, had its debut at Cannes and also won awards around the world. Shady Srour’s satirical Holy Air, which is the movie Woody Allen would have made if he were a Christian Arab in Nazareth, won acclaim in Israel and abroad and will be released in 2018.
In an unexpected 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. Apparently these movies were so compelling, they convinced the programmers of a Palestinian film festival to break with BDS.
Regev has repeatedly condemned the Israeli film industry for its elitism, so did she have words of praise for Hamoud, Haj and Srour, who are certainly not from the Ashkenazi boys’ club that dominated the Israeli movie industry for decades? Well, no. I don’t think these were the kind of filmmakers Regev had in mind when she called for more diversity: Be careful what you wish for.
There was some news in the Israeli film world that even Regev would like, however, as movies by directors and about characters far from north Tel Aviv were extremely popular here and abroad. The biggest Israeli hit of the year was The Women’s Balcony, a comedy-drama by Emil Ben-Shimon. It was written by Shlomit Nehama and was based on her experiences growing up in the Bukharan Quarter of Jerusalem. The movie is about a 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, and the women revolt.
This quintessentially Israeli story sold more than 340,000 tickets in Israel during its first four months of release (just for comparison, if a movie here sells 100,000 tickets, I receive a celebratory press release) and, much more surprising, earned more than $1 million in the US.
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post, Nehama said, “What matters is how much you connect to the characters. If you connect emotionally, they can be from any culture.”
A comedy about a young ultra-Orthodox woman, Rama Burshtein’s The Wedding Plan (which was originally titled Through the Wall in English), was also an unlikely success abroad, earning nearly $1.5 million in the US.
These two films illustrated another trend: Both were set in Jerusalem. While at one time virtually all Israeli movies were made in and around Tel Aviv, now about a quarter of all movies are set in Jerusalem. This is thanks in large part to the Jerusalem Film Fund, which was established by Yoram Honig in 2008 to promote filmmaking in the capital.
In the first 60 years since the establishment of Israel, according to Honig, there were more than 700 movies made in Israel, and only about 30 were filmed in Jerusalem. But in the nine years since the fund started contributing to movie budgets, 60 films and television series have been made in Jerusalem.
Two out of those 60 – The Wonders (2013) and Past Life (2016) – were by Avi Nesher. During this last year, he filmed a third film set in Jerusalem, a drama about a father who returns to Israel to try to talk his newly ultra-Orthodox daughter out of getting married. Formerly called Pilgrim, he has changed the title to The Other Story, and it will be released in 2018.
But many may not realize that early in his career, he also made a movie in Jerusalem, Rage and Glory (1984), a drama about a Stern Group (Lehi) terror cell during the 1940s. The movie has been digitally restored by the Jerusalem Cinematheque and the Israel Film Archive, and the premiere of this newly restored version was one of the highlights of the Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival. This restored version will be shown at cinematheques around the country.
Part of the trend of Israelis of all backgrounds telling their stories on film was on display in two movies that debuted at the Jerusalem Film Festival in the summer, Matan Yair’s Scaffolding (which won the festival’s top prize in a competitive year) and Eliran Elya’s Doubtful, both of which were about teachers in schools in working-class neighborhoods, trying to help difficult and disadvantaged students.
Not all movies this year were serious in nature, which was good for the industry. A successful film industry doesn’t produce only films that win prizes abroad but also movies that local audiences enjoy. Decades ago, there was a thriving industry of sirtei burekas – silly, slapstick comedies. These virtually disappeared during the 1980s and ’90s, when the movie industry here was at its lowest ebb, but have now returned, with a vengeance. Comedies such as Shay Kanot’s Four by Four, a kind of Israeli version of The Hangover, and Ben Bachar and Itzik Kricheli’s The Last Band in Lebanon, about musicians from an army band who are left behind in Lebanon when the army withdraws, were released in 2016 but continued making money well into 2017. Oded Raz’s Maktub, a comedy about two loan sharks played by Hanan Savyon and Guy Amir (who also wrote the film), takes place in and around the Mahaneh Yehuda market in Jerusalem and was also a huge hit.
As some made money pleasing local audiences, other directors headed abroad, making movies in other countries, mostly in the US.
The highest-profile example of this trend was Norman, by Joseph Cedar, a movie about an elderly Jewish New York fixer (played by Richard Gere), who exploits a connection he has to the Israeli prime minister. The prime minister was portrayed by Lior Ashkenazi, the actor who also stars in Foxtrot.
Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado, the directors of the popular Israeli thrillers Rabies and Big Bad Wolves, announced that they were making Once upon a Time in Palestine, an English- language movie described as “a genre-bending thriller with elements of spaghetti westerns, war movies, romantic comedies and silent movies set in British-ruled Palestine in 1946.”
That sounds like it will be something to see, and why shouldn’t the Israeli film industry have its own Quentin Tarantino- influenced epic? Here’s hoping that in 2018 we’ll see more films as diverse and interesting as those released in 2017.