Cultural Affairs: The curious emergence of Israeli film and TV

In 2015, Israel was already the third-largest purveyor of television content in America, after England and the Netherlands, according to Forbes magazine

Fauda has become one of Israel's most internationaly known series  (photo credit: NATI LEVI/YES)
Fauda has become one of Israel's most internationaly known series
(photo credit: NATI LEVI/YES)
Entertainment providers have figured out how to use a resource available here – creativity.
It would be tempting to cite Gal Gadot’s stardom as the entertainment story of the decade. The Rosh Ha’ayin native who starred in Wonder Woman and the upcoming Wonder Woman 1984 has become a force to be reckoned with in Hollywood. Gadot made the 2018 list of the highest-paid actresses in Hollywood, and has been cast in non-Wonder projects such as Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile.
But as positive as Gadot’s stardom may be, in every decade, one or two foreign actors hit it big in Hollywood, usually beautiful women, such as Spanish actress Penelope Cruz in the early 2000s. Gadot’s success does not mean that Hollywood will suddenly begin casting dozens of Israelis.
The most important Israeli entertainment story is actually the continuing success of the movies made here and, even more striking, the emergence of the television industry as a global powerhouse, providing content to millions of TV viewers around the globe. These two success stories are inextricably linked, which is not surprising, given the small size of the entertainment industry here.
Just as with the hi-tech industry in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Israeli television companies have figured out how to use a resource available here – creativity – to produce a popular and acclaimed product that is so good no one can ignore it.
In 2015, Israel was already the third-largest purveyor of television content in America, after England and the Netherlands, according to Forbes magazine. Since then, it has continued to make significant inroads in network television, premium cable and streaming services. Israeli shows are either remade for the international market or acquired outright by streaming sites such as Netflix and shown in the US and around the world with subtitles. Often, audiences may be unaware of the Israeli origins of the shows they are watching.
Just to report on the television news of the last year or two could fill up a lengthy article. Two quintessentially Israeli shows – Fauda, the story of an Israeli counterterrorism unit and the Palestinians they are fighting, and Shtisel, about a young ultra-Orthodox man in Jerusalem who wants to become an artist, both of which were created by Yes Studios – have become huge hits around the world on the streaming service Netflix. More than 10 Israeli shows are currently streaming on Netflix, including comedy shows such as Miller’s Crossing with stand-up comic Adir Miller and dramas such as When Heroes Fly, about Israeli combat veterans who go to search for a woman who disappeared in a Latin American country. Many other streaming services, such as Amazon Prime and Hulu, feature dozens of other Israeli shows. Srugim, for example, a show about Modern Orthodox singles in Jerusalem, can be streamed currently on Amazon Prime.
Marc Berman, a television analyst who is the editor-in-chief of Programming Insider, said one explanation for the success of Israeli television around the world is that it has broken through on streaming sites. “Because the shows are available on sites like Netflix, millennials would be aware of them, since they’re consuming content digitally, on streaming sites, and not watching television.”
But the success of Israeli television on streaming services is only one part of the story. Another key development is that Israeli shows – or formats, which is television executive-speak for programs and concepts – are being remade in local versions around the world.
One of the highest-profile examples of this phenomenon is Your Honor, which was a hit here from Yes Studios and tells the story of a judge who gets involved with a cover-up after his son gets into a hit-and-run accident with the son of a mob boss. CBS and Showtime are collaborating on an English-language version which stars Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad and which is being executive produced by Robert and Michelle King, the creators of The Good Wife and The Good Fight, who are virtual royalty in this new golden age of high-quality television. It is set to be released in 2020.
Paramount Network has ordered 10 episodes of the dark comedy-drama 68 Whiskey, a remake of the Israeli series Combat Medics, which will also be released in 2020. One of the executive producers and directors of the series is Oscar-winner Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind). The American version will look at US medics in Afghanistan.
On the Spectrum, an Israeli series about young adults with autism, is being remade by Jason Katims (Parenthood, Friday Night Lights) for Amazon Studios.
And it’s not only drama. Nevsu, a sitcom about an Ethiopian man married to an Ashkenazi woman, will be a Fox series set in the Midwest called Culture Clash. Beauty and the Baker, a hit show about a supermodel and a regular guy, is being remade in the US by ABC and all over the world.
The list goes on.
Israeli series have won prizes around the world. At the prestigious Series Mania competition in France, Israeli series won the top prize in 2018 for On the Spectrum and 2017 for Your Honor. This year, Just for Today, about convicts released from prison, won the Special Jury Prize there.
In another interesting development, Nickelodeon is creating a television show in Israel, Spyders, aimed at children, about friends who band together to try to save the environment, which it will broadcast around the world. Netflix remade an Israeli tween drama, Ha-Hamama (The Greenhouse), as the English-language Greenhouse Academy. Greenhouse Academy is filmed in Israel and is going into its fourth season.
Karni Ziv, the head of drama and comedy at Keshet Broadcasting, a huge Israeli television producer that launched the international company Keshet International, said in an interview with Commentary magazine last year, “If you do a good series here, you have a chance to sell it or to make an adaptation.... I always think first about the Israeli audience. And then I will think: Will it travel?... But the core is: Bring me a good story.”
THE TRANSFORMATION in the Israeli television industry was a gradual process and paralleled the development of the film industry. From 1966 until the early 1990s, there was just one Israeli channel, run by the government, which featured mostly news, documentaries, kids’ shows and imported series, such as Dynasty.
The transformation began when a commercial network, Channel 2, was officially launched in the early 1990s, and soon several companies began producing series that were local hits.
Around this time, the movie industry, which had been in the doldrums for over two decades, began to experience a renaissance. A combination of factors were in play. One was that in 2001, the government passed the so-called Cinema Law and increased funding it made available to local filmmakers, a common practice all over the world, except for the US. Graduates of several newly founded film schools were eager to start working. Television gave them a place to start as they waited to get financing for film projects. Now, Israelis in every branch of the entertainment industry move back and forth between the big and small screens.
The revolution in exporting Israeli television started over a decade ago, with two series, BeTipul, about a psychologist and his patients, which became HBO’s In Treatment in 2005, and Prisoners of War (Hatufim), which was adapted into Homeland, for Showtime in 2011.
It was Homeland that really kicked off the current craze for Israeli series abroad, and its creator, Gideon Raff, recently wrote and directed the fact-based movie The Red Sea Diving Resort, about the rescue of Ethiopian Jews, and the series The Spy, about Israeli superspy Eli Cohen, both for Netflix.
The Israeli film industry, which came back to life in the first decade of this century, has continued to blossom during the past 10 years. Israeli films compete in festivals all over the world and win prizes.
Earlier this year, Nadav Lapid’s Synonyms, a film about an alienated Israeli who goes to Paris to try to find a new identity, won the Golden Bear, the top prize at the Berlin International Film Festival, the first Israeli feature to win the prize.
Lapid has emerged as one of the top talents in this decade, making two feature films in addition to Synonyms: Policeman, about a left-wing terrorist cell, and The Kindergarten Teacher, about an unhinged teacher who is convinced one of her pupils is a genius poet, which was remade in English with Maggie Gyllenhaal. His films are art-house favorites around the world, and some have dubbed him “the new Amos Gitai,” a reference to the Israeli filmmaker whose films are adored in France but are generally not as well received at home.
There has also been a revival of low-brow Israeli comedies, once dismissed as “sirtei burekas.” Guy Amir and Hanan Savyon, after creating the hit television series Asfur, have gone on to make the phenomenally successful films Forgiveness and Maktub, which are both funny and sentimental. Other Israeli films, such as Four by Four and Kicking Out Shoshana by Shay Kanot, and Mossad by Alon Gur Arye, are comedies that have been local hits.
Another key story in the film industry in this decade is the emergence of directors who come from communities whose stories were never told before. These include Israeli Arabs such as Maysaloun Hamoud, whose debut film, In Between, the story of three female Arab roommates in Tel Aviv, won prizes all over the world, including at the Cannes Film Festival, and was also a hit at home. Another is Sameh Zoabi, whose most recent film, Tel Aviv on Fire, looks at an unlikely alliance between a soap opera writer in Ramallah and an Israeli officer who stops him at a checkpoint.
Ronit Elkabetz, who many believe was the greatest Israeli actress of all time and who died tragically young in 2016, also changed the Israeli film landscape. Her trilogy of films, which she wrote and directed with her brother Shlomi Elkabetz (who produced In Between and who recently starred in the Keshet/HBO series Our Boys), told the story of a working-class Moroccan woman who felt trapped in a loveless marriage.
In the first scene of the first film, To Take a Wife, which was released in 2004, her character asked for a divorce, which her husband refused to give her. In the stunning final film in the project, Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, which came out in 2014, which was shot entirely inside the divorce courts, Viviane pleads with male religious judges and her husband to be released from her marriage. The film won the Ophir Award for Best Picture and received a Golden Globe nomination.
There’s no telling where Elkabetz’s talent would have led her, had she lived, and her death was a great loss to the film industry.
Elkabetz was one of many talented female directors who started careers in recent years. Talya Lavie had a hit that was both international and local with her 2014 film, Zero Motivation, the darkly comic story of female soldiers, which won the top foreign feature film award at the Tribeca Film Festival. Alamork Davidian brought a unique perspective to her film Fig Tree, about a young Ethiopian woman during the civil war during the late 1980s. Elite Zexer’s Sand Storm looked at the lives of Bedouin women and won the Grand Jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival as well as an Ophir Award.
ANOTHER STORY in the past decade is the return of Avi Nesher. Nesher, who directed the Israeli classics The Troupe (HaLahaka) and Dizengoff 99, in the late 1970s when he was in his 20s, went to Hollywood for years and returned to make Turn Left at the End of the World in 2004. In the past 10 years, when many directors have struggled with creative challenges and low budgets, he has made a quartet of critically acclaimed movies that were embraced by local moviegoers, as well as festival audiences around the world – The Matchmaker, The Wonders, Past Life and The Other Story – which told offbeat, emotional stories that were very Israeli but dealt with universal concerns.
Nesher set three of his past four films in and around Jerusalem, reflecting another development. No one would have predicted at the beginning of this decade that the focus of the film industry would shift away from Tel Aviv and to Jerusalem. This happened in large part due to the creation of the Jerusalem Film and Television Fund, which was established in 2008 by Yoram Honig to give funding and support to filmmakers working in Jerusalem.
While between 1948 and 2008, only about 30 movies were filmed in Jerusalem, out of hundreds that were made, today one in three or four is set in the capital. Natalie Portman chose to make her directorial debut here, directing and starring in an adaptation of Amos Oz’s A Tale of Love and Darkness in 2015. Many television series are set here as well, including such shows as Shtisel, Srugim and Shababnikim. Voices from the more religiously and ethnically diverse Jerusalem have changed the entertainment world.
Can Israel continue to succeed on the international stage? No one thought it would get here, so no one can truly guess where it will go next. But one thing is sure: It will be entertaining to watch it develop.