By Ben Raymond
The Cannes Film Festival 2011 award to Joseph Cedar’s Hearat Shulayim (Footnote) for best screenplay was the latest indication that Israeli cinema has become a world force, with Israel enjoying “a remarkable film renaissance,” according to the Los Angeles Times.
Cedar’s personal achievements are impressive. His first two movies, Time of Favor and Campfire, were domestic box-office hits. His third, Beaufort, a gut-wrenching war film about the last days of Israel’s military presence in southern Lebanon, was an international phenomenon. Beaufort won the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival and became the first Israeli film in a generation to be nominated for a best foreign-language film Oscar.
Footnote (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1445520/), which is distributed in the United States by Sony, tells the story of a father and son, both scholars of the Talmud, locked in academic rivalry.
Cedar, who immigrated to Israel from New York with his parents when he was six, has often drawn on his personal religious observance to imbue his movies with authentic Jewish storylines.
He told reporters in Cannes that he was struck by the human dramas bubbling behind the rarefied research of Talmudic scholars at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem (www.huji.ac.il/huji/eng).
“When you see a Chinese film, you often feel it is rooted in some kind of ancient Chinese tradition,” Cedar told the LA Times. “The Talmud is our primary text, our tradition. It’s something I want to deal with if I am making movies in Israel.”
Cedar’s success mirrors the growing achievements of other Israeli filmmakers in the past decade.
Israeli films have an impressive track record at Cannes. Keren Yedaya’s My Treasure (2004) as well as Etgar Keret and Shira Geffen’s Jellyfish (2007) won the Golden Camera for best first film. Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani’s Ajami (2009) received an honorable mention, and later also was an Oscar candidate for best foreign film. Hanna Laslo won best actress in 2005 for her work in Amos Gitai’s Freezone. In 2007, The Band’s Visit won the audience award, the young judges award and the international critics award.
“Israel is saturated with drama,” Cedar told the LA Times, “so it’s natural that it’s reflected in our cinema.”
The ‘reel’ image of Israel
For millions of people around the world, Israeli cinema on the wide screen is replacing the image of Israel on the small screen. Reaching way beyond the conflict that obsesses news reporters, the new generation of Israeli filmmakers is holding up a mirror to the conflicts within Israeli society. In the movies, viewers find a full-color, fictional Israel that is ironically more real than the monochrome, two-dimensional Israel depicted in the news.
Israeli movies give a different perspective to the places mentioned so often in news broadcasts but so little understood.
The 2011 Oscar for best documentary went to Strangers No More, a US production filmed at a school in Tel Aviv struggling with the integration of children from more than 40 countries, including illegal immigrants and refugees (http://israel21c.org/201102288859/briefs/film-on-tel-aviv-school-wins-oscar). It’s a human story that received scant attention from international news media, perhaps because it lay outside the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has become almost their sole point of reference.
Many of the country’s most striking movies in recent years have used urban landscapes to create a short biography of their chosen city. Someone to Run With, the adaptation of David Grossman’s magisterial evocation of a teenage Jerusalem underworld of runaways and street kids, features the city as if it were a character on its own. The same is true of Haifa in Broken Wings and The Matchmaker, Tiberias in Aviva, My Love and Safed in Secrets. The desert is used to great effect to create space and distance from humdrum normalcy in two more favorites, Turn Left at the End of the World and The Band’s Visit.
The renaissance of Israeli cinema has also been accompanied by an increasingly complex view of war and terrorism.
The reference point for the previous generation was Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six-Day War, with Israeli heroism reaching its zenith in Menahem Golan’s 1977 Operation Thunderbolt (Mivtsa Yonatan) celebrating the triumphant hijack rescue at Entebbe in 1976.
By contrast, modern Israeli cinema lives in a post-Lebanon trauma. Three of the greatest Israeli movies produced in the past decade – Beaufort, Waltz with Bashir and Lebanon — dealt directly with the 1982 invasion, the effect of the 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon on the Israeli psyche, and the eventual pullout in the summer of 2000.
Just compare Yehoram Gaon’s heroic, decisive, Yoni Netanyahu in Operation Thunderbolt with Lior Ashkenazi’s conflicted, failed Mossad assassin Eyal in Walk on Water – which preceded Eric Bana’s similarly troubled Mossad man in Spielberg’s Munich by two years. Ashkenazi reprised the spirit of his self-doubting warrior with his portrayal of Yadin, a conflicted and psychologically tortured Israeli Air Force pilot who seeks therapy at the hands of Assi Dayan in the acclaimed TV series B’Tipul, which became the first Israeli drama adapted for US television as the HBO hit In Treatment.
Making the desert of Israeli film bloom
Structural changes in the Israeli film industry have also been crucial in its success.
B’Tipul was created by Hagai Levi and Ori Sivan, key figures in a new generation of filmmakers. When they graduated from Tel Aviv University’s film school (http://arts.tau.ac.il/departments/index.php/lang-en/film-tv/home) in 1990, the future looked bleak.
“When we graduated film school, the Israeli industry was a desert,” says Levi. “There was only one state-run television channel and it was very poor. We were the first class to grow up into the industry.”
Levi became head of the drama department at Keshet, franchise-holder for Channel 2. His credits include several award-winning documentaries and series, among them the daily drama Love Around the Corner, which with three seasons and 270 episodes is the longest-running soap opera ever aired on Israeli television. Sivan was head writer of the successful Israeli series Florentine and Shabbatot Vehagim. Nir Bergman, another co-director and co-writer of B’Tipul, wrote and directed the acclaimed feature film Broken Wings.
“Now there is an industry and money which is attracting good people,” says Levi.
And in a country of just seven million citizens, where everyone seems to know each other, movie and television benefit from complete cross-fertilization between the two genres.
“There is a total mixture,” says Sivan. “Israeli Academy Award winners, writers, directors and actors move freely back and forth between film and television.”
Just as the Israeli film schools were unleashing this new generation of artists on the scene, funding for Israeli movies underwent a radical advance. The Israel Film Fund (http://www.filmfund.org.il/default.asp) began to create partnerships with foreign funds that brought millions of dollars into the industry. The combined effect on the quality of Israeli cinema was reflected in hard cash at the box office.
Israeli cinema was “practically wiped out” by the late 1990s, recalled Katriel Schory, executive director of the Israel Film Fund.
“1998 was the worst year ever in the history of Israeli cinema, with only 0.3 percent of all box-office receipts attributable to Israeli films. In other words, 36,000 tickets out of 10 million,” said Schory. By 2006, Israeli films accounted for 14% of the local box office.
“The Fund managed to turn the image of Israeli cinema around,” boasts its website, with some justification. It has helped produce 300 films, of which 100 have been screened in official competition at major festivals, winning more than 250 prizes. Up to 16 Israeli feature films are now released each year.
In addition, the launch of the new commercial TV channels brought new investment from franchise-holders keen to nurture new talent and fulfill their public-service commitments. The relationship between the emerging television powerhouses and the new generation of filmmakers created an interconnecting web of talent and relationships that helped fuel a revolution.
Digital age advances Israeli filmmaking
As the money started moving, the country was undergoing a high-tech revolution that was transforming many aspects of Israeli society and its economy. The effect of the new digital age on Israeli filmmaking was staggering.
Debut films and documentaries that previously had cost tens of thousands of dollars and required huge lighting, sound and technical crews – not to mention expensive and time-consuming editing and post-production – found their production crews condensed into tiny, agile, cost-effective teams that could film and edit an entire movie in a fraction of the time at a small percentage of the cost.
Entire movies, particularly student productions and documentaries, could successfully be filmed and edited by one director/cameraman/editor with a digital video camera and a mid-range laptop. Raw new talent sprang from this digital revolution and transformed the face of Israeli cinema.
The most brilliant example is Ajami, the Oscar-nominated crime drama with masterly timing and plotting, acted by amateurs, evoking the spirit of an entire community in Jaffa, posing searching questions about the nature of Arab-Jewish relations in the Jewish state — and shot entirely on a hand-held digital video camera.
“You can actually buy a camera for less than $2,000 and theoretically you can shoot a whole film with it,” says Eitan Riklis, who shot the acclaimed documentary Sons of Sakhnin United on a mini-digital video camera.
Erel Margalit, the multimillionaire high-tech entrepreneur behind the Jerusalem Animation Lab (www.animationlab.com) recently opened in a disused government mint, predicts that the combination of Israeli technology and talent will create a potent mix in the growing field of computer graphics, digital special effects and animation.
“Israel is a powerhouse of creativity,” says Margalit. “In the 1990s we made a big splash in the world with enabling technologies that operated behind the scenes. Now we are seeing a renaissance of Israeli movie-making. The presence of so many gifted Israeli animators in Hollywood shows we have big talent in terms of content creativity as well as technology.”
“Israeli movies are getting better because they are more personal,” says Riklis. “The directors and writers and filmmakers are making stories that they relate to and they question their lives. I think that makes a much better film.”
“What’s happening now with storytelling is what happened in the United States after the Vietnam war, when suddenly people began to realize that America is not as big as they thought it was and can’t really win every war. As a country, we’re not exactly sure where we’re heading so filmmakers are obviously relating to it and telling that story,” he says.
And what a story they tell — of a vibrant, conflicted, modern society grappling with issues that audiences throughout the world can relate to.