Stories Without Borders: Emergent Israeli Films

Israeli SoldierWhat do you think of when you think of an Israeli? Entebbe? Munich? Moshe Dayan and his eye patch? Pictures of IDF soldiers in riot gear? Or maybe, you think of black-clad ultra-orthodox men throwing rocks or some terribly beautiful, young Israeli vacationers in Thailand or South America, both cocksure and a bit intolerable because of it?

No matter what image or impression you have of Israelis, I guarantee that you think of Israelis relative either to the Holocaust, a war, or to what we call in Israel “ha matsav” – the situation.

What do you think of when you think of Israeli film? Five Broken Cameras? Waltz With Bashir? Maybe if you are really savvy, Ajami, Walk on Water or even Sallah.

Ha matsav is the situation you see on the news, pictured with molotov cocktails, tanks, and a hail of rocks. It is the terrible, tragic, dangerous and frightening situation between Israel and the Palestinians. I bet you don’t interrupt your marathon of Orange is the New Black when you hear jets scrambled overhead.

We do.

But here’s the thing… When people ask me (and they often do) how I can live in a place like this, I say well, how do you drive a ton of metal down the 405 freeway every day? How do you send your kids to school when you don’t know if a shooter might show up? Everywhere has gotten more dangerous and unpredictable, all over the world, and writers of course respond to that. But imagine if, as an American writer, you were suddenly expected to write only about the gun control issue in the US. It’s not so fun to be pigeon-holed. And yet, of course, what is going on around us naturally creeps into our writing. And that’s a truth.

What’s a writer to do?

Here’s a teachable moment:  The conflict in Israel is ultimately, not a land dispute.  It is a battle for identity in a war of narratives. And what is film if not both reflection and creation of a collective narrative?

Waltz With Bashir

Waltz With Bashir

This is an extremely exciting time for art and film in Israel. The creative energy in Tel Aviv is electric. Every day in Israel is like a Ted Talk, said a member of my Tel Aviv Writer’s Salon recently. Between film, writing and tech innovation, Israel is bursting out of its seams.

Despite the situation. Or maybe because of it.

Israeli film is certainly not new in Israel, but it is fast gaining attention in the U.S., which is a double-edged sword. American distributors feel that the small American audience interested in Israeli film, are squarely focused on the turbulent and troubled conflict that besets us daily. As if the conflict is the most interesting thing about this country. As if viewing this country through such a narrow lens can begin to tease out the thousands of narratives here, just waiting to be told.

These expectations put pressure on Israeli filmmakers, to first and foremost be Israeli and then secondarily, filmmakers.

I met recently with William Blesch, writer and director of the upcoming Requiem for the Night, along with producer Naneen Baden. As the two discussed the film with me, I found myself interjecting – yes – but what does this story have to do with Israel other than being shot and produced here? Naneen and William exchanged a glance. They are used to this question.  Are you at least tapping into Jewish mythology or the history of Israel? Are the vampires in the script supposed to represent anything? In particular? That is about Israel?  

You can take the girl out of Hollywood but you can’t take Hollywood out of the girl. I was looking for a hook, a selling point that might interest American distributors. No, the story is not about ha matsav, or about Jewish identity, or about Israel’s increasingly tremulous position in world politics. It’s a vampire story. (As tempted as they were to reveal the significant twist on their take in Requiem, William and Naneen smiled mysteriously. We shall have to wait. ) But it made me wonder – does the film have to be more weighty, more meaningful, more ISRAELI in order to be considered an Israeli film?

Certainly in Israel and Europe, Israeli films have made a lasting impression, with writer/director/filmmakers like Savi Gavison (Nina’s Tragedies), Michael Mayer’s Out in the Dark, Eran Kolirin’s The Band’s Visit, the astonishing Ajami (Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani), Joseph Cedar’s Beaufort and Eran Ricklis’ The Syrian Bride, to name only a few.

But it’s not so easy to get an Israeli film made. In the U.S., filmmaking, while admittedly dominated by big studios and big money, is also having an indie film renaissance – filmmaking in the US is a bit of a wild, wild west situation – you do what it takes and it might just get done. But in Israel, filmmaking and the funding for it is a much more bureaucratic affair.

The Ministry of Culture, together with the Israel Film Fund among others, extends tax benefits to foreigners shooting in Israel but maintains a bit of a split personality when it comes to Israeli productions. Israeli films should be art, not commerce, goes the outdated thinking. This means that shooting in Israel can be a distinct advantage for foreigners but that just getting funding can be a political minefield for Israeli filmmakers, unsure of the Film Fund’s shifting goals.

Tyrant

Tyrant

In the U.S., Israel is on the map for the entertainment business in a whole new way. Two major U.S. productions are shooting in Israel right now, Tim Kring’s Dig and Gideon Raff’s Tyrant. Combined with the successes of exports like Homeland and In Treatment, Israel is making a splash among executives in Hollywood looking for fresh material.

The Academy of Motion Picture Sciences has certainly recognized achievement in Israeli film, but generally when those films rather directly tackle the conflict. Waltz With Bashir, Five Broken Cameras, The Gatekeepers – all Israeli documentary films that got the attention of the Academy if not actual theatergoers. (Five Broken Cameras was packaged as a French film in the end, and earned a grand total of less than $7,000 in the U.S.)

In other words, these are films that are generally not reflective of mainstream Israeli films (and tastes) and worse, American audiences do not see them in significant (or even measurable) numbers. Leaving a void in the American perspective on Israeli film.

For now, it is possible that genre films will be the opening through which Israeli filmmakers can gain access to larger audiences, particularly in the U.S.

The gripping, über violent and completely provocative Big Bad Wolves made an international splash, but it was Cannes that put the film on the map, not, as you would imagine, screenings in Israel.  And it didn’t hurt that the film has certain fan named Quentin Tarantino.

Another genre film – zany comedy Zero Motivation, (Talya Lavie) opens in Israel soon and may just make it across the pond too.  This take on life in the IDF, in a women’s unit posted in a remote desert base, promises to upend everything you thought you knew about Israeli soldiers.

Eitan Reuven’s Another World, starring Susanne Gschwendter (of ABC’s upcoming The Quest), a horror movie set in an apocalyptic future, is a first in Israeli film. Taking advantage of the recognition Israeli film is beginning to enjoy in the US and abroad, Another World was shot entirely in English. The film is most powerful in its third act, when revelations about personal responsibility and the post-modern definition of heroes are placed front and center.  Produced for a humble one million dollars, Another World features spectacular special effects and a very philosophical take on humanity.

American-Israel filmmaker, Marc Grey of Kozak Films is the producer of Hugo award winning short Paul and more recently, the provocative and moving short documentary Three Houses. Grey’s first film, the award winning East River (2008) featured the debut of Academy Award winning actor, Lupita Nyong’o. His latest project, Jooks, takes a classic American genre film – the teen adventure comedy – and sets it in Israel, where the story explores and exploits the culture gap between the U.S. and Israel. I had the pleasure of story editing and development on this project and can tell you first hand that Jooks plays with expectations in provocative, terrifying and even hilarious ways.

Tel-Aviv based, British-filmmaker and hyphenate, Jake Witzenfeld of Xhibition Media, is soon to debut with The Misfits, a feature documentary about four hip, secular, liberal Arab-Israeli citizens living in Tel Aviv reclaiming their Palestinian identity through art.

Israel is dripping in stories and yet the same, familiar few have continued to be regurgitated again and again. To me, ‘the situation’ is an overbearing construct that needs to be brought down to size by telling these new stories from unexplored angles that shake-off the stigmas and remind us of our shared humanity.” says Witzenfeld.

Building on a tradition of greatness with so much more to come, Grey, Witzenfeld, Reuven, Blesch and filmmakers like them are on the vanguard of emergent Israeli film.

Stay tuned for the next Stories Without Borders, in which I interview Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado, the writing/directing team behind the sensational, break out Israeli film, Big Bad Wolves, about their creative collaboration, life in Israel versus life in LA, and what Quentin Tarantino is really like. Oh and what it was like to win a Saturn Award for best foreign film.

More articles by Julie Gray

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One thought on “Stories Without Borders: Emergent Israeli Films

  1. furballfurball

    I hope you will not simply discard this post because I present a different view. Describing an occupation as a “conflict” is like describing theft as a difference of opinion. To deny that it is in fact about land theft is to lie to one’s self. This is why I am constantly disappointed by most Israeli films. Despite whatever liberal sentimentality that creeps into one, it’s not that the issues of the occupation or war crimes (as in “Waltz with Bashir”) have been necessarily sugar-coated; but they (as you rightly observe but wrongly conclude) are characterized as a narrative about identity. From an Israeli perspective, identity is a zero-sum game: Palestinian identity must be crushed to ensure Israel’s. From a Palestinian perspective, however, it is about the land theft. Even under the British-era martial laws Palestinians still must live under, there is no question of their identity or culture. Israeli films oscillate between a saccharine “can’t we all get along?” and a suppression of a deep nightmarish fear that the “most moral army in the world” and its people may have a bit of the monster that chased them from Europe in themselves as well. Finally, the Ministry of Culture is all about hasbara — propaganda, if you will. Perhaps if the arts were truly independent in Israel, a little more self truth would be forthcoming.

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