Stories Without Borders: Five Israeli Films You Should See and Why

Script consultant Julie Gray is a veteran story analyst of some of the biggest production companies in Hollywood. The author of Just Effing Entertain Me: A Screenwriter’s Atlas, Julie has taught story at Warner Bros. Studios, The Great American PitchFest and Oxford University. Contact Julie here.

Since I have lived in the Middle East for two years, you can imagine it’s not so simple for me to see a movie – especially a new release! When I lived in the US and certainly in Los Angeles, I could see the newest releases sometimes even before they were released. And if I didn’t see a film, I could watch the screener at Academy Award time.

ajamiMovies, movies everywhere. In fact, the only complaint I have about the film scene in Los Angeles is that, for my taste, there are not enough foreign films playing at theaters. My twelve years living in foreign film mecca San Francisco can attest to the dearth of same in L.A. But be that as it may, watching movies is and was one of my strongest passions outside of reading and writing.

Now I live in Tel Aviv, where certainly new releases do play but by far not as many as in the States (naturally) and the movies may or may not be subtitled in English. So I’ve suffered some movie deprivation, to say the least!

But thanks to Netflix, I have had the opportunity to catch up on that sprawling list of films I have not seen; foreign and domestic alike.  I have decided to really focus on films made in and about where I live now, and I came up with a list of five Israeli films that you should see. Not because you must understand the Middle East as seen through a camera lens (although – why not?) but because these films will show you, as all foreign films do, that while cultural differences separate us, at the end of the day, we are more alike than we can possibly imagine. Watching these films will show you that heartbreak, frustration, love, family, suspicion, pride and jealousy cross ALL cultures. We are all human, after all.

And there is an added bonus: Because the Middle East is perhaps one of the most contentious and misunderstood parts of the world, one that many Americans think of with great sadness and deep frustration – why can’t they just get along already?! – you might be surprised by the way the situation here is depicted in all it’s complex, tragic and sometimes funny glory by your creative brethren, as opposed to journalists or politicians who have an ax to grind or a sensation to create. The truth is much more complicated than anything you can imagine. The prodigious creativity in Israeli film takes this complexity on and how.

So get your Netflix on and take in some of my favorite Israeli films for a rare, wonderful, sad, funny and extraordinarily human take on life in Israel and all it’s complexity:

Ajami is a film that left me stunned and moved. Besides being shot in one of my favorite communities – Jaffa (which neighbors Tel Aviv and is on the sea) these five intertwining stories both showcase deft writing and directing and an expanse of human stories, sometimes at odds, and the commonality that connects them.  This stunning film is a two hanky movie so be prepared. Director Scandar Copti is a Palestinian filmmaker from Jaffa and Ajami was nominated for best Foreign Film in 2010 and swept the Awards of the Israeli Film Academy in 2009.

Five Broken Cameras is a controversial and painful documentary about events surrounding a West Bank settlement and the Palestinian village affected by the construction. Nominated for  best feature documentary in the 2013 Academy Awards, Five Broken Cameras is hard to watch and while it depicts a particularly ugly set of events, it is (in my opinion as an Israeli) not emblematic in general, but important nonetheless.  I encourage you to watch the film along with the others mentioned here so that you can learn about the situation in Israel organically and understand the wider context as well.

The Attack is an Israeli film that left me quite literally on the floor.  The subtlety of the film, and the often unexplored issues of loyalties and identities across borders and checkpoints were fascinating and explored in-depth without feeling like a lesson. There is a mystery in this film and a heartbreaking truth and questions that are never answered that make this film unforgettable. Interestingly, director Ziad Doueiri is also known for his work with Quentin Tarantino on Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs and Four Rooms. Having been both nominated and won a bevy of international film festivals, the Attack is a must-see.

Nina’s Tragedies (Netflix DVD only, not streaming) reminded me of Amelie without the magical elements; it bears a certain emotional similarity that is hard to explain. Written by the immensely talented Savi Gavison and produced by someone I am proud to call my friend, the prolific Israeli producer Anat Assoulin, Nina very much has the look and feel of a French film although it is a deeply Israeli film and was shot entirely in Tel Aviv and Jaffa.  Anat just happens to be married to wildly successful Israeli filmmaker, Ari Folman, writer/director of Waltz With Bashir, which is a masterpiece in its own right, a documentary about the Israeli/Lebanon war, filmed in rotoscope.

The Band’s Visit is one of the most charming films I have ever seen. I saw this film years ago in a small theater in San Francisco and have never forgotten it.  Given events in Egypt of the past several years, of failed revolution, bloodshed and upheaval, The Band’s Visit, about a police band that travels to Israel to play in a community center and then gets lost, leavens a region and a people that we know too little of. Full of humanity and subtlety it bears a certain resemblance to another favorite cult movie of mine, 1987’s Bagdad Cafe.

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