Israeli Cinema: New Maturity, Recognition, and Popularity

July 1, 2007–A cycle of new Israeli films are achieving a new level of maturity, getting recognition in the best of the world’s film festivals–and find apprecaiye audiences too. This cycle goes beyond individual films, personal accomplishment, and domestic box-office grosses. The phenom may warrant a more collective label–call it Israel’s New Wave, to borrow a term from the history of international cinema.

At the recently concluded Cannes Film Fest, Etgar Keret and Shira Geffen picked up the Camera d’Or for first film for “Jellyfish,” while Eran Kolirin won the Jury Coup de Coeur in Un Certain Regard for “The Band’s Visit.”

I was very happy to play a small role in Cannes, as member of the Firpesci jury, which also awarded “The Band’s Visit” as the best film in the Certain Regard ssidebar over tough competition.

Israeli Films at Festivals

In Februart, Berlin Fest witnessed Joseph Cedar get the director award for “Beaufort.”

At Tribeca Fest, just before Cannes, David Volach won narrative feature for “My Father My Lord.”

Shemi Zarhin won the best screenplay prize at the Shanghai Film Gest for “Aviva, My Love.”

This year’s Dror Shaul win the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Fest (in January) for “Sweet Mud.” (See my Review)

This has been a banner year for Israeli cinema in other ways, too, with international co-productions up and Israeli audiences attending en masse films from their own country.

While the resurgence of Israeli filmmaking is self-evident, more difficult to categorize is Israeli cinema itself.

Domestic Box-Office Champs

This year’s box office champion is Cedar’s “Beaufort,” an account of Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 after 18 years of occupation. The picture has garnered more than 300,000 admissions, beating out Hollywood blockbusters like “Spider-Man 3.”

On the other hand, last year’s biggest hit, “Aviva, My Love,” which also sold better than 300,000 tickets, tells the story of a hardworking cook who dreams of becoming a writer.

Diversity

Unlike Romanian cinema, for example, which has similarly won fest awards recently and shares a certain stripped-down cinema verite aesthetic, Israeli films are more diverse in both subject matter and themes.

“From a filmmaker’s point of view, what’s happened in the last couple of years has really improved the quality and created a dynamic film environment,” Cedar says.

“Filmmakers have to make much better films to get attention. More films are being made with more ambition. The immediate result is that more talented people are coming into the industry,” Cedar says, adding, “Just look at ‘Jellyfish.’ Etgar Keret is one of Israel’s most-loved fiction writers. I think he and his wife Shira Geffen made the film because they saw something amazing was going on right now.”

More Personal Films

Ambition has manifested itself in filmmakers having the confidence to tell more personal, intimate stories rather than the overbearing political tracts that categorized a lot of Israeli filmmaking in the 1980s and 1990s.

“There was a tradition of Israeli films that tried to tell the big narrative of the whole country in the 1980s. You’d have one character who was a soldier, a Palestinian, a Holocaust survivor. There’d be a representative of each part of society,” says Keret. “More people now are not trying to make overt political statements but are just trying to show a piece of life.”

That Israeli filmmakers seem to have achieved a better understanding of themselves and their country is also evident in their films resonating beyond the country’s violence along its borders.

“We shouldn’t pretend even for a minute that we’re a part of Europe or America,” says Shemi Zarhin. “Israel, for me, is a part of the Middle East. You can hear it in the accent, the language, in the food, the temperature and the climate. That’s why the conflict between the Israelis and the Arabs is so tragic. My family came to Israel from Algeria 200 years ago. My characters are like my mother, my brother. It reflects itself in my films.”

Film Schools Grads

Another major factor seems to be the number of young or first-time helmers getting the opportunity to make features. In addition to the husband-and-wife team behind “Jellyfish,” David Volach made his feature debut with “My Father, My Lord,” while “The Band’s Visit” and “Sweet Mud” were the sophomore efforts of Eran Kolirin and Dror Shaul, respectively.

TV as Training Ground

Many of these helmers got their training in TV in the 1990s following the introduction of commercial and cable TV. Prior to that, there had been only one state-run channel. The new nets needed to fill their skeds with hours of homegrown content, and even though many of the skeins were low-budget telenovelas and sudsers, they allowed the new generation of filmmakers to hone their skills.

“We went from 30 hours of drama a week to more than 300,” says Israeli Film Fund topper Katriel Schory. “All our scriptwriters and directors had an outlet after years of frustration. It also meant that Israeli audiences got used to watching dramas, love stories and relationships in Hebrew. I’m absolutely convinced that this had a big influence on Israeli cinema.”

“There are a lot of Israeli hits now,” Zarhin says. “It means Israeli audiences love Israeli films, which makes Israeli producers more confident in themselves and more enthusiastic to make more and more films.”

End Note:

I will review each of the above films in the next couple of weeks).