Israel moviemakers get personal to win awards, fame, investment

A scene from ‘Sweet Mud’, one of the Israeli films which has broken out over the last year.By Gwen Ackerman
BLOOMBERG

It is a story of disaster that works out in the end: An Egyptian brass band on a concert trip to Israel accidentally finds itself stuck in a small desert town and touches the lives of the people who live there.

The plot of “The Band’s Visit” parallels the making of the movie, which ran out of money before the final edit, was saved by foreign investment and won awards at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and the Munich Filmfest.

Israel’s film industry is attracting finance from home and abroad, playing in cinemas around the world and scooping prizes. Its scripts have moved beyond politics to tell personal stories about ordinary people. Lacking even one studio, it doesn’t seek to emulate Hollywood or Bollywood and prefers to compare itself with rivals in Europe.

“We have a talented group of writers and directors and skillful producers who can produce within budget and deliver the film on time,” said Katriel Schory, executive director of the Israel Film Fund, a non-governmental agency that hands out funding for movies. “This has created a certain confidence worldwide that the people here are worth the risk.”

Michel Zana of France’s Sophie Dulac Productions said he put money into “The Band’s Visit” because it was “political without being political, an encounter of two peoples, a story about love and music.” Distributed by Sony Corp., it will be shown in 35 U.S. cities starting in January 2008.

Individual Tales
Eran Kolirin, the picture’s screenwriter and director, insisted that the script, his first feature-length release, stay personal, even as potential investors pressured him to make it more political, said producer Eilon Ratzkovsky.

Another personal story, this time about gay love, is told in “The Bubble.” The picture will be released in France this month and in major U.S. cities in September after winning audience awards at festivals in Berlin, Toronto and Miami.

“Beaufort,” which explores the moral dilemmas of soldiers manning an Israeli stronghold in south Lebanon, got a Silver Bear for best director at the Berlin International Film Festival. It will be released this year in at least seven countries, including Japan, Germany, France and the U.K.

“Sweet Mud,” the story of a boy dealing with an unstable mother in their communal kibbutz community, won a Crystal Bear in Berlin in the youth-film category and received the Grand Jury Award for world cinema at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah. Agreements have been signed to show the film in Brazil, Italy, Mexico and Canada this year.

From the Heart
Rare now are scripts with the underlying ideology or political message of past films, such as “Entebbe: Operation Thunderbolt,” released in 1977, a year after the military rescue of passengers on an Air France Flight hijacked by the militant Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

“Filmmakers stopped telling national stories relating directly to historical or political issues and started telling stories more close to their hearts,” said Dror Shaul, who directed “Sweet Mud.” “Those are always the best stories.”

New filmmakers, many without formal training, started work in Israel with the passing of a Cinema Law in 2001 that boosted government spending on films seven-fold. Without private-equity interest in films, the legislation was considered a crossroads.

Etgar Keret, whose film “Jellyfish” received the Cannes Camera d’Or award for best feature, said the additional cash opened the business to newcomers. “Filmmaking in Israel in the 1970s and 1980s was almost like a closed club,” he said. “Today there is more pluralism, innovation and adventure in the investment and it pays off.”

Overseas Cash
Foreign broadcasters, producers and investors have noticed the change. Last year, $7.2 million, or 44 percent of all the money invested in Israeli feature films in the form of co- productions or joint ventures, came from overseas, said Schory.

“These are countries our size which invest a lot of money in filmmaking, by far more than Israel, but they don’t have the same cinema industry because their stories are weak,” said Schory. “Our strength is in the power of the stories that come out of the turbulent society we live in.”

Ratzkovsky said European investors, especially from France and Germany, are also the most willing to fund Israeli films, and local producers are beginning to take those audiences into account when they take on projects.

The acclaim for Israeli movies this year helps raise awareness among international agents willing to release the films abroad, Schory said in a phone interview. In terms of funding “we are definitely feeling it,” said Ratzkovsky.

Boosts
The entrance of commercial and cable television in the 1990s also gave the industry a boost, both in the royalties collected by the government then put back into the industry by the Cinema Law, and by creating a training ground for producers, directors, cinematographers and scriptwriters.

Today government funding for local films is $13.6 million, up from $2.5 million in years prior to the legislation. Most films are made on tight budgets of about $1.5 million, a fraction of the amount spent on blockbusters such as Sony Corp.’s “Spider-Man 3,” which cost an estimated $258 million to make, said Brandon Gray, president of Box Office Mojo LLC, which follows film costs. (Sony Pictures had declined to say how much it cost to make and market.) The budget for “The Band’s Visit” was $750,000.

“We can’t compare with big budgets,” said Schory. “We don’t have money to make car chases. We cannot pay for huge scenes with hundreds of people running in the background. But we aren’t looking to play on those grounds.”

Still, filmmakers said the next “Lost in Translation,” an independent U.S. film by Sofia Coppola that became a blockbuster, may actually need to be translated. From Hebrew.

From the new president of Israel

Israel must not only be an asset but a value – a moral, cultural and scientific call.
I stand here today moved and appreciative of the trust you have placed in me on behalf of our people. Your trust is of value to me, it places a great duty on me, one which I, as President of the State, will carry with reverence and a deep feeling of mission.

I shall be committed to nurture unceasingly those fine threads of fabric, which weave us together as a nation, when among us there are people with various opinions who fiercely fight for them. It must always be remembered that we are the sons and daughters of one Land of Israel. We do not have, and we are not looking for, another country.

You, here in the Knesset, will continue to maintain the existential polemics, as this must be so in a democratic parliament, while I will devote myself to the unifying, in order for it not be harmed in the fervor of the storm.

In my heart, today, there dwell together joy, facing the challenge you have placed on me, but also sadness at the hour of parting.

I am leaving this house [the Knesset] – the beating heart of Israeli democracy, after having saddled its benches for forty-eight years, more than half of my life.

I loved its deafening volume, the great debates, the soul reaching tumults and the unexpected reconciliations. I know that this house is able to take historical decisions even when democracy is storming.

I know that I am now moving from the executive arm to the unifying shoulder. I am no longer the messenger of a party but a trustee of the nation, of all the citizens of the state. From this moment I will be the voice and the address for every citizen of the State of Israel, for every baby and child, for woman and man, for the poor and the elderly. My home will be open to all – my hands will be extended to each and every one.

When I came to Israel, I studied agriculture in Ben Shemen. My public activities were focused on “Hano’ar Ha’oved” (Working Youth movement). I married my wife Sonya in Kibbutz Alumot.

In 1947, a year before the War of Independence, I was enlisted by David Ben Gurion and Levi Eshkol to serve in the headquarters of the Haganah and I moved from Alumot to the Defense Headquarters. I had the privilege, second to none, of serving under the greatest Jew I have never known, David Ben Gurion.

From him I learnt that from great destitution there is decreed great salvation. That there is nothing wiser in life than giving preference to the moral call. Also, I learnt from him that in war there is no choice. One must triumph. And for victory, courageous people and appropriate tools are necessary. However, when the opportunity for peace is created, it must not be missed.

I did not know why Ben Gurion chose me. But I knew what he expects of me: To dare and not to regret, not to yield to difficulties, not to be alarmed by vision, not to be afraid of the tomorrow, not to be false to myself nor to my colleagues.

It was difficult to envision then that from 650,000 inhabitants we would grow to a state of 7.2 million citizens, 1.2 million of them non-Jews: Arabs, Druze, Bedouin, Circassians, a fascinating web of human society. I knew then, as I know today, that if they do not enjoy complete equality, we will not be at peace with ourselves and with our fellowmen.

It was difficult then to envision that we would have to fight for our lives, in seven wars in two intifadas and in innumerable battles. To stand alone. With inferior numbers, and in international isolation. We never despaired. We did not lose a war. And every time we rose up again. We revived our ancient language, we established advanced social cells, such as “kibbutzim” and “moshavim”. We discovered a unique ability to bloom the desert – and a brilliant aptitude for defense capability. We were innovative in industry and we progressed and were far sighted in science.

Even Israel’s severe critics will not succeed in hiding her extraordinary achievements, her peaks, which rise above the skyline of history.

Almost sixty years of the State, and my heart is proud of what we have all achieved together, and of what we, as one, are dreaming of: to live in faith, to seek peace, to build a better future.

But it was a heavy price. Those who fell in battle. The bereaved families. The bodily disabled. Without the self-sacrifice shown by the Israeli Forces, we would not have reached this stage. Even today, at the head of our agenda forces, is the release of the three kidnapped soldiers: Gilad Shalit, Udi Goldwasser, Eldad Regev and all other soldiers. They are our sons and we will not rest until we see them again at home, in their homes, our home.

Also, on this festive occasion, I mourn in my heart the murder of Yitzhak Rabin. They killed a great leader for us, they hurt our hearts. And on this festive occasion, I pray for the well being of Arik Sharon, the great fighter and the courageous leader.

I did not dream of becoming President. My dream as a boy was to be a shepherd or a poet of stars. Having been elected, it is a great honor for me and I do not disparage it, to express the secret yearning and the overt goals of the nation to perform justice. To express the unifying and to respect the unique.

I know that the President is not a governor, is not a judge, is not a lawmaker, but he is permitted to dream. To set values, to lead with honesty and with compassion, with courage and with kindness.

There is nothing prohibiting the President from performing good deeds. He is entitled, and even obligated, to serve his nation, that is his people, to nurture love of the people, of the state, of all creatures.

To draw closer those who are far away. To look to the faraway distance. To help the weak. To comfort the bereaved. To bring people together. To increase equality. To bridge differences. To support spiritual and scientific creativity.

The President must courageously view the entire picture and see that a price was paid for the building of the country and its vigorous growth: depletion of natural resources, ecological damage to the landscape. And like the rest of the world, we have to move to a clean, responsible and fair economy.

The most fascinating journey in the 21st century will be to return to nature its equilibrium. It is a unique opportunity for us, to harness the Israeli creativity and knowledge, in cooperation with our neighbors, so to create a new region and a new landscape for our country and in our environment. To return to courtesy, to the respect the Gospel, to the love of the book. Israel’s literary achievements are no less than its scientific achievements and, similarly, they warrant assistance and elevation. To increase the interest in culture, to be considerate of your fellow men.

It is the duty of the President to remind the generation, which is represented here in the Knesset, that it is morally responsible to those still in the cradle of their youth. To enable them to the build their own lives, properly established, nursed from the great heritage of our people and driven by the discovery of new worlds.

In fact, wisdom does not regress. And responsibility must not age. Despair has no role. And corruption can be erased. Wars are not ideals, in them the victor just as the vanquished pays a heavy price. Peace is maintained by living people who respect life.

I see the need to encourage the young generation to enter political life and the hierarchies of leadership in order to begin again. Its enthusiasm is essential for our future.

There is no place for depression. In fact, it is the Jewish people, that invented dissatisfaction. We are a people, which have never and will never reconcile ourselves to murder, to falsehood, to mastery, to slavery, to discrimination, to exploitation, to surrendering or to stand still. Since we established the state, we must maintain these principles in our country.

The 169 words of the Ten Commandments are, even today, the basis of the entire western civilization. And the social vision of Amos and the political vision of Isaiah are the compass of our path.

Yes. I believe in enlightening the world, in raising light for both people and nations. We recall that the first sentence in the genesis was, “Let there be light.”

Einstein said that our motto was “chutzpah” (audacity). The “chutzpah” to undermine conventions, the “chutzpah” to renew, to create, to contribute, to rise above the existing. The creative “chutzpah” of the Jewish people.

I am aware that there are norms. The President has to be state like. Adhere to the law, strengthen justice, help the executive arm fulfill its duties while respecting the minority. But he is entitled to deal with the desirable. The lacking. The vision.

He must encourage peace processes. Within the house. With our neighbors. In the whole region. The new era, in any case, lowers territorial borders and reduces discrimination among people. It is built more on creativity than on governing.

Israel must not only be an asset but a value – a moral, cultural and scientific call for the promotion of man, every man. It must be a good and warm home for Jews who are not Israelis, as well as for Israelis, who are not Jews. And it must create equal opportunities for all segments of the population without differentiating between religion, nationality community or sex.

The President must call on the religious and secular public to find, that which is common between them. He must call on the Palestinians and on the Arab countries, without blurring their heritage, to participate in the great journey across a world built on intellect, not only on land. To provide supremacy to education.

I intend to devote myself to promoting the relations between Israel and the Diaspora by adding an intellectual and creative dimension. And, this, alongside the encouragement of modern relations with Arab countries.

Within us there are hidden enormous creative powers in the spiritual, philosophical, scientific and cultural fields.

And deep in us is the obligation to attend to human distress in every place, the place of the poor of your people and the place of the deprived in your area.

My friends, members of the Knesset, dear guests:

I was a youth and have also aged. My eyes have seen Israel in its most difficult hours and also in moments of achievement and spiritual uplifting.

My years place me at an observation point from which the scene of our life as a reviving nation is seen, spread out in all its glory. It is true that in the picture stains also appear. It is true that we have flawed and have erred – but please believe me – there is no room for melancholy.

The outstanding achievements of Israel in its 60 years together with the courage, wisdom and creativity of our young generation give birth to one clear conclusion: Israel has the strength to reach great prosperity and to become an exemplary state as commanded us by our prophets:

Permit me to remain an optimist. Permit me to be a dreamer of his people. Permit me to present the sunny side of our state. And also, if sometimes the atmosphere is autumnal, and also if today, the day seems suddenly gray, the President whom you have chosen, will never tire of encouraging, awakening and reminding – because spring is waiting for us at the threshold. The spring will definitely come!

(Excerpts from the speech delivered at the Induction Ceremony Speech at the Knesset on Sunday, July 15th)

A ‘human-lens’ approach to Israel

Should we allow the conflict to become all that defines Israel?Suppose for a minute that an Israeli research team found an alternative energy source that would reduce world reliance on oil by 60% and that the breakthrough was reported in a scientific journal and then crossed over into the general press in America.

If pro-Israel advocates then used that small piece of reality to show that most people’s perceptions of Israel are different from the reality, could anyone possible object? Of course not, yet in a way, that’s pretty much what happened when a recent photo feature of Israeli women ran in Maxim, a magazine aimed at young American men.

Now that the balagan has settled down and the more than 2,000,000 young men who read Maxim each month have seen their pre-conceptions about Israel explode and help create in them an awareness that there is more to Israel than a terrible, ongoing conflict with the Palestinians, we can look at why the Maxim feature is a very successful communications enterprise.

First, let us clearly state that we agree with those, including Jonathan Tobin in his Jerusalem Post op-ed “Lost is the message”, who say that the conflict is Israel’s most important and challenging issue, and let us also agree that it is vital to challenge those who hate, demonize and de-legitimize Israel.

These are valid concerns and activities, but what percentage of the American audience, as Tobin says “think Israel is a wicked oppressor of poor Palestinians”? Certainly some people on some campuses do and there are many groups engaged that battle. But as a growing body of quantitative and qualitative research proves, they are blessedly a precious few indeed. Every poll shows strong American support for Israel and that is certainly the most conclusive proof that most Americans don’t think Israel is wicked.

Indeed, the larger problem – and opportunity – is found in the vast majority of Americans who know almost nothing about Israel except that they think there is a, long-running conflict there where fault is probably divided in some way between each side.

So there are other questions that must be asked: Should the overall pro-Israel communications strategy be aimed at a tiny audience who will almost certainly never be convinced? Or rather should we think about a strategy that is built from an awareness of what the overwhelming majority of Americans knows – or more appropriately, doesn’t know – about Israel and what information will best serve the hope of improving Americans’ affinity for Israel over time?

For us, this becomes a very simple exercise in common sense. Should we allow the conflict to become all that defines Israel for Americans and others around the world? Every day more people get up in Israel and go to work trying to make the world a better place – by improving technology, diagnosing and treating disease, conducting valuable basic scientific research – than the total of people in the army, the intelligence services, police and security guards who get up and “go” to the conflict.

Shouldn’t Americans know what these Israelis are doing and how it affects their lives in America? To us it’s obvious: of course they should.

Research conducted by the Brand Israel Group shows definitively that Americans see Israel through two lenses, Orthodoxy and conflict; and that we need to add a human lens.

Research by Young and Rubicam shows that Americans think Israelis are not like Americans and that Israel is not relevant to their lives. When you can make a statement like this one, “everyday the life of every American is made a little safer, easier, more efficient and healthier by Israelis and the things they do that add value to the world,” why wouldn’t you pursue a strategy that shows Israelis through the “human lens” of what they do and how they live and how what they do impacts directly and positively on the daily lives of Americans?

When you see the Maxim article as a tactical choice to get the attention of a segment of the population that research says is the most problematic for Israel (males under 30) and to shatter their preconceived notions about Israel so that they will afterward be more attuned to and receptive to other information about Israel, then you begin to understand why the photo spread and accompanying article is good example of successful strategic communications.

There are probably people of good will who believe, as Tobin does, that “the bad press [Israel] gets is based on unchallenged pro-Arab propaganda and a lack of advocacy for the rights of Jews…” But pro-Arab propaganda may inform some of the radicals on campuses, but it has little or no impact on a general American audience.

Israel has become defined by the conflict not by pro-Arab propaganda but the lack of any proactive, positive communications efforts on her behalf.

The State of Israel and her supporters have spent so much time trying to prove that Israel is right that they’ve never shown the world that there is anything else to Israel except the conflict.

We ask you to conduct this simple exercise: Is there any doubt in your mind that if every American could spend a week in Israel that the PR problem in America would be solved? Gourmands would rave about the restaurants; art-lovers would rave about the artists; environmentalists would rave about water conservation; oenophiles would rave about the wines; beach lovers would rave about the beaches; people would learn of the real “normalcy” of life there and, yes, twenty-something men would rave about the beautiful young women.

In the end, Israel would be so much better with all those Americans coming home and knowing everything else about Israel – they already know about the problems.

They would also know about the diversity of Israeli society – including the bikini babes and the accomplished women of arts, letters, science, government and every imaginable field.

Maxim is just one magazine. The story was a means to an end, not an end in itself. It was designed to show one audience something that would shake up their perceptions of Israel. They’ll never think the same way about Israel again, and they’ll certainly be paying a lot more attention. As twenty-something men say, “Hey man, it’s all good.”

(Originally appeared in The Jerusalem Post)

An Israeli fencing lesson

The security fence is a valuable laboratory test case from which we Yanks can learn.I recently spent 10 days in Israel at the expense of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Styled an Academic Fellowship on Terrorism, this ‘paid vacation’ featured an up-close-and-personal peek at how the Jewish state deals with terrorists, a topic of no small interest to us Americans since 9/11.

Parallels between our two countries are a little hard to find, however, Israel is about as big as New Jersey or perhaps Vermont, plus or minus some parts of New Hampshire. The beleaguered nation, surrounded by enemies armed to the teeth, somehow manages to remain a democracy.

I doubt we Americans are ready to open our purses and packages for inspection every time we enter a mall or restaurant. Universal military service is not even on our federal agenda for discussion.

One parallel did catch my eye, rolls of razor wire running parallel to a fence along the so-called West Bank of the Jordan. Similarly, Uncle Sam has started a fence along our border with Mexico.

Our FDD contingent, 45 professors strong, visited Israel’s largest Arab city, some few miles from the fence. At the town hall, the city manager gave us a little talk, then opened himself up to our questions.

Of Arab descent but Israel-born, the 50-something ‘mayor’ allowed as how he likes that fence. The barrier, which bears signs warning of ‘mortal danger’ if you climb it, has reduced illegal immigration of Palestinians to his town substantially, he says. The small city’s unemployment rate approaches 30 percent. He blames much of it on illegals who marry local Israeli-Arab girls and then either scarf up scarce jobs or add themselves directly to the unemployment rolls. Either way, he contends, they deplete scarce economic resources.

Born, raised and educated in Israel, this Arab official worries about where his children are headed. His son, he says, is pro-Palestinian. Were this worried parent an African-American, his son might label him an ‘Uncle Tom’. However, he, himself, would choose to be a Palestinian citizen if a democratic Palestine becomes a real possibility.

I don’t know if Mexican-Americans along the Rio Grande and in San Antonio and El Paso and San Diego share any of this Arab city manager’s ambivalence about their futures and those of their children. I would not be surprised to discover that at least some are eager for the US to staunch the flow of illegals into their borderland towns and cities.

Like the Arab city manager, other Israeli officials report a decrease in cross-border incursions by would-be-bombers and other illegals, thanks they believe to their fence.

The border fence, an innovation that will not in any way impact the rights or lifestyles of US citizens, may be an initiative for which the Israeli experiment is a valuable laboratory test case from which we Yanks can learn.

(Reprinted from the News of Delaware County)

Israel’s security system truly worth emulating

A way found to cope with terrorism without stifling internal dissent or abrogating the rule of law. Ever since the Twin Towers disintegrated into rubble Sept. 11, 2001, the cries of “Death to America!” coming from Arab streets have sounded more ominous than simple posturing. The recently squelched plot to blow up JFK Airport and the prospect of Iran becoming a nuclear power fill Americans with unspoken dread that catastrophe lurks.

That’s just how terrorists want us to think. Terrorism may seem to be arbitrary and senseless killing, but it’s actually sophisticated psychological warfare. Terrorists (and the states supporting them) seek to foster fear and panic in order to change the policies of nations they cannot defeat by conventional means.

The United States faces a twofold challenge in battling terrorism. While striving to deter attacks by enemies foreign and domestic, it also must avoid sacrificing the basic freedoms and quality of life that ensure the loyalty of most Americans to their government.

America should learn from Israel, a country under constant threat of attack. To gain a better appreciation for how a functioning democracy can successfully practice counterterrorism, I joined more than 40 other American college professors in late May for 10 days as an academic fellow of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Israel (FDD).

The FDD provided us with unparalleled access to almost every level of the Israeli security system, from its National Security Council to various units of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) and National Police. We even visited a maximum security prison housing convicted terrorists and spoke with representatives of Hamas and the Popular Front.

Israel’s efforts to thwart terrorism seem so much better coordinated than ours. As a small nation that prizes results, it has developed a security system free of the institutional overlap and bureaucratic turf wars that dog its American counterpart.

The National Police and Israeli Security Agency battle terrorism within Israel, while threats emanating from outside the country are handled by the IDF and Mossad (Israel’s version of the CIA). All four organizations share intelligence and readily work together in other ways.

All Israelis are required to serve three years in the military (with the exception of ultra-Orthodox Jews and most Israeli Arabs), creating a populace that is equipped to take crises in stride. Israeli citizens lead normal lives when they aren’t under direct threat. The Tel Aviv hotel that the FDD academic fellows made our base from May 26 through June 6 sat less than 50 miles from where Kassam rockets fired by Hamas operatives in Gaza hit Israeli soil. Yet, Tel Aviv’s residents went to work or school during the day and filled the city’s restaurants and clubs at night.

The Israeli approach to counterterrorism offers a balance between restraint and ruthlessness. Every restaurant and facility able to accommodate 500 or more people must have an armed guard on duty. It is a sobering experience to hand your luggage to a bellboy packing a Glock automatic pistol.

As a democracy, Israel observes higher ethical standards than many of its enemies. Besides being admirable, that policy is also wise in a public-relations sense, for Israelis are aware that much of the world does not wish them well and views them as oppressors rather than victims. At the same time, Israeli security personnel are prepared to cause lengthy traffic jams to disrupt terrorist timetables or to kill terrorists before they can blow up crowded nightspots or school buses. While the IDF tries to avoid collateral damage, it accepts the possibility of civilian casualties if the objects of targeted kills are dangerous enough.

Israel has found ways to cope with terrorism without stifling internal dissent or abrogating the rule of law. While putting security first, it has avoided turning itself into a modern Sparta or a repressive police state. America could learn much from its long-time ally as it strives to better safeguard itself.

(Reprinted with permission from the Philadelphia Inquirer)