Award-winning Israeli directors, writers and producers say they owe their success to the film school that made them “independent” and “warrior-like.”
Israeli film has achieved a significant international presence in recent years. What’s less well known is that many of the award-winning directors, writers and producers are graduates of Tel Aviv University’s (TAU) Film and Television School.
Situated in a non-descript grey building on the university’s Ramat Aviv campus, where cats lurk in the basement corridors and studios are packed with what at first glance appears to be mounds of junk, academics and former students of the film school appreciate their alma mater’s encouragement of “a free spirit” combined with “discipline.”
There are a number of film schools in Israel including the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School in Jerusalem, the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, Sapir College in Ashkelon, and the Ma’ale School of Television and the Arts, which is the only religious film school in the country. Founded in 1972, however, TAU’s film school is the oldest in the country, and the only one that is part of a university.
It has educated directors such as Ari Folman (Waltz with Bashir); Yaron Shani, who co-directed the recent Oscar-nominated Ajami; and Eytan Fox (Walk on Water, The Bubble). Over the past four years, films made by the school have won over 100 awards, received six student Academy Award nominations and been screened at film festivals worldwide. This is aside from the numerous prizes bestowed on its alumni.
Not just technique, it’s about culture too
Reuven Hecker, who heads the film school and is also a writer, documentary filmmaker and graduate of the department, thinks that its success stems from the school’s intensive combination of theory and practice. Moreover, he believes that filmmakers must be well educated and open-minded. The benefit of being part of a university, he tells ISRAEL21c, is that in addition to the theoretical classes on film, students can study other subjects that interest them.
His colleague, award-winning director, screenwriter and graduate of the school’s first graduating class, Eitan Green, adds that “the school is not just about technique, it’s also about culture in all its aspects. Young people are exposed to the history of cinema as much as the history of art.”
Shani’s decision to attend was influenced by the school’s high level of academic studies. He says that one of its strengths is its comprehensive teaching of the theory and background of film. The school also taught him the importance of film criticism, which he describes as a crucial component of his development as a filmmaker. “A filmmaker needs to understand the meaning of criticism, in order to know the meaning of a good film,” he says.
Shani tells ISRAEL21c that the city of Tel Aviv itself contributes to the school’s ability to develop talent, since it’s “the most important cultural center in Israel. It attracts people who are ambitious, who want to succeed, so naturally TAU is the place to study.”
Learning to be warriors
Hagai Levi endorses the role that ambition plays. Levi created In Treatment, the award-winning Israeli TV drama series which was adapted in the US to critical acclaim, winning both an Emmy and a Golden Globe. One of the scriptwriters was Folman, his former classmate.
“We were in the real world from the minute we were at the school. We had to fight for everything and think for ourselves all the time. But it gave us the right attitude for the film world,” he says, “making us independent and quite warrior-like.”
At the time, he continues, TV was not a realistic work option. There were no commercial or cable channels in Israel prior to 1990, so “when we were studying we probably knew that either we would have to make feature films or do nothing. So in a way the school forced us to be ambitious and persistent.”
Levi, too, chose the school because of its connection to the university; the department is within the Katz Faculty of the Arts. “It was important for me to receive a broad education, not just learn how to make films,” he recounts. While he says that some of the teachers were real intellectuals and not the most practical film teachers, “… we were given such perspective and I owe much to the school.”
Admission is competitive, with five or six applicants for every one of the 180 to 200 places, explains Prof. Hannah Naveh, dean of the Arts Faculty. Unlike other film schools, potential applicants do not submit a film; TAU selects its students according to their grades, so that those who are can’t afford to produce their own films are not at a disadvantage.
Encouraging free spirit and discipline
Since most students enroll post-army and post-travel, they tend to be around 24 or 25 years old, says Hecker, so they bring with them some life experience. They are not forced into narrow specializations and have considerable creative freedom, but this “comes with responsibility,” as they learn that the success or failure of a film rests entirely with them.
Hecker is absolutely clear about the role of his staff. Teachers are there to give students the tools to make their films, “not ours.” This means that while teachers will happily provide advice and support, the students themselves must make all the final decisions. Green thinks that this encouragement of “free spirit and discipline” is another one of the reasons for the school’s success.
“I felt that I was thrown out to discover things for myself,” says Shani. He acknowledges that learning to be very independent and responsible for his work prepared him to create Ajami. “The disadvantage that I felt became an advantage. As a filmmaker I was more prepared for the real game.”
While the awards keep on coming, the school is neither smug nor complacent about its successes or its influence. It still faces challenges. The issue and use of new media is one that Hecker wants to tackle, as this is “the way the world is going.”
While much is uncertain about the future of film, it seems clear that many of Israel’s film and TV award winners of the future will pass through this institution.