Israeli documentary filmmaker Hilla Medalia: “This is the stuff of dreams. To be nominated for an Emmy is one of the highest accolades in my industry,”Arranging a telephone interview with Israeli documentary filmmaker Hilla Medalia requires the scheduling dexterity of a flight attendant: she is constantly on route to some place else – making movies, promoting various projects and generally wheeling and dealing. And the sense is that it’s not about to get any easier. Medalia’s debut work, To Die in Jerusalem, has just garnered three Emmy award nominations – best documentary, best score and outstanding achievement in investigative journalism. The award ceremony will take place on September 21 in Los Angeles.
“This is the stuff of dreams. To be nominated for an Emmy is one of the highest accolades in my industry,” the filmmaker tells ISRAEL21c via phone from New York.
Her film – which also won her a prestigious Peabody Award and first place at the International Human Rights Film Festival in Paris – tells the story of two women: one the mother of a Palestinian suicide bomber and the other, the mother of a young Israeli girl killed in the same attack.
Films with a conscience
For Medalia, the attention means more people will see her films, which is the main point. “For me, the power of film is in the amount of people that can potentially watch what you produce. It’s when I understood this that I decided that my role as a filmmaker was to focus on projects that have a social conscience.”
Medalia’s journey to becoming a filmmaker began courtesy of her athletic prowess. During the course of a fairly typical Israeli childhood, she became a teen track star. A subsequent stint in the Israel Defense Forces with the special status of ‘athlete of excellence’ was a springboard to an athletic scholarship to study film at the University of Southern Illinois.
“University was great because I was in the middle of nowhere which meant there was nothing to do but study and train” says Medalia. “The freedom you have is wonderful; if you want to shoot something you just take a camera and shoot.” The filmmaker’s master’s submission Daughters of Abraham won her a prestigious Angelus Student Film Festival award and would later become the basis of the Emmy-nominated To Die in Jerusalem.
After finishing school, Medalia moved to the Big Apple to learn the ropes. “I did everything” she recalls. Her journey up the ladder of filmmaking included the archetypal rookie tasks of carrying lights and being an assistant director on a horror film. But Medalia’s biggest break came working with fellow Israeli filmmaker Danny Menkin on his award winning film 39 Pounds of Love. Says Medalia “It was a great way to learn the business inside out because I was involved in so many aspects. In the end, I helped raise finance and distribute the finished product so it also schooled me in the business end of the industry.”
The involvement in and subsequent successful theatrical release of Menkin’s film gave Medalia the confidence to start her own project: To Die in Jerusalem. She raised the bulk of the funding on her own and traveled endlessly back and forth between New York and Tel Aviv over a period of two years in order to complete the film. At the rough cut stage, Medalia scored every documentary filmmaker’s dream: a pre-sale to American cable giant HBO.
The journey since has launched Medalia’s career. She has traveled tirelessly with the film to numerous festivals and screenings everywhere from Hong Kong to Cape Town and Edinburgh. “It’s been an incredible experience professionally. I’ve met so many people in the industry, learnt so much.”
The results are more than evident: Medalia currently has two projects in the works.
After Hurricane Katrina
The first, After the Storm, focuses on a group of teens in post-Katrina New Orleans who stage a musical in a resurrected community centre. The project was spearhead by a group of New York theatre professionals as a way of helping the youth rehabilitate. The film focuses on the lives of the kids, their schools, their homes, their struggles and their hopes as they attempt to make sense of a New Orleans after the storm. For Medalia, the process has been incredibly moving “On one hand it’s been very difficult because of the conditions there, even though we shot two years after the hurricane; but in another sense it is very inspiring to see that despite everything that has happened they are moving forward. It’s a very special place.” Hollywood star Rosie O’Donnell was impressed enough by Medalia and her venture that she joined the project as executive producer.
Her other work in progress is a joint project with businessman/producer Itai Horstock, which tells the story of returned soldier/musician Kobi Vitman who battles post traumatic stress disorder and ultimately deals with it through the writing and staging of a rock opera on the subject. Says Medalia “It talks about things we prefer not to address: namely, the effect of war on society and on soldiers.”
Medalia sees a commonality in all her projects. “I like personal stories, not just stories about people. It’s much more appealing for me than doing things from a historical or purely narrative angle.”
Given all the recognition, it would seem that Medalia is on to something.