March 25, 2007, Updated September 19, 2012

The latest films aren’t flukes but the product of a talented new generation of filmmakers.

New York, 1990: An Israeli friend and I study the program for the Israel Film Festival. “What’s going on?” asks my friend. “They’re all about Holocaust survivors who move to a kibbutz and become incest victims.” We decide to see Goodfellas instead.

Berlin, 2007: When the prizes at the Berlin International Film Festival are announced, Israeli Joseph Cedar wins the Silver Bear Award for Best Director for his hard-hitting war film set in Lebanon, Beaufort.

Many Israelis are pleased, but few who are familiar with the Israeli film industry in general and Cedar’s work in particular are surprised by the award. In the last few years, Israeli movies have won top awards at major film festivals, including Cannes and Sundance, played all over the world and received glowing reviews, and lured millions of local filmgoers away from Hollywood blockbusters.

In January, Dror Shaul’s autobiographical coming-of-age drama set on a kibbutz, Sweet Mud, took home the top prize for an international feature at the Sundance Film Festival, the most prestigious festival for independent film. It also won a major prize in the youth division at the Berlin Film Festival.

Eytan Fox’s The Bubble, the story of a complicated romance between a gay Israeli and a Palestinian, also got several prizes at Berlin.

So how did we get from there to here?

Several factors have brought about an increase in the professionalism of Israeli filmmakers and a subsequent rise in the quality of Israeli-made films. First, let’s look back at the history of the Israeli film industry. In the past, there were two basic types of Israeli movies: sereti bourekas, or what might be called teen flicks, such as the Eskimo Limon series, and movies with serious aspirations of wildly varying quality.

In the early days of the state, these serious films tended to be dramas designed to stir up patriotism, such as Entebbe: Operation Thunderbolt. In later years, the serious films were more likely to be earnest looks at the political situation, made by directors whose leftist politics were better developed than their narrative technique or their desire to entertain an audience.

In each category, occasionally there were movies that were true gems, such as Ephraim Kishon’s Sallah Shabbati (1964), a charming, funny and intelligently satirical film about a Mizrahi immigrant family, and Beyond the Walls” (1984), an intense and hopeful drama about an alliance between Israeli and Palestinian prisoners who fight the corrupt prison system together. But these movies were few and far between. Not coincidentally, Beyond the Walls was the last Israeli film to be nominated for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Language Film category, an award no Israeli film has ever won.

Several Israeli movies were made every year, but few were worth seeing and fewer were distributed abroad or accepted at international film festivals. A government-run film fund allocated money to filmmakers and, in some cases, paid theaters to show these films by subsidizing heating and air conditioning bills for the empty auditoriums. Throughout the 1980s, I can’t remember attending a showing of an Israeli film here with an audience of more than 10. And a growing number of movies made from the 1990s on chronicled the angst of alienated Tel Aviv residents and were especially grating and amateurish.

But dramatic change did come to Israeli cinema, and part of the credit for this is due to Lia van Leer, the founder of the country’s cinematheques in Haifa and Jerusalem in the early Eighties and helped found the Tel Aviv Cinematheque. The Israeli cinematheques (there are now several in smaller cities such as Sderot) are modeled on the famous Cinematheque Francaise in Paris. They show the finest contemporary and classic films from around the world.

Van Leer also founded international film festivals in Haifa and Jerusalem in the mid-eighties, which brought some of the world’s greatest filmmakers and actors to Israel every year. These cinematheques and festivals and the excitement they generated schooled a generation of aspiring younger filmmakers in a highly sophisticated cinema culture. These younger cineastes wanted to study moviemaking and did not necessarily want to go abroad and so film schools, notably Sam Spiegel in Jerusalem, were founded and were quickly flooded with applications.

A second change can be credited to television. The development of Channel Two and cable companies in the late Eighties and early Nineties meant that suddenly there were new opportunities for Israeli filmmakers. Now, actors and directors had years to learn their craft in television. The cable companies began to finance movies, both aimed at theatrical release and television. Eytan Fox’s Yossi & Jagger (2002), for example, a drama about a romance between two male soldiers, was originally produced for television but then was shown theatrically in Israel and around the world.

These new sources of funding revolutionized the film industry, because now the Israel Film Fund wasn’t the only game in town. Outsiders in the movie industry, such as women, recent immigrants, gays, Orthodox Jews and Arabs, as well as anyone who didn’t have connections in the Israel Film Fund, now had a much better chance to get their films made.

The final factor that pushed Israeli movies to the breakthrough they are now enjoying is the so-called Cinema Law. In 2001, in a rare moment of good judgment, the government agreed to allocate a significantly higher amount of money to the film industry.

It was in 2004 that the movies that filmmakers had begun planning in 2001 started to be released and it was a banner year for Israeli films. Keren Yedaya’s drama of a Tel Aviv prostitute and her daughter, Or, won the prestigious Camera d’Or prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Eran Riklis’ The Syrian Bride, co-written by Israeli Arab screenwriter Suha Arraf, the story of a Druze woman about to leave her family in Israel to marry in Syria, took the top prize at the Montreal International Film Festival and won more than 18 prizes at film festivals around the world.

Eytan Fox’s Walk on Water,” about a cynical Mossad agent assigned to shadow the gay grandson of an infamous Nazi, earned more than $7 million in the US, more than any other Israeli film ever. Turn Left at the End of the World, a comedy-drama about Indian immigrants moving to a development town in the Negev populated mainly by Moroccan Jews, directed by Avi Nesher, broke box-office records in Israel, selling more than half a million tickets. Turn Left, which also had a successful run all over Europe and particularly in France, is especially significant because in order for a film industry to truly thrive, it has to speak to a local audience as well as filmgoers abroad. Israelis have begun to flock to locally made films (and to rent and buy them on DVD), both serious dramas, broad comedies and everything in between.

Another development that became impossible to ignore by 2004 was the diversity apparent in Israeli films. In a highly competitive year, the Ophir (the Israeli Oscar) for Best Picture went to Joseph Cedar’s second film, Campfire, a look at a modern Orthodox widow and her two teenage daughters who contemplate moving to a West Bank settlement. The National Zionist sector, although it had become increasingly influential and visible in Israeli society, had been nearly invisible in movies until then. Significantly, the Ophir for Best Actor that year went to newly ultra-Orthodox actor/screenwriter Shuli Rand, who co-wrote and starred in Ushpizin, an insider’s look at ultra-Orthodox life in Jerusalem.

Arab filmmakers in Israel have also begun to play a more prominent role. Atash, a movie by Israeli Arab Tawfik Abu Wael about an isolated family dominated by an angry patriarch, shared the top prize at the 2004 Jerusalem Film Festival and took home several honors at Cannes.

From 2004 until today, Israeli movies have continued to win honors abroad and draw audiences, both locally and internationally. Movies such as Beaufort, The Bubble and Sweet Mud will soon be distributed internationally and will likely win more awards. These films are not flukes but the product of a talented new generation of Israeli filmmakers. And don’t be surprised if next January, when the Oscar nominations come out, there’s an Israeli title among the Best Foreign Language Film nominees.

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

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