June 13, 2004, Updated September 14, 2012

Noam Shalev: Over the years you manage to develop sharper senses as to what stories are more interesting.By showing to the world those sides of Israel to which they have never been exposed before, Noam Shalev has been making his mark as one of the most prolific documentary directors in the country.

With topics ranging from a group of Israelis who were abducted in Colombia, to a profile of the Zaka rescue organization, and a look at 24 hours in the life of a Israeli Army officer serving in Gaza, Shalev’s films expose a usually hidden view of varied aspects of Israeli life to the world at large.

His films have been shown on British Channel Four, the History Channel, and the National Geographic Channel, as well as local Israeli channels. As opposed to the straightforward ‘hasbara’ efforts which explain Israel’s case that Israel’s Foreign Ministry is required to disseminate to European and American news outlets, Shalev’s films provide the complementary soft sell approach. But Shalev does not see himself as a mouthpiece for Israel.

“He doesn’t approach his films with a bias. He comes to see what there is. As a filmmaker for films overseas, this is very important,” an Israeli PR executive told the Hebrew weekly Kol Hazman about Shalev. “He also shows the Israeli side, he is not one of those traitors who sell their ideology for money. He has the skill to market it in such a way that overseas they want to see it, and this is very important. Today there are Israeli directors who bring out the dirt in order to get feedback from the community of artists. On the other hand, we know of films that can’t be marketed because they are too Zionist.”

“I don’t espouse a political view,” Shalev said. “Whatever is decided will be decided by the Israeli governments or the US president, one or another.”

But when describing the circumstances behind his film about Gaza which was aired last month on the BBC, his director’s viewpoint comes into play. The film was shot and completed before the recent Operation Rainbow took place, but after the assassination of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin which raised the already hot area to a boiling point.

“The film is about one day in the life of a combatant,” Shalev explains. “The BBC wanted a special project for the anniversary for the war in Iraq, March 22. They decided on a project mapping conflicts in the world, and18 teams from all over the world were sent to 18 conflict spots, from Burma to Israel.”

“We witnessed a great many shooting events from all sorts of guns. The Philadelphia road [on which many Israeli soldiers have been killed in recent months] is impossible to maintain, it is a dirt track with a fence on one side and houses on the other. Can the IDF withdraw from there? That is a political question,” says Shalev.

But Shalev’s observations about the soldiers and what makes them tick is what makes his filmmaking special. Shalev said that from his vantage point, the Israeli soldiers completely believe in the justice of what they are doing, they believe that this is what needs to be done, and behave in a humane a way as possible.

“What I’m saying is not IDF Spokesperson’s Officer propaganda. The army really is very very careful. There is no indiscriminate firing. I saw, and this was not a show put on just for us, that before any shot is fired there is confirmation that there is nobody behind or in front of the objective. The army is very sensitive to non-deliberate fire,” he says.

Shalev, 41 and married, lives in Herzliya, and is the father of ten year old twin girls. He studied moviemaking in New York (he has a BA from Queens College and an MA from Hunter College) and from the beginning, was attracted to making documentary movies. His first big success was the film Shooting Conflicts which followed two photographers, Alon Bernstein who worked for AP, and Jimmy Michael, who worked for the BBC, for a year, and was screened on 20 channels around the world.

In 1997 Shalev set up his company Highlight Films which employs 11 people in an Herzliya studio. “The company has two main activities,” he explains. “The first, of course, are films that we initiate: we come with an idea, we do a few days of shooting and we present the idea to try and sell it.”

One idea that came to fruition was a film about Zaka, Israel’s volunteer rescue service which has gained international prominence due to its speedy arrival after every terror attack. In the last two and a half years, he has been accompanying the Zaka volunteers in Jerusalem and in Tel Aviv and documenting them at personal moments, in terror attacks, in the morgue and at the trial at The Hague.

Typical of Shalev’s sensitivity as a director, the film has no shocking footage, and no political statement, neither hinted at nor open. The terror attacks are just the backdrop to the plot, which is constructed from the personal stories of the volunteers. Four volunteers star in the film, two from Tel Aviv, two from Jerusalem. Shalev moves skillfully from one to the other. One, the Zaka commander in Tel Aviv, comes across as a jolly type. In one scene he is standing in the kitchen of his home with his family and talking about one of the terror attacks: “A policeman comes running wildly to me with a head in his hands, and asks me ‘what should I do with this?’ I told him ‘put it back where you found it.’ I don’t understand, who picks up a head?'”

The other volunteer, a new immigrant from the United States and Zaka volunteer in Jerusalem, is the emotional one. In one of the more moving scenes, he stands by the scorched leftovers of the bus at The Hague and reads in tears the names of those killed in terror attacks, with the crowd around sobbing along with him.

“I don’t glorify them, I look at them,” Shalev says about the film. “I interviewed a great many Zaka people. The main figures in the film are four, five people of a very large range of ages and occupations.”

Shalev said he was drawn to Zaka and grew curious to know why they volunteer, why them and others, why only 900 of them? Zaka, as a phenomenon, is something unique in the world: a volunteer-religious group whose only purpose is to deal in death. I wanted to know why.”

The film will debut on June 20 at an international film festival in Marseilles. Shalev is now negotiating on screening it in Israel and overseas.

“The film on Zaka gave me an appetite to do films having to do with Israeli society. The challenge is to translate this so that it works for audiences overseas. Dealing with just the conflict is hard, and people are sick of it. You have to find stories that will interest audiences in Belgium and in Holland too.”

Shalev’s diligence has paid off with 50 films as director and producer in the last decade.

“I work hard,” he said. “I have been able to put together a good group of directors who work with me, and apparently the films I make are liked overseas, otherwise they wouldn’t ask for more.”

“Over the years you manage to develop sharper senses as to what stories are more interesting. I don’t go for the banal, I don’t go for something that happens today and tomorrow is no longer relevant, I go for films that if you work on them today they will also be interesting in two years. You need an interesting story that people will want to see, where the figures are strong enough to embody historic and religious phenomena.”

(Based on a report in Kol Hazman)

More on People

Fighting for Israel's truth

We cover what makes life in Israel so special — it's people. A non-profit organization, ISRAEL21c's team of journalists are committed to telling stories that humanize Israelis and show their positive impact on our world. You can bring these stories to life by making a donation of $6/month. 

Jason Harris

Jason Harris

Executive Director

Read more: