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Israeli Arts, Culture & Literature: Cinema in Israel

by Dan Fainaru

"Our cinema has reached a turning point," says producer Haim Sharir. "From now on, it should be perfectly clear that Israeli films cannot rely on private investments any more. Either we can get enough money from Public sources or we'll have to look for another profession." Sharir is not the only one to think so. Jonathan Aroch, whose "Siren's Song" is considered the most successful Israeli film of 1994 (approximately 100,000 admissions) concurs, and so do practically all those who have recently gone through the experience of producing an Israeli feature film. In other words, history is repeating itself. Every time it seemed as if Israeli cinema was about to assume its own place both as an art form and an industry (sadly, the two are inseparable and interdependent in order to exist), something happened to set the whole process back.

As awkward as it may seem, one cannot discuss Israeli cinema before dealing with its economic condition. This is always frustrating for a film critic, who would much rather deal with themes and esthetics, form and content, than dollars and cents. Ideally, money should be the means to an end; a film may cost a fortune and turn out to be a disaster, and vice versa. But films, being the costliest artistic medium yet invented, cannot begin to exist without substantial funds, and every penny deducted from the budget leaves a visible void on the screen. While money by itself has never produced a masterpiece, it certainly doesn't hurt to have some.

And the Israeli cinema does not get much. The reason may be that, in spite of all statements to the contrary, the people in charge of the cultural scene in the country still have doubts about it. Is it indeed an art form, as they are told ad nauseam by interested parties, or is it a branch of the entertainment industry that is supposed to survive on its own? Possibly an outdated question by international standards, which could be explained by the lack of absolute achievements of Israeli films. One Bergman or one Anghelopoulos, to give obvious examples, would have established the reputation necessary to dispel such doubts. But as long as an indisputable master does not materialize, the arts establishment will continue to suspect that money invested in films is a waste.

Such reservations will never be voiced in public because no one wishes to appear dated and deny the importance of the "art of the 20th century." But recent figures indicate that cinema is receiving only about five percent (11 million shekels) out of the budget dedicated to cultural activities by the Arts Ministry, which is about 64 percent of the sum allocated to one theatre alone, Habimah.

Investors willing to underwrite half a film's budget (assuming the other half is covered by the Fund for the Promotion of Quality Films or TV commitments) are a rare breed. No wonder, since Israeli film audiences seem to have lost interest altogether in their home product and too many of 1994's crop attracted less than 10,000 spectators. Some of the reasons are obvious. The explosion of the electronic media in recent years has made a substantial dent in overall cinema attendance. Audiences are more selective and obviously feel they get better value from American movies. Moreover, the juggernaut of the Hollywood studios pushing all competition out of the theatres to intake room for its own products is making the distribution of Israeli films, unprotected by law, fiendishly difficult even on its home ground.

On top of this, producers complain there is a stigma attached to them in recent years, and they lay the responsibility at the critics' door, accusing them of being destructive and vindictive. Traditionally, the most successful Israeli films have never been great favorites 'with the critics, while most of the films praised by the critics have fared badly at the box office. Lukewarm opinions on "Zohar," the film biography of Zohar Argov, a controversial popular singer who died at the age of 30 from a drug overdose, did not prevent it becoming the biggest hit of recent years, while Dan Wolman's "The Distance," considered by most critics to be a lucid, intelligent and sensitive observation on Israeli society, played briefly to empty houses. The one place where a film which failed in the cinemas has a chance to redeem itself, is on television, where home products are usually highly rated. However, none of the existing channels can offer the kind of money that would justify the existence of the Israeli cinema.

If there is any doubt that commercial Israeli cinema is in deep trouble, a quick glance at the films made in the course of the last two years will confirm it. Ethnic comedies, sex-oriented youth pranks, " candid camera" extravaganzas, all of them commercial genres par excellence, enthusiastically embraced at one time by Israeli audiences, in spite of the devastating voices of the critics, have now been rejected by the audiences, all of them landing up as popular shows and sitcoms in the warm bosom of commercial television, where they receive top ratings and the same acerbic reviews they deserved and received in the past. Obviously, they are still well liked, but not enough to warrant leaving one's comfortable armchair.

Another type of cinema is fading away as well. In the not very distant past, it was considered irrelevant to complain about the quality of certain Israeli films, as long as the message they tried to deliver was "correct." Well-intentioned liberal, desperately striving for political correctness, these films dealt with the Israeli-Arab conflict, castigating conservatives on both sides, trying to shake the audience out of its complacency. Sincere, if sometimes clumsy, films like "The Smile of the Lamb," "Green Fields," "A Very Narrow Bridge" and many others, were supposed to sound a warning that not many people wanted to hear.

Somehow, with the outbreak of the Intifada, which proved the warnings sounded by these films to be true, they started to disappear. Possibly, because clear-cut messages in the new climate were much more difficult to formulate and the notion of political correctness, at least for an Israeli, became far more complicated to define. This was certainly true for the audiences, who did appreciate some well-made militant pictures in the past (to wit, "Behind the Bars" or "Ricochets,") but chose to ignore Eran Riklis' "Cup Final," whose humanistic message implied in the encounter between Israelis and Palestinians during the Lebanon War was more appreciated abroad than at home.

The most popular genre to emerge lately is the so-called "Sheinkin movie," named for Tel Aviv's "in" street, where artists and pseudo-artists, writers and journalists, trend-setters and groupies rub elbows every day and night of the week. These films are distinguished by flashes of "video-clip" glitz, the latest slang and vacuous but exceedingly loquacious characters. The impact of films like Shabi Gabison's "Shuru," in which all these people are searching for a guru to tell them how to live; Nirit Yaron and Ayelet Menahemi's "Tel Aviv Stories," a triptych on three young ladies determined to have their own way in a fast-moving, male-oriented society, or Eytan Fox's "Siren's Song" (based on Irit Linur's best-selling novel), about the love life of a glib, 30-ish woman publicist during the Gulf War, indicate that at the moment, although no one knows for how long, this is the way to an audience's heart.

The other direction which seems to be extremely popular, if less with the public then with the filmmakers, leads back into the past, trying to come to terms with ancestors, parents and childhood. To mention last year's output only, there is Hanna Azoulai and Shmuel Hasfari's "Sh'hur," a drama with autobiographical undertones about a Moroccan family adapting to life in Israel in the early 1970s; "Dreams of Innocence" by Dina Zvi-Riklis, dealing with the same community, but focusing on a mythomaniac father who refuses to accept reality; "The New Land," in which Orna Ben Dor-Niv uses surrealism in order to recreate the atmosphere of the immigrant camps in the early 1950s and "Aya - An Imaginary Autobiography," which allows Michal Bat Adam to explore once again her childhood (already dealt with in two of her earlier films) from the perspective of her status as filmmaker and wife. It is interesting to notice that women are the driving force behind all these projects (Azoulai wrote the script of "Sh'hur," which her husband, Hasfari, directed). All of them concentrate on childhood experiences, on the identity crisis of people from different origins in a new country and on the generation gap. Three of the examples cited (Bat-Adam's film being the exception) could be easily defined as ethnic and yet they are far removed from earlier films of this type - light comedies which made a joke out of the entire issue. Nowadays, this kind of subject clearly does not generate any smiles, let alone the guffaws of the past.

Conflict between generations emerges time and again. In Aner Preminger's "Blindman's Buff," a young woman severs the umbilical cord which kept her tied to her parents and prevented her growing into an adult. In "On the Edge," directed by Amnon Rubinstein from a novel by Yehoshua Kenaz, two daughters ruthlessly rebel against their father and his second wife. "The Flying Camel" has a despondent old professor fighting to preserve the Bauhaus vestiges of Tel Aviv of the 1930s in the face of the invasion of shapeless constructions put up by a mindless, profit-driven Tel Aviv of the 1990s.

To be fair, political relevance has not disappeared altogether. Not as long as there is Assi Dayan to produce doomsday prophecies such as "Life According to Agfa," whose portrayal of a self-destructive Israeli society tearing itself apart in a Tel Aviv pub shocked local audiences. But when Dayan, the enfant terrible of Israeli cinema in more senses than one, followed "Agfa" with the chaotically existentialist and intentionally foul-mouthed "Electric Blanket Syndrome," even his most devoted followers were taken aback, some arguing it was intentionally horrifying, others rejecting it as hopelessly vulgar.

Incidentally, Dayan is one of the rare examples of an Israeli filmmaker who works regularly at his craft. And indeed, except for Dayan, Dan Wolman, Michal Bet-Adam and Amnon Rubinstein, practically the entire output of last year is the work of newcomers. While it is encouraging to see so many new faces, this is one of the major problems of the Israeli cinema. Promising directors, whose work generated interest and who should have worked constantly, are so exhausted by the effort involved in making a film that they either give up or allow such a long period of time to elapse that every time they go back behind a camera, it is as if they are once again making their first film. Wolman's last film before "The Distance" was nine years ago; directors like Avraham Heffner, Daniel Wachsman, Yehuda "Judd" Neeman, Itzhak "Zeppel" Yeshurun, Eitan Green, while not officially retired, have been silent for far too long.

Finally, coming back to political relevance and its absence from most recent feature films, the one place where they are still of prim importance is the documentary cinema. Once discounted as no more than glorified newsreels, Israeli documentaries have lately found a place of their own, courageously tackling some of the most painful subjects of the day and often displaying more sense and sensitivity than most of the feature films which attempted to do so in the past. The heavy burden of the Holocaust is exemplary dealt with in such films as Orna Ben Do-Niv's "Because of that War" and Zippi Riebenbach's "The Choice and the Destiny". Behind the Wall of Exile," by David Ben-Shitrit, effectively presented the point of view of three vastly different Arab women, two of them living in Gaza and a third in a refugee camp near Jericho. Amos Gitai, who updated an older documentary, "The Wadi," about the mixed population of a forlorn Haifa slum, and Julie Schlez in "Sanjin," about a temporary immigrant camp populated by Russian and Ethiopian newcomers, leave no doubt about the difficulty of fitting into mainstream Israeli society. Amit Goren uses his own family in "1966 Was a Great Year for Tourism" to show that wandering Jews are not a thing of the past. In "6 Open, 21 Closed," he points his camera at Shlomo Tvezer, the commander of a Beersheba jail, to draw an exceptional portrait of a man who at any moment in his life might have gone wrong but did not, and can understand those who did.

As a matter of fact, documentaries have been so well received lately that a special government fund (modest, to be sure) has been started to encourage more initiatives of this kind. Whether this qualifies as cinema and whether such films have a future in movie theatres and can attract audiences on their own merits remains to be seen. For the time being, television remains their only means of exhibition, outside festivals and cinematheque screenings. But they are well-received and appreciated, and this is definitely a step forward. Maybe feature films will follow.

* * *

Three years have elapsed since the above article was written, and, if anything, the condition of the Israeli cinema is getting worse. Budgets have been cut, pledges for new funds have been ignored, the only film laboratory in the country has closed down and there is no miracle in sight that will save local cinema from being entirely taken over by television as a provider of (mostly) mediocre TV drama of sorts. Although, if the past is any indication, and it usually is, such a miracle may very well occur without warning, another shot in the arm that keeps films going for a few years more, until the next crisis erupts.

Crisis or no crisis, films kept coming up in the course of the last three years, partly out of inertia, partly because there are always a few fanatics who refuse to give up altogether and despite the temptation of quick bucks to be made on commercials and TV productions, still insist on seeing their names on the silver screen, even if it is only for a brief while, before the small screens swallow their films up. Thematically, no clear-cut tendency is in the air, no subject seems to fascinate film-makers in particular, the way it was in the past. On the contrary, they seem to be looking everywhere for sources of inspiration and the more distinguished projects of the last three years indicate that much.

"Saint Clara" adapted by Ori Sivan and Ari Fulman from a Pavel Kohut parable on revolt against totalitarianism, turned into a futuristic tale of youth rallying round a 12 year-old girl prophet and rising up against the decadent world of adults, who are no longer able to cope with the times. Much favored by international festivals (special jury prize in Karlovy Vary), it is the least Israeli-looking picture made until now, with its nondescript housing project that could fit into any country and its reddish, apocalyptic colours suggesting the end of the world as we know it.

As unlikely as it may seem, philosophy seemed to be a topic in demand. Igal Bursztein’s "Everlasting Joy" put the 17th century philosopher, Baruch Spinoza, in a contemporary Tel Aviv suburban flat and ironically confronted his maxims of conduct with modern life in Israel. Assi Dayan wrapped up the trilogy on his personal "accidental philosophy of life" (which started with "Agfa,") with "Mr Baum," the story of a man who is told in the first sequence of the film that he has 92 more minutes to live; and he indeed dies some 90 minutes later, in the last sequence. This third episode states that everything, including life itself, is an accident, that every man is an island and no one gives a damn about the rest of humanity, though they all pretend to. Don’t believe your father and mother, wife, children, friends or relatives, it’s all one to them whether you live or die, as long as it does not affect their personal comfort.

"Lovesick" took Shabi Gabizon out of the trendy Tel Aviv society he favored in his previous film and into a small forsaken immigrant shanty town, to deal with the impossible love story of an innocent pirate TV cable operator with a fashionable blonde from the big city. The gently chiding, often fantastic comedy of manners about the unbridgeable abyss separating dreams from real-life, was one of the two best-liked films of recent years, both by audiences and critics. The other being Leilasede ("Passover Fever"), Shemi Zarhin’s debut picture, a family gathering on Passover night, displaying an uncanny talent for orchestrating the interaction between a dozen characters and more, keeping them all in tune and developing each one of them carefully. If "Lovesick" was a personal triumph for actor Moshe Ivgi, Leilasede was carried by the actress Gila Almagor’s presence as the matriarch ruling over her family.

More intriguing than most of the recent Israeli output, possibly because they cost less, are more personal and involve less compromise than fiction, are a number of documentary films. The best of them, by far, being Ron Havilio’s "Fragments - Jerusalem," a six-hour labour of love. Made over a period of several years, it reflects the author’s profound attachment for the city, which he observes from an intimate point of view, transcending the political, ethical and religious conflicts he addresses.

But documentaries usually never go beyond the television screen, and when talking of cinema, one usually refers to fiction. And for fiction films, it is difficult to predict what will happen next. How soon can we hope for another picture with a little bit more depth than the television screen? In the last reel of Leilasede, it is snowing on Passover night and a bouquet of flowers magically glides into its rightful place, as if to tell us all that miracles will happen. If this is true, then there is no reason to worry about the future of Israeli cinema. There are no budgets and the government appears not to appreciate cinema particularly and every bit of film has to be developed abroad – but as long as the talent is there, solutions will be found for every obstacle. But please don’t ask when, where or how. That’s the privilege of miracles; they are unpredictable.

Sources: Israeli Foreign Ministry