An increasing number of Israeli filmmakers have sought to move beyond the political crises generated by Arab-Israeli tensions, but for some, the situation remains unavoidable.
Israeli helmers Amos Gitai, Samuel Maoz, Eran Riklis, Erez Tadmor and Guy Nattiv all have upcoming features that deal in some way with the turmoil in the region.
“There is a debate here among Israeli filmmakers about whether we are just normal filmmakers who can make love stories and thrillers or if we are here to serve a purpose,” Riklis says. “I think these days you cannot live in a country like Israel and ignore what is going on. Gaza’s only an hour away, so it affected me emotionally, psychologically, and really drove me to write bravely. I feel a duty.”
Riklis wrapped lensing on “The Lemon Tree” while the battles in Gaza were still raging. His pic tells the story of a Palestinian woman (Hiam Abbas) who discovers that the Israeli defense minister has just moved in across from the lemon grove in her garden. When the minister orders her grove to be chopped down after it is deemed a threat to his security, the woman challenges his decision in the Israeli high court.
Sometimes the political message of the film can be overt, as in Gitai’s Juliette Binoche starrer “Disengagement,” which follows the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza in 2006.
Other times, the politics are less obvious. Tadmor and Nattiv’s “Strangers,” a contender for Israeli feature at the Jerusalem Intl. Film Festival, follows the story of a Palestinian woman and Israeli man who befriend each other during the soccer World Cup finals in Berlin in 2006.
While the co-helmers had originally intended the region’s politics to stay in the background, the outbreak of the war last July between Israel and Lebanon in the pic’s final days of lensing meant that the ending had to be rewritten to take events into account.
“The war changed the movie and made it more cloudy,” says Tadmor. “The actors wanted to be detached but the war kept coming into the story. This beautiful war between two teams playing soccer in the film became a real war between two countries.”
For many of these Israeli helmers, the stories they tell are borne of personal experiences. With national service a mandatory requirement, nearly all Israel’s current crop of helmers have served in the army, sometimes seeing combat.
Maoz’s “Lebanon,” for example, is a semiautobiographical look at a day in the life of an Israeli platoon as it invades Lebanon in 1982. It took Maoz two decades before he felt capable of revisiting his experiences to pen the script.
Lensing on the pic — which is receiving coin from the Israeli Film Fund as well as Gaul’s Arte and MK2 — is set to start on Aug. 5, with a mixed Israeli and Arab cast. “For me, it’s part of the film’s message to combine Arab and Israeli actors. Before they’re a Jew or an Arab, they’re an actor,” Maoz says.
The complex intimacy of Israeli-Palestinian relations is sometimes missed by commentators from outside the region. All the projects lined up by Gitai, Maoz, Riklis, Tadmor and Nattiv involve Israeli and Palestinian casts and crews. These creative collaborations also extend to Palestinian helmers such as Hany Abu-Assad, Elia Suleiman and Tawfiq Abu-Wael, all of whom have either received Israeli coin for their projects or worked with Israeli co-producers and technicians.
Palestinians themselves are not a homogenous group. Abu-Assad, Suleiman, Abu-Wael and thesp Abbas were born in Palestinian towns within the borders of what is now Israel. This group, sometimes referred to as 1948 Palestinians or Israeli Arabs, are in contrast to Palestinians who were born and live in the West Bank or Gaza, collectively known as the Palestinian Territories.
While all see themselves as Palestinians, the social and economic conditions they live under vary across the different territories.
“It’s a Palestinian story. I don’t care where I take the money from. No one told me what to do,” says Abu-Wael while promoting his debut “Atash,” which won the 2004 Wolgin Award for Israeli feature at the Jerusalem fest. “I’m a Palestinian who lives in Israel. I didn’t transfer to Israel. Israel transferred to me. They’re not doing me a favor giving me money to make the film.”
If anything, a film set is a place of respite, albeit temporary, from the political strife around it.
“A film set is a deceiving place because when you look at it from a human, optimistic point of view, it’s really wonderful to see a cast and crew that’s made of Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs, Palestinians, Germans, French, whatever, and everybody is getting along,” Riklis says.
“But I think filmmaking is a little bit like a circus that comes to town, all the kids fall in love with the elephants and the people in the circus, but then it moves on,” he adds. “I sometimes say to myself that I don’t get the Middle East. Once you start dealing with religion, land, blood, history, all these words brings so many other words with them that you suddenly realize why this place is so difficult.”