Diverse stories sell globally

LONDON — Gobbling up prizes on the fest circuit, Israeli films have hit a new level of maturity.

At Cannes, Etgar Keret and Shira Geffen picked up the Camera d’Or for first film with “Jellyfish” while Eran Kolirin won the Jury Coup de Coeur in Un Certain Regard for “The Band’s Visit.” Berlin saw Joseph Cedar take home the director gong for “Beaufort”; at Tribeca, David Volach won narrative feature for “My Father My Lord”; and Shemi Zarhin won the best screenplay prize at Shanghai for “Aviva, My Love.” This year’s Sundance also saw Dror Shaul win the Grand Jury Prize for “Sweet Mud.”

This has been a banner year for Israeli cinema in other ways, too, with international co-productions up and Israeli auds flocking to see films from their own country. While the resurgence of Israeli filmmaking is self-evident, more difficult to categorize is Israeli cinema itself.

This year’s box office champ is Cedar’s “Beaufort,” an account of Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 after 18 years of occupation. Pic has garnered more than 300,000 admissions, beating out the likes of “Spider-Man 3.” On the other hand, last year’s biggest hit, “Aviva, My Love,” which also sold better than 300,000 tickets, tells the story of a hardworking cook who dreams of becoming a writer.

Unlike Romanian cinema, for example, which has similarly won a clutch of fest awards recently and shares a certain stripped-down verite aesthetic, Israeli films are proving more noteworthy for their diversity of subject matter and themes.

“From a filmmaker’s point of view, what’s happened in the last couple of years has really improved the quality and created a dynamic film environment,” Cedar says.

“Filmmakers have to make much better films to get attention. More films are being made with more ambition. The immediate result is that more talented people are coming into the industry,” Cedar says, adding, “Just look at ‘Jellyfish.’ Etgar Keret is one of Israel’s most-loved fiction writers. I think he and his wife Shira Geffen made the film because they saw something amazing was going on right now.”

Sometimes ambition has manifested itself in filmmakers having the confidence to tell more personal, intimate stories rather than the overbearing political tracts that categorized a lot of Israeli filmmaking in the 1980s.

“There was a tradition of Israeli films that tried to tell the big narrative of the whole country in the ’80s. You’d have one character who was a soldier, a Palestinian, a Holocaust survivor. There’d be a representative of each part of society,” says Keret. “More people now are not trying to make overt political statements but are just trying to show a piece of life.”

That Israeli filmmakers seem to have achieved a better understanding of themselves and their country is playing a big part in their films resonating beyond the country’s borders.

“We shouldn’t pretend even for a minute that we’re a part of Europe or America,” says Shemi Zarhin. “Israel, for me, is a part of the Middle East. You can hear it in the accent, the language, in the food, the temperature and the climate. That’s why the conflict between the Israelis and the Arabs is so tragic. My family came to Israel from Algeria 200 years ago. My characters are like my mother, my brother. It reflects itself in my films.”

Another major factor seems to be the number of young or first-time helmers getting the opportunity to make features. In addition to the husband-and-wife team behind “Jellyfish,” David Volach made his feature debut with “My Father, My Lord,” while “The Band’s Visit” and “Sweet Mud” were the sophomore efforts of Eran Kolirin and Dror Shaul, respectively.

Many of these helmers got their training in TV in the 1990s following the introduction of commercial and cable TV. Prior to that, there had been only one state-run channel. The new nets needed to fill their skeds with hours of homegrown content, and even though many of the skeins were low-budget telenovelas and sudsers, they allowed the new generation of filmmakers to hone their skills.

“We went from 30 hours of drama a week to more than 300,” says Israeli Film Fund topper Katriel Schory. “All our scriptwriters and directors had an outlet after years of frustration. It also meant that Israeli audiences got used to watching dramas, love stories and relationships in Hebrew. I’m absolutely convinced that this had a big influence on Israeli cinema.”

Ultimately, though, it seems the old adage of success breeding success has never been truer.

“There are a lot of Israeli hits now,” Zarhin says. “It means Israeli audiences love Israeli films, which makes Israeli producers more confident in themselves and more enthusiastic to make more and more films.”

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