Ambitious two-part docu “A History of Israeli Cinema,” from France-born, Israel-based helmer Raphael Nadjari, offers a chronological consideration of the creation of a national cinematographic identity in a country comprised of many languages and cultures. Both fascinating and frustrating, the pic is packed with interesting clips and theories. But it’s structured using a dialectical method that denies a satisfying synthesis of ideas, which will be a turnoff to some. Best suited to ancillary exploitation, it could serve as a cornerstone for broadcasters, educational institutions or Jewish fests building a season devoted to Israeli cinema and society.
Focused entirely on fiction features and the ideologies they project, Part 1 covers the period 1932-1978; and Part 2, 1978-2005. Very European in its formal structure, the pic eschews voiceover commentary, instead incorporating film extracts with talking heads (film historians, critics, producers, directors, actors) who frequently contradict each other or are cut short before an idea is fully explored.
As Nadjari stresses in the press notes, he’s making “a history” rather than “the history.” However, his thesis-antithesis method often feels repetitive. It can also be irritating, as when grand statements such as “Gila Almagor changed the nature of Israeli cinema” are left hanging without further explanation. Moreover, the film extracts used aren’t always well introduced and sometimes don’t elucidate the points the speakers are making.
The interviewees agree that Israeli cinema’s first dominant theme was Zionism, with stories featuring pioneer heroes taking destiny into their hands. After the official declaration of nationhood in 1948, fighter protags replaced the pioneers.
Shrewd producers soon came to understand that there was no singular public in this country of immigrants. Targeting the Sephardic population, the highly successful “Sallah Shabati” provided a darkly comic critique of the Zionist ethos and served as a template for the “bourekas comedies” of the 1960s.
Existing alongside these low comedies were more artistic titles that historians group under the banner New Sensibility. Uri Zohar’s “A Hole in the Moon” is considered a touchstone of this movement.
In the 1970s and ’80s, the New Sensibility directors become politicized, touching on difficult subjects such as the relationship between Jews and Arabs, and the role of women in Israeli society.
The docu delivers some of its strongest moments during a segment on Oscar-winning prison pic “Beyond the Walls,” when an extended interview with Palestinian star Mohammed Bakri is supplemented by clips from the very scenes he discusses.
As it moves on toward 2005, pic touches on a national mood of nihilism (“Life According to Agfa”), works by helmers from the margins who rep a different view of Israeli society (Amos Guttmann), and religious cinema (Shuli Rand). Although it includes a few films by Israeli Arabs, prominent names such Hany Abu Assad and Elia Suleiman are not among them.
Tech package is a mixed bag. Although watchable, HD Cam lensing of interviewees isn’t always crisp; ditto the transfer of selected film clips. Segues between topics don’t exist. But most frustrating is the fact that speakers are frequently not identified until mid-speech, and then only once.