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Israeli Filmmakers Bite Into the Horror Genre

The team behind twisted fairy tale 'Rabies' takes a stab at slasher fare with 'Big Bad Wolves'

For a nation whose film culture has, for decades, revered the meditative and the political, Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado’s film “Rabies” — a twisted fairy tale, about a brother and sister lost in a dark forest, which shocked Israeli audiences in 2010 — was a real stab in the dark. But that’s exactly what Papushado, now 33, was going for when he asked his professor, Keshales, who is only four years his senior, to team up with him and make the first real slasher film in Hebrew.

“Aharon is a bit like Marty McFly,” Papushado says. “I had to be like, ‘Are you chicken?’ The rest is history.”

The duo’s latest release, 2013’s “Big Bad Wolves,” a bloody vengeance thriller about a cop gone off the rails, was snatched up by Magnolia after its Tribeca fest premiere in April, thereby turning a profit before it even hit Israeli screens. (It has since been bought in almost every major territory, with producers still courting a handful, like Benelux, Korea and Hungary.)

But three years ago, Keshales had reason to hesitate in jumping into the blood-soaked river: Israeli films hardly ever turn a profit at home, and are considered successful only by the standard of foreign awards. So Israeli film schools tend to scorn outlier ideas, instead pushing students to make the heady, arthouse fare (think “Footnote,” “Lebanon” and “Bethlehem”) that woos international film festivals.

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“The holy grail of being a student at the university is getting into the short films competition at Cannes,” Keshales says. “So you try to do the films that will put you there. Everyone takes their ‘Back to the Future’ script and puts it in the drawer, and then goes to make a Dardenne (brothers) film about forbidden love, or some kind of conflict film.”

Rabies” turned a modest profit in Israel, thanks both to its minuscule production budget and to the flurry of press it received while filming: Israeli film auds, so accustomed to having only subtitled American fare or Hebrew pics about dysfunction and Arab-Israeli conflict to choose from, got wind of “Rabies” while it was still in production, and TV news crews began showing up on set.

And to court international auds, says producer Chilik Michaeli, the filmmakers touted to film festivals the twisted appeal of a slasher movie in the language of the Bible. “We thought (they’d pay) attention, even if they wouldn’t buy it,” Michaeli says.

Cut to three years later, and “Big Bad Wolves” had no problems being taken seriously. In August, the film earned 11  nominations for Ophir Awards, the Israeli equivalent of the Oscar. Only “Bethlehem,” Israel’s 2013 submission for foreign language Oscar, earned more. By October, when Quentin Tarantino declared “Wolves” the best film of 2013, it was clear: Genre movies had made it to Israel.

Oren Carmi’s dark thriller “Goldberg and Eisenberg,” as well as Yuval Mendelson and Nadav Holander’s sadistically humorous teen horror “Cats on a Pedal Boat,” were recently released, as was Eitan Gafny’s “Cannon Fodder,” perhaps the first-ever Hebrew-language zombie pic. Others are in the can, so expect more dead teenagers and blood splatters to follow.

Both Papushado and Keshales like to talk about how the Israeli film industry often confuses importance and self-importance. Papushado adds that his primary motivation is to make the kind of films he wants to watch. Their next pic, “Once Upon a Time in Palestine,” will be a wacky spaghetti Western set in pre-state Palestine.

Auds, Keshales adds, are exhausted by life on constant terror alert, and want a break at the cinema. He says the duo’s films aren’t anti-Israeli, but cautions that the pics aren’t completely divorced from life in this difficult little country.

“The basis of a good genre film is having layers,” he says. “You can see ‘Rabies’ as a popcorn pic or a slasher film, but if you look closely, the slasher has an army uniform and … after he goes to sleep, the whole forest becomes a laboratory of paranoia. And that’s the most Israeli, or Jewish, situation. We are always obsessed that everybody is out to get us.”

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