Katriel Schory, who has been the executive director of the Israel Film Fund for the last 17 years, is an institution in himself. Through these years, Schory, who graduated from NYU and returned to Israel in 1973, has financed 230 films and wrestled with many crisis to preserve the independence of the fund from the government. Schrory, who is well over 60, is now facing new challenges with the arrival of Israeli minister of culture and sports Miri Regev. The minister vowed the axe funds for filmmakers and artists who “defame” Israel, but Schory says the annual budget allocated to the film industry – a global 18 million Euro envelope – for the next five year was approved in 2013 and is therefore valid until 2018. Through his mandate, the fearless exec has signed 13 co-production treaties and has given coin to the majority of Israeli films that have traveled worldwide, notably “Gett: The Trial of Vivianne Amsalem,” “Waltz With Bashir” and “Lebanon.” Schory, who is attending Locarno’s First Look on Israeli Cinema showcase, sat with Variety to discuss the state of play for the Israel Film Fund and what lays ahead for the local film community.
Variety: When I look at the projects you’re supporting, notably at Jerusalem film festival’s pitch point and at Locarno’s First Look showcase, it’s pretty diverse in terms of nationalities and topics. What are your guidelines?
Schory: We’re open to all kinds of projects. One of our goals is to create awareness. We don’t have agendas, we don’t raise flags. We use our common sense to select projects from talented directors, skilled producers. The most important mission that we have is to safeguard the creative freedom of Israeli filmmakers.
What do you say to right-wing politicians who criticize your choice of projects?
I am ready to take all the heat from whoever has any question, criticism, whatever you want, as long as we have the Israeli filmmakers run with their dreams. And if you look at the Israeli cinema throughout the years, the last 10,12,14 years, you’ll see that there are very daring, very courageous Israeli filmmakers, who are dealing with really different and sometimes pressing issues, which are so much part of the turbulent society that Israel is. We live in a society which is super multi-cultural, with tremendous conflicts in it, in addition to the major regional, political conflict. And Israeli filmmakers deal with these issues, and are brave, strong enough to deal with it. And I believe that Israel is a strong enough democracy. A strong enough democracy has to be able to face criticism.
But you get your financing from the government, and for some people that presents an ethical problem, doesn’t it?
But the Israel Film Fund is not a government agency, we are a fully registered and licensed NGO. I’m not a government employee. So we are a fully registered and licensed NGO. It was structured like that in the cinema law so that we would be able to maintain real freedom. And that’s what it is.
Do you think that freedom of expression is in danger today?
There is a lot of talk, polemics but so far no real actions. In my 17 years, I have authorized and signed more than 230 full-length feature films, primarily aimed for the cinema, and I think that I and the fund are on record, everybody can watch our 230 movies and decide if we use our common sense, and if we use our judgement in a proper way, and that’s all I can say.
How has your budget evolved through the years and how has it been impacted by the change in politics?
It’s pretty stable, because the cinema law is structured in such a way that every five years the budgets are being negotiated. So every time we negotiate we know that it’s sanctuarized for five years. Which means that I know every time what will be more or less my budget every year, in the next five years. And when we finish five years, we negotiate again for five years, which I think is a tremendous achievement and advantage.
When was the budget last approved?
In 2013 we negotiated for the budget from 2014 to 2018.
And what’s that budget?
The budget overall for the whole industry is about 17-18 million Euros every year.
And your envelope for the Israel Film Fund?
My envelope is about more or less 6 million Euros a year.
The budgets are pretty contained in Israel. What’s the average budget of a film?
It’s between 800,000 Euros and 1 million Euros.
What do you finance with those funds?
The money goes for development of projects, of scripts, we invest in development, we invest in production, we invest in the marketing, the distribution and the release of the Israeli feature films in Israel, we invest in helping the producers venture out into the world, international festivals etc.
Do you work like UniFrance, the French films’ promotion org?
Like UniFrance, exactly, and we also invest in of a lot of initiatives to connect and stay in touch with our audiences in Israel. We support the participation of Israeli films in international festivals, platforms, you name it and so on. So we operate also like a mini UniFrance, in many ways, and the outcome of it, which is really one of the biggest things which have happened to the Israeli cinema, is that about one third of all the money invested in Israeli feature films comes from overseas in the form of co-productions. And this really is a tremendous contribution. Why? Because we do not have in Israel any tax incentives, or SOFICAS, or the Belgian system or any of that for local investors, of equity investors.
The second thing is that the Israeli broadcasters, even though they are obliged by law, they try to sneak out of their obligations. All the time. So we do not have a situation like you have in France with Canal Plus or Arte. Israeli broadcasters also have obligations to invest in local movies but they run away from it.
So how have you made up for the lack of financing from TV channels?
We managed to create a situation in which foreign investors, i.e., primarily the European funds and the European broadcasters, have developed great confidence, interest and curiosity in Israeli film projects and filmmakers. On one hand, we have very powerful stories, secondly we have a group of directors all graduates of Israeli film schools, who have learnt to tell the stories and direct and bring it to the screen in a very communicative, compelling way; and thirdly, we have a group of skilled producers who have learnt to deliver the films in time and in budget. These three things together created a situation and give the European broadcasters like Arte, like Canal Plus, or the funds like CNC, the German regional funds, the Belgian, the Polish and all of them, the confidence to enter into co-productions with Israeli filmmakers.
When I came to the fund 17 years ago, Israel had only 8 bilateral coproduction treaties. Now we have 18, which of course facilitates and makes it a lot easier to cooperate and to do coproductions. And I invested a tremendous amount of time and initiatives to create these meeting points for Israeli filmmakers (as in Locarno), to meet colleagues and find ways to work together and so on. And for us, it’s very big. I can tell you that I recently finished a survey, and from 2000 until 2014, the total amount of money invested in Israeli films from overseas amounts to $75 million, which means an average of $4.5 million are invested every year in Israeli movies.
How does this foreign investment fluctuate?
It fluctuates because it’s based on the interest that the particular projects generate. So if there could be a year that there are two, three projects that everybody likes, there could be a year that we didn’t have that great project. But in general, it’s steady. And even when there was an economic crisis in Europe in 2008, with all of that it did not affect. On the other hand, we have to make it absolutely clear that co-production treaties are a two-way agreement and there is a tremendous element of reciprocity. And this is why we invest every year on average as minority partners and minority co-producers, on average on three or four projects which are not created and not developed by Israeli filmmakers. Because it should be a two-way street.
And how much do you invest per year as minority partners?
The average that we will invest in a film as a minority co-producer will be like $250,000 (per project).
How many projects does this represent, you think?
That’s about one million dollars a year.
What’s the main test of a film fund? That you develop a system which allows you to trace and identify projects and talent. This is what we do. We have to have a system, a process of reading, selecting, and basically a system which allows us to trace and identify projects and talent. So we check ourselves all the time, to see if our system really helps us do that, because this is at the end our main task.
And in a year of conflict, like last year, you didn’t see that foreign investment dropped a bit?
No. It stayed stable. In recent years we had at least 12 or 14 films, investments in co-productions with Poland, at least 12 or 14 co-productions with Canada, about 8 or 9 co-productions with Belgium. So in addition to our main partners – France, with 45 co-productions, and Germany with about 40, – there are also other countries. France and Germany are still or main partners, there is no doubt about that, but there are Canadians, we had a couple with Australia, we had even with New Zealand. So it’s spread out a bit. We now have co-production with Denmark, Scandinavia.
And if you notice the Israeli cinema is relatively low on adaptations. Many of the films, and the most successful films, are personal stories, stories coming from the experiences of the filmmakers themselves. If you take the three films of Ronit and Shlomi Elkabeth, this is based on their lives, their personal experiences, the place they come from, the environment, the community, and they manage to translate that into great scripts and very good movies. And this is very much like part of the whole thing of Israeli cinema. We don’t have, like if you look at the British cinema or the American, a hell of a lot is based on books, on literature. In our case because each one of the Israeli filmmakers has gone through so many personal experiences, it comes out in the films. If you look at “Waltz of Bachir,” if you look at “Lebanon.”
What about “Paradise Now, ” which was produced by an Israeli producer.
“Paradise Now,” there was an Israeli co-producer, the production was not financed by the Israeli fund, but I supported the distribution and the release of the film in Israel, because I thought that if there would be someone ready to distribute the film, I think there was a place to help them release the film, and help Israelis, those who want to go and see things from a different perspective.
If you look, how many films dealt with the story of France in Algeria? Not many.
When Rachid Bouchareb did “Outside of the Law” and went to screen it in Cannes, I saw all those truckloads of CRS all over Cannes. We don’t have it.
How are Israeli people reacting to those types of movies?
Of course, some of them don’t like it. But if you take a movie like “Bethlehem, “a very strong film, a very powerful film, it had almost 200,000 tickets in the cinemas. If you take a film like “Lebanon,” it sold 80,000 or 90,000 tickets. And I’m not talking about “The Syrian Bride” and all the other movies. It works, people in Israel go to see those films.
Do you think broadcasters shy away from investing in these movies for political reasons?
They broadcasters say it’s not political at all. First of all, the film will be ready maybe two years down the road, then we have to wait for the window after it’s released in the cinema, and only a few months later we can really put it on the air. So they say, “Listen, when we commission a television series, we do it, we can put the season, and that’s it. When we enter into an Israeli feature film it will take two years until we can put it on the air.” No, I think that the reasons are much more practical, than there is not much politics involved in this. And some of the feature films are not that easy to place on primetime. When we talk about daring, everybody thinks that it’s only about the major conflict here with the Palestinians. But it’s not like this at all. If you take a film, “Eyes Wide Open,” in which you see a relationship, a love story, between two ultra-orthodox men, in a normal sexual relationship which was in my opinion extremely brave and daring.
Even if you take a film like “Divorce,” the religious establishment in Israel was pissed. Definitely they didn’t like it, and there was a lot of criticism about this film because it shows the Jewish thing about divorce. We had a film which was called “Sweet Mud,” a few years ago, and there was tremendous criticism of the Kibutz and how the Kibutz treated individuals – but this was the very particular point of view of that director, and of course the Kibutz movement in Israel were not all that happy with this film. So what I’m trying to say is that we always have in mind the major regional conflict, but films are not always necessarily about this major regional conflict, because between religious and secular, we had a film called “Man Power,” which was out only last year, which deals with all the foreign labourers in Israel, the way all these thousands and thousands of labourers coming from Eritrea and Ghana and Ivory Coast, and all of them living in the southern suburbs of Tel Aviv and treated I don’t know like what, which was a very tough film; you know, how we deal with these foreign labourers.
But maybe the ones that get financed by the international companies are mostly the ones about the conflict?
No. If you take “The Farewell Party,” which was a huge success in Venice only last year, which was about euthanasia, a comedy about euthanasia, about dying, it was financed by I don’t know how many countries. If you take a film like Zero Motivation, this crazy comedy about the girls in the Israeli military, which had a tremendous release all over, won the major prizes in Tribeca, and it’s a wild comedy about women in the Israeli military… so it’s not at all like this.
I talked to some Moroccan filmmakers who said that the only way to get financed by French companies is to make movies about how people are so miserable. They say any time you want to make a film that’s light-hearted, the international co-producers are not interested. In Israel do you feel it’s a different situation?
First of all, I introduced in the fund eight or nine years ago a specific track only for films for children. We have submission dates and a track only for films for children. Children I mean, from the age of 5 to 11/12, not youth, but children, because I think that this is part of our obligation, and as a public fund we should do it and it’s right for us to do it. So every year we green-light one, sometimes, two, films for children. I think that a sign of a maturing film industry is to move also into genre cinema. If you had asked me four or five years ago if the fund which I direct would ever green-light and invest in three zombie movies, I would have told you that you were out of your mind. But we did it, and we do it. Why? Because we are a public fund, and there is a tremendous audience for the films, and people who love it, and if the script makes sense, and it’s reasonable, we go for it, the same as we go for horror. And we introduce now a specific submission date and a specific track where I allocated a specific amount of money only for comedy. I think we are one of the very few funds in the world that have a specific track and submission date for comedies. And every year we green-light one or two comedies. Which means that you have to look at the overall picture.
When did you launch that track?
About two years ago, and the submission date, once a year, is April 1st.
And can you mention a comedy?
“Zero Motivation.” 600 thousand tickets in Israel. I have learnt, I think that film funds, even though it’s taxpayers’ money, you have to open up, and there is room also for genre cinema, for horror, for thrillers, for comedy, for zombies, for animation, for many things.
Maybe that’s a trend – the opening up of the industry towards more mainstream films?
Because it’s a sign of maturing. At the beginning always you go for issue-type oriented projects, and rightly so, because you say this is taxpayers’ money, you should go for serious things and it’s right. But I think in our case where we have money to invest in about 12-14 films a year, we can have a kind of mixed bag.
And you can have comedies that talk about issues, like the one about euthanasia, “The Farewell Party.” It’s an important issue but treated in a light way.
This film was an unbelievable success. Number one was “Zero Motivation, ” and “The Farewell Party” was number two with more than 250 thousand tickets.
“Zero Motivation” was also a comedy.
But you know exactly like me. You go to Cannes, Berlin, you come out after 10 days of watching these films from all over the world, and you are depressed. So we thought that you have to be attentive to the audience. I’m not saying that you should only play to the taste of the audience, but you can have a balanced act.
There were no Israeli films in Cannes this year?
This year there were none, but last year we had six.
With what happened when Locarno announced its First Look (previously called Carte Blanche) on Israel, are you afraid of a backlash against Israeli cinema?
No. I believe that the Israeli cinema in all its genres, we’ve demonstrated and showed the world that we create in an environment which is free. Israel, the state of Israel, its image and all of that is really beyond us. We can talk about the Israeli cinema in all its genres, including documentaries, and shorts and you name it, they are very popular, they are strong, they are good, and they show a different kind of Israel, an Israel which is different from what people see watching CNN every other night. It’s more complex than those little sink-bites that you get in the evening news. Some of them can make the distinctions and some of them not. For me, I think that the international film community should really embrace and support Israeli filmmakers, who keep on bringing to the screen, without any fear, and without any other thing, really, their stories. To punish the Israeli films and filmmakers for something which is way beyond us, it doesn’t get us anywhere.
Have you financed films from directors who signed the petition to boycott Israel culturally?
Yes. I don’t have a blacklist, and I don’t ask anyone who submits to the fund what is his political views. We have among our readers on our selection committee religious people, secular people, Palestinian-Israelis, people who live in the occupied territory settlements, we have readers from all walks of this place, from north and south, Ethiopians, and people coming from every possible part of this society, and this is perfectly ok. And we all the time circulate the readers, we change every eight, nine months, we bring in new sets of readers, so nobody can say that we have a certain taste, or a certain group of guys reading and recommending particular projects.
And I am very happy that we are probably one of the few funds in the world that in the last two or three years 30%, one third of all the money, went to women directors. And this is not a policy decision. It’s just because the projects were good. I’ve green-lighted in the last two years 14 new feature films directed by women. We have a group of a few very good women producers in Israel, and they are very good and I’m very happy we maintain one of the fundamental elements of our policy, which for me is a super-must, because I believe a fund is all about taking risks, and giving chances. This is why every year I check myself and I see about 37-38% of our annual money in budgets go to first-feature directors. And we keep a balance of at least one third going to first features/debut, and two thirds for on-going directors. And I think that this is right and this is what we should do. So altogether I think that more or less if you look at some of the biggest, most successful films internationally, at festivals and this and that, it was debut films.
How do you explain this trend?
The schools here are great. You have here 5-6 schools which are tremendous, and this is a great asset.
What is the new generation of Israel filmmakers about?
I think the new generation deals more with social issues, deals more with the day-to-day life. This is not a generation like my generation that came out of the late 60s, that saw in every movie almost a political manifest, and believed that we with our movies would change the world. This generation is busy with their own personal life, their own anxieties. There was a very long wave in Israeli cinema of coming-of-age films, there was a wave before that of films dealing with first, second, even third generation of holocaust survivors. There were of course some waves about issues inside the Israeli military between soldiers, officers, etc. We’ve seen a lot, we’ve seen different trends.
We have I think a very strong trend of gay-lesbian films coming out of Israel, which only shows you the diversity of this country and the craziness of the society.
Can you tell me the new voices that we should look at from Israel? New filmmakers?
Don’t give me this minefield because they will kill me. They are all my sons.
I feel like you are almost the gatekeeper of the Israeli independent film fund. The day you are gone, what will remain?
This I don’t know. But I’ve been around for quite a while, I have now been 42 years in the film industry in Israel, and I was for five years the president of the Israel film and TV producers association, in the late 80s, so I’ve been involved in the local scene for many years. It’s not a matter of gate keeper, it’s a matter of…
But it’s amazing that your government has stayed out of your business for so long.
Why is it amazing? You will not put this question to a German filmmaker, to a Belgian or a Dutch one, or a Norwegian or Scandinavian…
Yes, but you’re at war, so that’s the the difference.
Forever and ever. But this is not a question you would raise when you interview a Norwegian or a Swede, rightAt the end, it is really about how strong are the foundations of the democracy in this country. Those who are all the time with the fear of the de-legitimizing of art and culture in Israel, they doubt the strength of the foundations of democracy in this country. I can only speak for today, I don’t know about next month, or next year.