Locarno: Israeli Film Community Wrestles With National, Foreign Pressures

Locarno is hosting a First Look on Israeli cinema

For years, films and TV shows have been the shining lights of Israeli culture, with the small yet thriving industry somehow managing to stand apart from the politics of the country.

But in the last few months, the entertainment biz has been caught in an unprecedented storm coming from within Israel, where the right-wing government reportedly threatens freedom of expression, and from abroad, where directors such as Ken Loach are pushing for a cultural boycott of Israel.

The Locarno Film Festival, for instance, was heavily criticized for hosting a Carte Blanche (later renamed First Look) on Israeli cinema. A petition calling for the boycott of Israel was signed by a wide range of filmmakers including Loach, Jean-Luc Godard and a number of Palestinian directors who’ve had movies financed in Israel, such as Hany Abu-Assad, Eyal Sivan and Suha Arraf. Arraf had already sparked uproar after listing her latest film “Villa Touma” as Palestinian even though it was financed in Israel. She eventually listed it as “Stateless.”

Those clashes provided just the right momentum for Miri Regev, the newly appointed minister of culture and sport, to push her patriotic agenda into the Israeli entertainment industry.

Regev, who notoriously had the Jerusalem Film Festival remove a controversial documentary, “Beyond the Fear,” from its main program, recently said loud and clear that her government would no longer fund works that “defame Israel (and undermine) the image of the State of Israel, Israel Defense Forces soldiers or the state’s heritage as a Jewish and democratic state.”

“We’re in a battlefield right now, and the score goes in favor of conservatives. We’ve reached the most critical time in the history of Israeli cinema. The nationalists are not even self-conscious anymore,” said Amir Harel, the Tel Aviv-based producer of “The Attack” and “Paradise Now.”

More than ever, directors and producers are encouraged to make commercial films that can click with local audiences. But for Nadav Lapid, helmer of “Policeman” and “The Kindergarten Teacher,” which was just released in the U.S., this push for mainstream movies is a slippery slope.

“In Israel, for many years, we had a right-wing government, and the film industry nevertheless benefited from an impressive freedom of expression. ‘Policeman’ was the first film which was forbidden for under-18s, and the culture minister at the time managed to lift it,” said Lapid, one of Israel’s most critically acclaimed directors and a member of Locarno’s international jury.

“But now, we’re faced with a dangerous wind; it’s more and more complicated to make films that are critical of Israel financed by the state. The mandate to make commercial films is meant to indirectly discourage us from making films about the conflict, and because the government’s stance inevitably shapes public opinion, Israelis will have less and less appetite to watch these movies,” Lapid added.

But Katriel Schory, the executive director of the Israel Film Fund — one of the the country’s two film boards (along with the Yehoshua Rabinovich Foundation for the Arts) — said he’s standing strong to safeguard filmmakers’ freedom of expression.

“I am ready to take all the heat from whomever has any question, criticism, whatever you want, as long as we have the Israeli filmmakers run with their dreams. We live in a society which is super-multicultural, 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,” Schory said.

The exec also pointed out that the budget allocated to the film industry was renegotiated in 2013 for the next five years. The envelope for the whole movie biz is approximately €18 million ($16.5 million) per year until 2018.

The question is whether Israelis will still have the nerve and drive to make films touching on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Indeed, apart from a few exceptions, Israeli pics that travel the most are seldom the ones that top the box office at home and vice-versa. “If you want to rebel, you have to pay the price, and that price is the box office. Filmmakers feel a constant tension between the desire to experiment with new forms of storytelling, topics and the need to make movies that can click at the local box office. But the Catch-22 is that in order for your movie to reach international audiences and get festival exposure, you must be daring. So directors have to chose whether they want to please the Israelis or the world,” said Harel.

Yet, some films do manage to get the best of both worlds. One of the latest production trends in Israel is the emergence of satirical comedies such as Talya Lavie’s “Zero Motivation,” a laffer centering on the everyday life of young Israeli female soldiers at a desert base camp that became the highest-grossing Israeli film in 2014, with 590,000 tickets sold — and also won two nods at Tribeca. Addressing the success of the movie in Israel, Lavie said in an interview that “Zero Motivation” was a hit because “people in Israel felt that it was made for them, and not in order to ‘please’ foreign eyes.”

“Zero Motivation” is one of the movies that allowed Israel to punch a strong 13% domestic market share in 2014.

Three other comedies had a strong run at the box office in 2014: “Hill Start,” about a bourgeois family from Jerusalem; “Kicking Out Shoshana,” about an Israeli football player who is forced by a mafia boss to pose as a homosexual; and “The Farewell Party,” about residents of a retirement home who build a machine for self-euthanasia. “The Farewell Party” premiered in Venice and won a pair of awards, including the people’s choice nod.

In fact, Israeli comedies often tackle serious topics. In the run-up to Locarno, United Channels Movies, for instance, unveiled Dror Shaul’s “Atomic Falafel,” a comedy about a preemptive Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Shifting away from from hard-edged critical projects, a new generation of Israeli directors are also delving into genre pics, such as zombie movies, or social-themed features about day-to-day life or lesbian/gay issues for instance, according to Schory.

From an industrial standpoint, the crux of the battle for Israel’s indie directors and producers is also to support the launch of more arthouse theaters in Israel. “When I was young, there were about 15 theaters in Tel Aviv; now there isn’t one: The last independent theater, Gat, just closed its doors. It’s worrying to see these theaters being replaced by multiplexes.”

Meanwhile, in order to mature, the Israeli film industry must produce more movies and finance bigger budgets, per Harel, who added that the essence of Israeli cinema is still a first-time film.

In spite of a lack of financing from local broadcasters, Israel has managed to double production levels in five years, in large part thanks to its 18 co-production treaties, particularly its fruitful collaborations with France and Germany. These co-production pacts have given birth to politically engaged movies like Samuel Maoz’s “Lebanon,” Ari Forman’s “Waltz With Bashir” and Avi Mograbi’s “Z32.”

Going forward, says Schory, the local industry has enough assets to keep attracting alliances with foreign companies in spite of national and international pressures.

“First, we have very powerful stories; second, 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 third, a group of skilled producers who have learnt to deliver the films in time and in budget,” argued Schory. “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.”

As Lapid points out, Israeli filmmakers must strive, more than ever, to continue making bold films and prove those who doubt their legitimacy and independence wrong.

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