The Israeli government’s efforts to reserve state funding only for films that uphold the regime’s far-right agenda is causing growing alarm among local filmmakers.
Since taking office in December, culture minister Miki Zohar has pushed for new requirements that would force artists and filmmakers to guarantee their works will not tarnish Israel’s reputation or that of its military. He also examined the possibility of forcing the producers of the documentaries “H2: The Occupation Lab” and “Two Kids A Day” to pay back state funding for the films.
The move comes against the backdrop of planned reforms by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government — which is believed to be the most right-wing regime in Israel’s history — that include the possible gutting of public television in the name of free market competition.
Israel’s communications ministry has since said it will freeze plans to defund public broadcaster Kan, which has an annual budget of some 800 million shekels ($234 million), “until further notice” so that the government can instead focus on passing controversial legal reforms, the Jerusalem Post reported last week.
Directed by Idit Avrahami and Noam Sheizaf, “H2: The Occupation Lab” looks at the impact Jewish settlers and military occupation have had on the Palestinian city of Hebron. David Wachsmann’s “Two Kids A Day” explores the systematic daily arrests of Palestinian children by the Israeli army in an effort to control and repress Palestinian society.
After reportedly watching parts of “H2: The Occupation Lab” and finding it sufficiently objective, culture minister Zohar has decided against retroactively revoking its funding. However, “Two Kids A Day” remains in the crosshairs.
“[Zohar] might think what he wants about our film, but we object to the whole notion of the minister having a committee in his office to review documents,” Sheizaf tells Variety. “We think it’s crazy.”
Israel’s main film funds are backed by taxpayer money and lottery revenues. “It’s a small market, so without this support it’s basically impossible, unless you’re very rich, to make documentaries,” added Sheizaf, who recently wrote about the situation in a New York Times op-ed.
Zohar has argued for additional requirements to funding regulations that would force artists to sign a loyalty agreement stating they will not tarnish the country if they receive state funding — a move that would require approval by the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.
It’s not clear, however, how government officials would determine what constitutes actual harm to the country.
In a statement to Variety, the Ministry of Culture and Sports says the State of Israel “will not finance projects that defame IDF [Israel Defense Forces] soldiers, not being based on actual facts that have been verified by authorized IDF officials.”
The proposed pledge could result in a heavily sanitized Israeli cinema that does not deal with big issues, says Avrahami. “‘Let’s not talk about the occupation. If you do not show the occupation, people will not know about it.’ This is really what they think.”
She adds: “We are not doing movies to show soldiers are bad. We’re doing movies to show the reality here.”
There is already a precedent for the culture ministry’s proposal: The so-called “Nakba law,” a 2011 amendment to the Foundations of the Budget Law, allows the government to cut state funding to institutions for any activity that denies Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state or that incites racism, violence or terror.
The Rabinovich Foundation’s Israel Cinema Project, the country’s largest film fund, already requires applicants to sign off on that pledge. The ministry is now aiming to expand the Nakba law requirements to all the film funds and to add further articles that would prohibit funding to films that harm the country or its military, Sheizaf explains.
In response, Israeli filmmakers have launched a counter campaign calling for the Rabinovich fund to remove the requirements. More than 100 filmmakers – among them Berlin Golden Bear winner Nadav Lapid (“Synonymous”), Ari Folman (“Where is Anne Frank”), Eran Kolirin (“The Band’s Visit”) and Hagai Levi (“Scenes from a Marriage”) – have signed a petition calling on an industry boycott of the Rabinovich fund until the foundation stops requiring the loyalty oath.
In a statement to Variety, the Rabinovich Foundation states: “The law regulates all institutions funded by the State of Israel – including all Israeli film funds – and not only the Rabinovich Foundation.”
Since including the legal requirements in its foundation agreements in 2017, “the Rabinovich Foundation has supported the production of hundreds of Israeli films, and not even one film was canceled or censured by the foundation,” the org continues.
The foundation is not at liberty to decide if it abides by the law or not, it points out. “We believe that if the filmmakers do not agree with this law, a law that compels all Israeli film funds, their fight should be a fight to change the law itself – in the Israeli Knesset.”
Sheizaf, who along with Avrahami has also signed the petition, stresses that the boycott is in response to “the new political context” that has also cast a shadow over the public broadcaster. He adds that the government’s announcement that it is freezing plans to defund Kan is not enough. “All the filmmakers are in agreement. That’s not good enough.”
The channel will still be forced to fight to stay on air, Sheizaf explains, because the government is expected to resume plans to gut the broadcaster once it has implemented wide-ranging legal reforms to strengthen its overall position.
“The film industry is being attacked, as is public television, and specifically documentaries,” says Avrahami, noting that “H2: The Occupation Lab” has been caught “in the middle of this storm.”
“But the storm is bigger than our movie,” she adds. “The storm is really affecting a lot of documentaries.”
The government’s threats are already causing a chilling effect on the industry, Avrahami says, noting that filmmakers are no longer proposing works about the conflict and occupation.