This week, The Israel Film Center Festival opens in New York City with over a dozen premiere Israeli films. Over the last decade, Israel has become a major international player in the world of film. They participate in every major film festival and are celebrated internationally with most important awards and even annual Academy Award nominations (this year, two were nominated in the category of Best Documentary -- 5 Broken Cameras and The Gatekeepers). Israel's creative industry has been successful on the small screen as well, with numerous TV shows adapted by U.S. networks, most recently the Emmy award-winning show, Homeland. What brought on this sudden major change in this industry that was in the shadows for 50 years?
There are a few elements that brought to this development. In the early '90s, Israel launched its first commercial channel, while at the same time, cable TV started to grow as a major player in households. Before that, there was only the one public channel and some Arab channel frequencies that could be picked up when the wind blew in the right direction. Growing up in Israel, I saw more American TV from Jordan than from Israel -- to the point that I knew the Jordanian anthem by heart.
By the turn of the century, the first generation of Israelis with access to cable and commercial television reached adulthood. For the first time in Israel, kids were growing up with access beyond the one public channel. Growing up in a commercial society is both a blessing and a curse. On one level, you have access to the world of TV and movies, on the other hand, you lose that connection to the socialist ideals that established the country and become another spawn of American society.
The major films that had international attention up until the new millennium were mostly dealing with the political situation. Up until the '90s Israel was still seeking its universal voice in cinema and the world was mostly interested in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Even to this day, the world mostly takes interest in the politically charged stories coming out of that steaming region. But Israeli has a story beyond the headlines.
One of the turning points was the 2003 film by Shemi Zarhin -- Bonjour Monsieur Shlomi. This film told an internal story about a gifted teenager living under the radar due to his crazy family. The film portrayed the abnormalities of normal family life. The socio-political statements in the film, of a child from a Middle-Eastern background not being recognized for his genius, were subtle and in the subtext of a simple yet entertaining coming of age story. In some ways the film feels like the international version of a John Hughes film. Yet every element is very distinctly Israeli.
This film was one of the first non-political Israeli films to have an international impact and opened the doors for others. Like many Israeli films today, it had major success in Europe and even a theatrical release in the U.S.
Shemi Zarhin became the voice of Israeli screenwriting. He is credited on many of Israel's more successful comedies, and keeps to his signature style of telling stories about individuals in the peripheries of Israeli society. His success is in his ability to merge universal storytelling and Israeli specifics -- bringing to the Israeli public stories from within that can entertain outside as well.
Zarhin's next film, Aviva, My Love, told the story of Aviva (played by the wonderful Asi Levy) -- a mother living in the small town of Tiberius attempting to find her voice in writing fiction. She is constantly distracted by her absurd family's needs. The film includes a dramatic story of the price Aviva is willing to pay for her creative voice. Ultimately, she finds her true voice by telling non-fiction stories, stories about her family. This film serves as a perfect metaphor for Israeli filmmakers finding their voice.
Zarhin's latest film, The World Is Funny was a huge box-office success in Israel. Israelis are used to rarely-see Israeli films, but today it has become a common phenomenon. This means that a generation is being brought up hearing not only the voices that America spews to the world, but hearing its own voice too.
The World is Funny opens the Israel Film Center Festival this week with Asi Levy as a guest. The films in the festival share the wonderful voices from within with truly unique Israeli themes, which are told in a universally appealing manner. Some of the best examples are films like God's Neighbors, which won an award at last year's Cannes film festival and tells the story of a group of friends who joined the Israeli trend of becoming more religious and elect themselves the neighborhood watch for modesty. The film is clearly inspired by the styles of Tarantino or Guy Ritchie, but is uniquely Israeli in the details of religion and social disputes. The Ballad of the Weeping Spring, by Beni Torati is a fable that takes place out of time about a middle-eastern band re-uniting. The film is told like a classic road trip, but highlights middle-eastern music from the region.
The closing night film of the festival is the celebrated Sony Pictures Classic upcoming release Fill the Void, made by Rama Burstein, an ultra-orthodox woman. The film tells the story of an Orthodox family attempting to overcome a tragic incident. You will not find bad fake beards or contrived religious behavior in this film. The story is told from within by and about the religious community. Despite this being an insular society, the beautiful filmmaking and storytelling allows this story to grasp an audience far beyond the religious world, making it relevant universally.
The festival includes many more wonderful stories that entertain universally, but are specific to Israel. The festival is running from April 11-18. Many of the past Israeli films can also be found streaming on-line through the center's website.