Inside Israel's Oscar film factory

A school in Tel Aviv is churning out Academy Award-nominated directors. Anne Joseph visits to discover what it’s doing right


Learning to shoot a movie at the TAU Film and Television School. Students get a broad cultural education

Learning to shoot a movie at the TAU Film and Television School. Students get a broad cultural education

There is no doubt that Israeli film now commands a significant international presence. However, what is less well known is that so many award-winning Israeli directors, writers and producers are graduates of Tel Aviv University's (TAU) Film and Television School.

Situated in a non-descript grey building on the Ramat Aviv campus, where cats lurk in its basement corridors and studios are piled with what on first glance appears to be junk, it is described by its academics and former students as "special".

Established in 1972, it is the oldest film school in the country and the only one that is part of a university. It has educated directors such as Ari Folman (maker of the Oscar-nominated Waltz with Bashir); Yaron Shani, who co-directed another recent Oscar nominee, Ajami; and Eytan Fox who made The Bubble, an award-winner at the Berlin Film Festival.

In the past four years films made by the school have won over 100 awards, received six student Academy Award nominations and been screened at film festivals worldwide. This is aside from the numerous awards bestowed on its alumni.

Reuven Hecker, head of the film school as well as a writer, documentary filmmaker and graduate of the department, thinks that their success lies in the school's intensive combination of theory and practice. And he believes that filmmakers must be well educated and open-minded, and the benefit of being in a university means that as well as the theoretical film classes, students can study whatever other subjects interest them.

His colleague, award-winning director, screenwriter and graduate of the school's first class, Eitan Green, adds that "the school is not just about technique, it's also about culture in all its aspects. Young people are exposed to the history of cinema as much as the history of art".

Yaron Shani's decision to study at the school was influenced by its high level of academic studies and says that one of the school's strengths is its effective teaching of the theory and background to film. For Shani, the school taught him the importance of film criticism, a crucial component in his development as a filmmaker. "A filmmaker needs to understand the meaning of criticism, in order to know the meaning of a good film," he says.

But he cites Tel Aviv itself as a contributory factor to the school's ability to develop talent, the city being "the most important cultural centre in Israel. Many young people who are thinking about being part of culture come to Tel Aviv. It attracts people who are ambitious, who want to succeed, so naturally TAU is the place to study."

Hagai Levi endorses this sense of ambition. Levi created Be Tipul (In Treatment), a prize-winning Israeli TV drama series which went on to be adapted in the US to critical acclaim, winning both an Emmy and a Golden Globe. One of the scriptwriters was his former classmate, Ari Folman.

"We were in the real world from the minute we were at the school. We had to fight for everything and think for ourselves all the time. But it gave us the right attitude for the film world," Levi says.

At the time, he continues, TV was not a realistic option for finding work; there were no commercial or cable channels in Israel prior to 1990, so "when we were studying we probably knew that either we would have to make feature films or do nothing. So, in a way, the school forced us to be ambitious and persistent. It may have taken each of us a while to get any kind of success, but we did get there eventually."

Levi, too, chose the school because of its attachment to the university; the department is within the Katz Faculty of the Arts. "It was important for me to receive a broad education, not just learn how to make films," he explains. At the school some of the teachers were real intellectuals and were not the most practical film teachers. But, he says, with hindsight, "we were given such perspective and I owe much to the school".

Admission is competitive with five or six applicants for every one of the 180-200 places, says Professor Hannah Naveh, dean of the Faculty of the Arts. Unlike other film schools, applicants do not submit a film - TAU selects its students according to their grades. This ensures that students who are unable to afford to produce their own film are not at a disadvantage during the application process.

Students who join the school are older, 24 or 25, because of the army service and post-army travel, explains Hecker and so bring greater life experience to their work. They are not forced into making narrow specialisations and are given creative freedom but with this "comes responsibility"; they learn that the success or failure of a film entirely rests with them.

Hecker is also absolutely clear about the role of his staff; teachers are there to give students the tools to make their films, "not ours". This means that, while teachers will happily give advice and support, the students themselves must make all the final decisions.

Hagai Levi remembers making short films without much help or orientation but believes that made him and his contemporaries "independent and quite warrior-like. We had to fight for everything.

"I felt that I was thrown in to discover things for myself," says Yaron Shani. He acknowledges that learning to be very independent and responsible for his work prepared him for making his film Ajami.

"The disadvantage that I felt became an advantage. As a filmmaker I was more prepared for the real game."

Anne Joseph is a member of the pre-screening group that selects films for the annual UK TAU student film festival. This year's festival will be held on June 8 at Renoir Cinema, the Brunswick Centre, London, WC1. Tickets at www.charitygiving.co.uk/charityshop/telavivuniversity or call 020 7487 5280

    Last updated: 2:51pm, January 28 2011