How new Israeli directors are getting us hooked

By Anne Joseph, May 29, 2008

The best new films by young Israelis are about to be shown at two London events

Israel’s cultural, political, religious and historical diversity provides exceptional fodder for the country’s film industry. So it is no surprise that Israel has had a notable domestic film industry for some time, with Israeli-made films nominated for more Academy Awards — seven so far — than any other nation in the Middle East. But the country is now, increasingly, making its mark on the international film circuit, gaining recognition and scooping awards at festivals worldwide for films such as The Band’s Visit, Jellyfish and Beaufort, Joseph Cedar’s 2008 film nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars, as well as Waltz With Bashir, which was shown in competition at Cannes earlier this month.

Those who want to see the work of the Israeli film-makers of tomorrow will have two chances to do so next month, when Tel Aviv University holds its second annual student film event from June 3 to 5, and the Jerusalem Foundation screens short films from Jerusalem film schools on June 16, both at venues in London.

Key factors in the growth of Israel’s cinema was the development of Channel Two television in the 1990s as well as cable companies. This provided new outlets for Israeli filmmakers, with the cable companies providing the finances. The industry received a further boost in 2001, when the Israeli government passed a Cinema Law enabling it to put significant funding directly into the film industry.

According to Amir Tausinger, a young film-maker and graduate of the Department of Film and Television at Tel Aviv University, Israeli feature-film success has meant that film students “now have something to aspire to”.

But alongside the critical acclaim and awards for such films, Israeli student film is proving to be a dynamic and creative force in its own right. This can be viewed as “reflecting the inner soul of Israeli society and of the students, not just as figures of conflict”, says Jeremy Leigh, lecturer at the Rothberg International School at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.

Amy Kronish, former curator of Jewish and Israeli film at the Jerusalem Cinematheque-Israeli Film Archive, agrees: “Student films tend to be a spectrum of what’s going on in society. Politically conscious, students are interested in society as a whole.”

Professor Hannah Naveh, dean of the Faculty of Arts at Tel Aviv University, whose film school is providing the shorts to be screened in London next week, argues that student films “provide a very accurate snapshot of themselves and their society. What they show is very normal; not a stereotype. Student films provide an excellent opportunity to see everyday life in Israel.”

A broad range of subjects is tackled, notes Tausinger: “Film school is the place to make films that are not based on box-office takings or ratings. They can make you think… give you something to discuss.”

“Student film is a specific type of filmmaking and students really portray things as they see them,” adds Elinor Honigstein, executive director of the Tel Aviv University Trust, which is operating the London screenings on behalf of the university. “Sometimes in doing so they bring painful issues to the fore. Keeping a balance is very important when choosing the films we screen.”

This year’s choice includes Roads, a powerful film about a young Israeli Arab trying to find his way out of the drug slums in the city where he lives. It has won several awards at film festivals and was a finalist in the Foreign Film category of the student Oscars.

Another is Pinhas, which tells the story of a 10-year-old boy, the son of a Russian-born single mother, whose search for alternative parental figures leads to cultural misunderstandings.

The Jerusalem Foundation’s short films have been made by students from a number of the city’s film schools, including the Sam Spiegel Film and Televison School, the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design and Ma’ale School of Television and the Arts. 

At Ma’ale, the only religious film school in the world, observant students may approach any subject but there is an understanding that no nudity, sex or bad language is used in their films. 

Katie Green, the school’s head of special projects, feels that the films they produce give an accurate portrayal of Israel, which is why they are sold as educational resources to Jewish communities and schools worldwide. “There is despair at how Israel is reported — as a place of conflict. But our films show a variety of issues and lives,” says Green.

Jerusalem Foundation vice-president Alan Freeman agrees: “Film schools… provide a window into Jerusalem’s vibrant cultures and communities.” 

Tel Aviv University Student Film Evening: June 3, 4, Everyman Cinema Club, London NW3; June 5, Sinclair House, Redbridge. Tickets: Tel Aviv University Trust, 020 7487 5280; Jerusalem Foundation short films from Jerusalem Film Schools: June 16, Everyman Cinema Club. Tickets:; 020 7482 6076

Last updated: 8:21am, May 30 2008