Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Israeli Cinema: Anything But Propaganda

The recent Oscar nomination for the Israeli drama Ajami marks the third year in a row that a movie from Israel has been nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film award. (Beaufort and Waltz with Bashir were the other recent nominees.) That’s pretty impressive for such a small country, a testament to the quality and vitality of recent Israeli cinema.

In truth, Israeli films have been nominated for Oscars before; six of them, including good movies like Sallah, The House on Chelouche Street and Operation Thunderbolt, received nods between 1964 and 1985. Those nominations, however, came about at a time when far fewer foreign language films were submitted to the Academy – sixty five such movies were entered this year – and, I suspect, were also the result of a favourable bias towards Israel,  which used to be viewed a lot more sympathetically around the world than it is now. The current crop of nominations for Israeli films is more a recognition of just how good Israeli cinema has become of late.

There was no better evidence of this than at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival where fourteen, mostly new, Israeli films, including Ajami, as well as Raphaël Nadjari’s two part documentary on Israeli cinema, were on tap. Not only were there Israeli films in various categories of the festival, Masters, Contemporary World Cinema, Visions, Real to Reel, but the festival smartly chose to launch its new City to City program by spotlighting Tel Aviv, Israel’s largest city, which celebrated its centenary in 2009.

Eyes Wide Open
The recent Israeli cinema shown at TIFF, both within and outside the Tel Aviv program, displayed a remarkable gamut of styles and subject matter, from Eyes Wide Open, Haim Tabakman’s understated Orthodox Jewish gay love story to Samuel Maoz’s powerful and claustrophobic anti – war movie Lebanon, set entirely within the confines of a tank. There was also Niv Klainer’s Bena, a provocative tale of a man, his schizophrenic son and the Thai foreign worker who suddenly comes into their lives and Leon Prudovsky’s lovely Five Hours From Paris, a tragic love story about a divorced Israeli cab driver and a lonely but married Russian immigrant. And Ajami, a unique collaboration between Palestinian filmmaker Scandar Copti and Israeli director Yaron Shani, showcased seemingly every possible (grim) permutation of Jewish Israeli, Arab Israeli and Palestinian life, from Orthodox Jewish parents searching for their missing soldier son, who may have been murdered by Palestinian terrorists, to an Arab Israeli café owner who accidentally shoots a rival clan member who is extorting him for money, to a Christian Palestinian enraged that his daughter is dating a Muslim man.

Besides its richness of subject matter, which showcases a country where life does not revolve around the Israeli – Palestinian conflict, which is often the impression one gets from biased media coverage of Israel, Israeli cinema is unique in one other, sadder, way. It’s the only cinema that is targeted by protesters who would rather its output wasn’t available for viewing at all. Seizing on some impolitic comments made by Amir Gissin, Israel’s consul general in Toronto, who was recklessly boasting about the country’s Brand Israel program, which aims to improve Israel’s image around the world, an anti – Israel contingent of writers, academics, filmmakers and actors, falsely tried to link TIFF to that campaign and assailed the festival for creating the Tel Aviv spotlight. Led by author Naomi Klein (The Shock Doctrine) and director John Greyson (Zero Patience), who pulled a short film of his out of TIFF in protest, they stated that the Toronto film festival had been manipulated by the state of Israel into spotlighting Tel Aviv in its special program, playing into, as they put it, ‘the Israeli propaganda machine.’.

Five Hours From Paris
Of course, as Michael Posner pointed out in The Globe and Mail, most of these protesters were members of the BDS, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions organization, which seeks, as its name indicates, to boycott the Jewish state and all its products, cultural and otherwise. Thus, despite their disingenuous protests that they weren’t censors and were only against the Israeli films that made up the Tel Aviv spotlight, their end goal, were they to succeed in their aims, would prevent any Israeli films from reaching our shores. The protesters, who also lied when they said that Tel Aviv was built on Arab land, never quite explained how the Tel Aviv spotlight films were somehow different from the other Israeli films at TIFF; propaganda is propaganda after all and either all Israeli films fit that definition or none of them do. Fortunately, TIFF, like other film festivals in Edinburgh and Melbourne, stood fast against the anti – Israel mob and refused to pull any of the Israeli films showing in Toronto.

The irony, which most of the protesters didn’t seem to get, is that Israeli cinema is as far from propaganda as can be imagined. Israeli filmmakers, by and large, like most serious filmmakers, are often outspoken about the failings of their society and its politics. They frequently shine a critical light on their country’s sometimes ill treatment of Israeli Arabs and foreign workers, the oppression of women within Orthodox Jewish circles and other problems in Israeli society, from prostitution to crime to drug addiction. Incidentally, those films are all funded by the country’s generous Israel Film Fund, as are most of Israel’s equally critical documentaries. (They often win prizes at the Ophirs, Israel’s Academy awards, too.)

Those Israeli films are so honest, in fact, that many Jews in North America, who are understandably disturbed by today’s prevalent and virulent anti – Israel climate, would rather that these films weren’t shown here at all, for fear they will only inflame the prejudices of those people who always and only look for Israeli flaws or moral lapses. I prefer to see them as a tribute to the openness and democratic nature of Israel itself, something that is not replicated in Arab or Palestinian cinema, which rarely ever humanizes Israelis in the same way that Israel routinely humanizes its Arab and Palestinian neighbours.

I don’t know whether Ajami will snag the Oscar - it’s more ambitious than impressive, hinging as it does on a rather trite plot point straight out of Babel - but if it doesn’t, another Israeli film will win, sooner than later. If you consider that this past decade saw the feature film debuts of so many fine Israeli directors, including Nir Bergman (Broken Wings), Ra'anan Alexandrowicz (James’ Journey to Jerusalem), Dover Koshashvili (Late Marriage), Eran Kolirin (The Band’s Visit) , Dror Shaul (Sweet Mud) and husband and wife team Etgar Keret and Shira Geffen (Jellyfish) as well as strong work by Eytan Fox , likely Israel’s best filmmaker (Yossi & Jagger, Walk on Water, The Bubble), Ari Folman (Waltz with Bashir), Joseph Cedar (Beaufort) and Eran Riklis (The Syrian Bride), you can see that Israeli cinema has a depth of talent as well as a breadth of subject. I have no doubt that it will continue to make its cinematic mark for years to come.

-- Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto

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