Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Chutzpa of Igal Hecht

Filmmaker Igal Hecht
I first encountered Canadian documentary filmmaker Igal Hecht when he submitted a film to the Toronto Jewish Film Festival (TJFF) where I was Director of Programming. We rejected that movie but he kept trying until one of his films was finally accepted to the festival a few years later in 2003. What struck me then was both his equanimity in the face of rejection and his determination to persevere in getting one of his movies taken by us, a somewhat unusual reaction in an industry where so many local filmmakers automatically assumed their movies would get into the TJFF just because they were from Toronto and who occasionally threw a fit when they weren’t.

Eight years on, since his first appearance at the TJFF, and after I left the festival in 2004, Hecht has continued to place a film in almost every edition of the event, as well as having a movie accepted, for the last two years, in the prestigious Hot Docs Documentary Film Festival. He’s only 33 years old but the Israeli-born Hecht has already directed and produced over 30 documentaries, and more significantly explored subject matter that no one else has thought of or dared to examine.  His latest film, The Hilltops, which premiered at Hot Docs and shows at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival today (May 11), is indicative of his provocative work. His company moniker, Chutzpa Productions is an apt one.

The Hilltops
Like most of Hecht’s recent movies, The Hilltops centres around issues related to the state of Israel, in this case shining its eye on the illegal settlements that persistent Israelis are currently building on the West Bank. Unlike the existing settlements on the West Bank and the ones that were erected in the Gaza Strip, until Israel withdrew in 2005, these hilltop settlements have never been encouraged or supported by any Israeli government and basically function as a thorn in the side of the current administration in Israel. Thus, periodically the government sends in the army to tear them down, only to have the evicted citizenry return and build them up again – and again. But Hecht’s interest in the subject is a nuanced one, with interviews ranging from the settlers themselves to the government representative, who declares that they shouldn’t be there, plus the Israeli-born, Hebrew-speaking Hecht himself asking relevant and probing questions. It’s a pithy but memorable and effective film, and a sometimes startling and disturbing look into the mindset of religious (Jewish) fundamentalism.

Hecht’s interest in Israeli subject matter may seem a logical progression for someone born in that country, but he didn’t set out on that specific path, he says in an interview with Critics at Large. “I don't think my whole plan was to make films about Israel. I knew that I would make a few, but never the amount I've made thus far. The goal of Chutzpa Productions was to make films that deal with contemporary Jewish issues.  For the first few years of my career I stayed away from actual Israel documentaries. I made docs that explored provocative issues that mattered to the Jewish Diaspora. Israel was one of those issues. It was in 2004 with the film QASSAM, which was the first film to explore the plight of the people of Sderot [who routinely face rocket attacks from the Hezbollah terrorist group], that I made a shift towards Israel content.“

The Chosen People
Those early films on the Jewish Diaspora included Y.I.D, the first of Hecht’s films accepted to the TJFF. In many ways that movie, which exposes the rift between Israeli immigrants to Canada and the established Jewish community – a rift we at the festival did not know even existed – is emblematic of Hecht’s entire oeuvre. To the point and unadorned with any fancy cinematic technique, Y.I.D. sets out to tell a compelling story, which may make the viewer uncomfortable, but which will also provoke a reaction from the audience, either negative or positive. Hecht’s next TJFF film, The Chosen People (2004) went even further, spotlighting the evangelical Jews for Jesus, whom most Jews consider to be a Christian outreach group, and the Jews for Judaism counter group which intends to prevent them from converting to another religion. That movie provoked worries on the festival’s part that it could be used as propaganda by the Jews for Jesus sect, a state of affairs that, thankfully, did not happen. Since then Hecht’s festival films have included, among others, looks at the left-right political extremes in the Jewish community (Not in My Name, 2005), the controversy swirling around a proposed gay pride parade in Jerusalem (Pride, 2007, which played at Toronto’s Inside OUT gay and lesbian film festival) and an expose on what the Israeli flag means symbolically to the Israeli people (My Flag, 2009).

Surprisingly, despite his prolific output, Hecht did not set out to be a documentary filmmaker, though his parents likely set him onto the path of movie-making by buying him a camera for his 13th birthday. “I got my first camera for my Bar Mitzvah after bugging my parents for months. My parents thought that it'll be a nice hobby as I pursued my career in law, or any other stereotype a Jewish parent wishes for his child. I began my career officially in 1994 as a volunteer at Rogers Community television.  I remember being second unit camera for the cult show ED's Night Party. As the years progressed, I got interested in fictional work but documentaries weren't even on my radar. I got into film-making and television productions seriously at the age of 23.  I attended Seneca College school of communications arts in 1999 and have stayed on to teach. I've now been teaching there for about 7-8 years.” 

Igal Hecht
1999 was a pivotal year for Hecht, as it was also the year he began his company, Chutzpa Productions. “The name was my inspired by my mom, who always said I have lots of Chutzpa. In 2001, I made a fictional film called Camels of Nahor.  The film was a love story of a Jewish boy falling in love with a daughter of a rabbi. We filmed in a synagogue and a local rabbi, after giving us permission, decided to stop the film from being shown and sued me for 250 thousand dollars. We came to an agreement and I decided to leave the world of fictional films and just be an editor. In late 2001, while sitting in a coffee shop, I noticed that Israelis in Toronto and Canadian Jews really do not get along.  I thought it was odd, and having done a short documentary a few months earlier, I decided that this could be an interesting topic. I filmed the movie (over) two years and (it) had the world premiere in the 2003 Toronto Jewish film festival. The film got sold to a television channel and was accepted into various film festivals.  That really got me started in the doc world and I haven't looked back (since).”

He also hasn’t stopped, turning out several films every year since 2003. “I have been involved with 46 documentary films in a capacity of director, producer, editor or director of photography. Out of the 46, 32 films are ones I directed and produced.  All of my films have aired on Canadian and American television. In fact, since 2007, a movie of mine has been shown at least once a week on television or in a film festival.” He also has established a pay-per-view web site (, which allows interested parties to download and view a film for a 24 hour period.

Watching Hecht’s movies, such as Disengaging Democracy (2006), a powerful look at the events leading up to and after the forced 2005 evacuation of settlers from the Gaza Strip by a Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, who a year earlier had extolled them as the country’s first line of defense, I couldn’t help but be impressed by Hecht’s genuine openness to their beliefs and points of view and feeling for their plight. (He’s certainly more interested in the reasons why they insist on remaining on what they see as their land than I am.)  As Hecht lays forth the pain of people who actually have a right to feel betrayed by their government – often to this day, still not received the financial compensation they were promised for leaving their homes – the film builds in impact and sadness. Compared to fine Israeli filmmakers like Dov Gil-Har, whose 2005 Hot Docs-accepted documentary on the subject, Ten Days in Gaza, focused more on the remarkable lack of violence that ensued during the evacuation and the anguish that many Israeli soldiers felt over evicting their fellow Jews, Hecht’s movie prefers to look beyond that angle, to what he sees as the real victims, here, the settlers themselves.

Does that make his movies more right wing since the settlers’ point of view is rarely taken into account by the media, inside or outside Israel? For Hecht, the answer is not that simple. “I have my bias, just like everyone else. But I always believe that it is important to showcase both perspectives of a story.  When it comes to Israel in the world of documentaries that does not exist. Some filmmakers of the political left are obsessed with demonizing Israel. They foam at the mouth like rabid dogs when the issue of Israel is raised.  I'm not saying Israel is perfect. But the way it has been showcased in the world of documentary films is disturbing. I decided long ago that this was not going to be my world. This does not mean that I make pro-Israel films. I make documentaries that explore the issues, but don't present black and white, silly, propaganda filled with lies or half-truth documentary films.”

“I think that today's political documentary world is filled with propaganda. Most film directors come from the Michael Moore school of thought, where it's more about them and less about the topic. To make things simple for the viewer they paint an issue as black and white, good guys and bad guys.  People watch a documentary not to be informed but rather be told what to think. I always hated that. Starting with my film The Chosen People, I tried as best as I could to have the films focus on the subject and people as opposed to focusing on me. But people always wanted to know what my opinion is. I think my point of view comes out in the film. But it's not a blunt in your face message on most occasions. I respect the viewer and believe that I am there to inform them and present the reality of the subject that the film deals with.”

As different as his view of Israel is from most filmmakers, Jewish or non-Jewish, so is his attitudes towards getting his films made in the first place. “I approach funding a documentary film in a very non-conventional way.  I hate to postpone a film for lack of funding. I'm not one of those people who will wait around for three years until someone decides to put in a few dollars to get the demo or pre-production going.  Some of my films have been self-funded. This off-course (approach) is the first thing that you're told not to do. However, I believe that if you truly feel passionate about a project, make it and you'll find a home for it. Maybe you won't make hundreds of thousands of dollars, but at least you'll make the film and (in the) worst case you'll break even."
My Flag
“I also work as a freelancer. I love editing and get many jobs to edit TV shows and corporate videos. I also serve as a camera operator and at any given time I am working on four or five different things. With the money I make from those gigs I take a certain percentage and invest it in my films. I then pretty much wear seven different hats on the production. I am blessed that I have an amazing crew and an amazing cameraman by the name of Lior Cohen, who can work with-in the confines of my budgets

“I did approach and received some grants from government institutions over the years. But the process is long and in the meantime I keep shooting. The best is when a broadcaster makes a commitment. I am lucky that all of my films have made it on Canadian television. Again I don't make tons of money from the docs, but I am not a starving artist by any means. I don't believe in that cliché.  I find work where there is work and my skills allow me to create my documentaries.”

He’s grateful to festivals like TJFF and Hot Docs for giving him an indispensable boost up as a filmmaker. “The Toronto Jewish Film Festival is dear to my heart. It is the festival that I owe my career to. Back in 2003, if you (Shlomo) and the rest of the TJFF committee did not choose Y.I.D., who knows where I would be. I gave myself till the age of 25 to make it into some sort of a film festival.  I was about to leave the biz and go into law or something stereotypical like that when the TJFF accepted Y.I.D. That gave me the push to keep going.”

“Festivals are the lifeline of an independent filmmaker or for that matter any filmmaker, Jewish or not.  Hot Docs is the biggest one. Being in a festival like Hot Docs gets your film noticed. After having two films in it for two years in a row, I can tell you that this alone gives you credibility in the very secluded and often snobbish documentary community. I'm not part of the clique, I do my own thing, and Hot Docs has been amazing in giving me a forum to showcase my work. This gives me a chance to get PR for the film, which makes people interested in watching, broadcasters can then find out about the film and it creates this amazing ripple like effect which will benefit me both on a financial and notoriety level. In short, I finally consider myself a legitimate filmmaker by having my film in Hot Docs.” Looking over his varied oeuvre of films I think even if Hot Docs hadn’t taken his movies, he’d still be able to make that claim.

 – Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches courses at Ryerson University 's LIFE Institute

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