There is little doubt that over the decades cinema has deeply affected our special connection with Israel.
In the mid-1950s, Jewish audiences squirmed while watching “Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer,” seeing Jerusalem Jews being forced from their homes in the Old City. We were treated to “Exodus” and “Cast A Giant Shadow” in the 1960s, and experienced the miracle of the birth of the state of Israel, aided by the sheer joy of seeing Paul Newman and Kirk Douglas helping to make a difference. In the 1970s, we were treated not just to one Entebbe movie, but to three of them, with Charles Bronson, Richard Dreyfuss, and Yehoram Gaon all playing hero Yoni Netanyahu.
But beginning in the 1980s and stretching into his millennium, that unqualified love the movies showed for Israel quickly dissipated. Most filmmakers around the world avoided Israel, and some of the great directors who chose to make films about the Jewish state, including Costa-Gavras’s “Hanna K” in 1983 and Steven Spielberg’s “Munich” in 2005, were vilified, I believe unfairly, for telling a story that many perceived as anti-Israel. That left a great void, as movie producers worldwide seemed too intimidated to now consider a film about Israel.
When was the last time that you saw an American or European film narrative that unfolded a deep love for Israel? In this year’s “Seven Days in Entebbe,” as an example, the epic tale that the three 1970s films made so powerful, Israeli valor is obscured. When Yoni Netanyahu, a hero of Entebbe, appears on screen, it is barely for a minute. The writer and director of the film seemed more focused on the conflict between Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres than they were on the remarkable rescue of hijacked Jews.
We therefore would expect that Israeli film producers would pick up the slack and share the miraculous story of their country with the world. As the movie industry took off in Israel in the years after the birth of the state, filmmakers did focus on a kind of romantic heroism. But by the 1960s, rather than sharing stories of courage or state-building, narrative moviemakers in Israel began using cinema largely to muckrake and expose some the perceived ailments within Israeli society. The most famous early example of this was Ephraim Kishon’s 1964 “Sallah Shabbati,” the film that took a hard look at the Zionist dream of the ingathering of the exiles and Israel’s imperfect execution of that vision when it opened its doors to immigrants in 1948. From then on, filmmakers in Israel have been struggling with subjects like the second-class status of Mizrahi Jews, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the problems faced by foreign workers and refugees, women’s inequality, political corruption, and the many unseemly aspects of Army service. Many of these films have triggered extensive debate within Israel, and have brought about change.
As its cinema has evolved and grown in stature worldwide, Israelis are paying greater attention to the movies its filmmakers create, as well as the positive impact those films have on Israeli society.
While Israeli cinema increasingly has become a catalyst for conversation within the country, many American Jews are appalled that these are the films Israel is sending to the world. “Why share our dirty laundry with the world?” some ask. When many communities pick films for their Jewish or Israeli film festivals, they simply will not screen “problematic” ones. But given its high quality, Israeli cinema today no longer is relegated only to Jewish festivals. We now can watch a broad selection of Israeli movies and television on Amazon Prime and Netflix, as well as with a growing number of streaming services, including FilmStruck.
Still, there is no better a way to watch a movie than as part of an audience, and then have the opportunity to listen to a post-screening discussion with the film’s director, a leading actor, or a scholar. This week’s Israel Film Center Festival in New York, which will show 12 new Israeli movies, affords just such an opportunity.
The first Israel film festival in New York began decades ago, initiated by the Israeli actor and musician Meir Fenigstein. But for nearly a decade, the Israel Film Center in Manhattan has screened Israeli movies throughout the year and has hosted the annual Israel Film Center Festival at the Marlene Meyerson JCC. Isaac Zablocki, the Film Center’s director, has done an excellent job in bringing contemporary Israeli movies, which tackle a broad variety of subjects. His lineup for this week is exceptional. Not every film will portray a land of milk and honey — Zablocki has not shied away from controversy — but in each case you will be treated to a movie that reflect Israeli film artists’ feelings about their society.
Though it is not possible to review all 12 films that the festival will screen, there are several worth highlighting. Eran Riklis is one of Israel’s finest filmmakers, who often explores boundaries and relationships. In his new film, “Shelter,” which opens the festival, he delves into the relationship between a Mossad agent, Nomi, and a woman, a Lebanese informant, who is hidden in Germany. Nomi is asked to protect the informant. German-Israeli relations also plays a part in Ofir Raul Graizer’s excellent film “The Cakemaker,” which is about an affair between Thomas, a German baker, and an Israeli man. Thomas goes to Israel to search for his lover’s wife and child. Amichai Greenberg’s powerful “The Testament” delves into an historian’s efforts to uncover an atrocity hushed up by townspeople at the end of World War II. “Azimuth,” actor/singer Mike Burstyn’s outstanding first foray into directing, looks at men, an Israeli and an Egyptian, who had been wartime enemies but later are forced by circumstance to interact with each other as human beings. Savi Gabizon’s impressive “Longing” is about a self-absorbed presumed-to-be-childless bachelor who learns that he is the father of a 20-year-old. Nir Bergman’s standout “Saving Neta” looks at family relationships and parenthood, while Asaf Saban’s “Outdoors” studies the foundation of relationship that evolves as a couple’s dream house is built. Teacher Matan Yair used his high school students as the actors in his amazing film “Scaffolding,” which is about troubled teenagers. And one of my personal favorites in this year’s mix is Eliav Litti’s “Kishon,” a documentary with animation, about the life of writer/filmmaker Ephraim Kishon, who died in 2005.
The Israel Film Center Festival begins this Tuesday, June 5, and runs for a week, through June 12, at the Marlene Meyerson JCC in Manhattan. The JCC is at 334 Amsterdam Ave. at 76th Street.
Call (646) 505-4444. Tickets sell for $15-$36. For tickets and schedule, go to israelfilmcenter.org/festival.
Eric Goldman is writing a book about Israeli society seen through the lens of its cinema.