What Makes Israeli Docs So Hot?

Israeli filmmakers turn the camera on themselves

23 mins read

Many filmmakers make documentaries but there are few countries where they have the freedom and opportunity to so consistently shine a light on all the foibles, injustices and controversies of their society as they do in Israel. Films like David Ofek’s No. 17, which explores the aftermath of a suicide bombing and one unclaimed, unidentified victim, Yoav Shamir’s Checkpoint, which looks at the contentious checkpoints that Palestinians have to cross to get into Israel or within the territories, Simone Bitton’s Wall (Mur), about the controversial security fence currently being erected between Israel and the Palestinian Territories, and Yaron Zilberman’s Watermarks, the story of a Jewish female swim club’s members return to Austria for the first time since the end of World War Two, are just some of the recent award winners that have made an impact in world documentary circles. Other new Israeli films have examined the plight of Israeli Orthodox Jewish lesbians (Keep Not Silent), unearthed the secret world of Israeli snipers (One Shot), and spoken to Jewish women who cannot get religious divorces (Sentenced to Marriage). And those are just a few of the subjects dealt with in the 100 or so documentaries produced in Israel each year, a remarkable figure for a country of just six million and one that typifies the freewheeling, open world of Israeli documentaries.

Typically argumentative, Israeli filmmakers don’t necessarily agree on the particulars of their craft, such as whether or not it’s easy to get docs, especially political ones, off the ground. Where there is a consensus is in the consistent quality of Israel’s output, which is why there will be no shortage of Israeli documentaries on tap at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival, which is

“With such great work coming out of the region recently, it was a natural consideration (to pay tribute to Israel),” says Chris McDonald, Executive Director of Hot Docs. “For a country of its small size, Israel produces an inordinately large number of documentaries. As well, we felt it was important to highlight the work of a country with a relatively established documentary community that falls outside of the North American/European umbrella.”

As Director of Programming of the Toronto Jewish Film Festival from 1996 – 2004, I can testify to the excellence of Israeli documentaries, which were a ubiquitous part of our schedule each year. I was always struck by the fearlessness of Israeli filmmakers in tackling any and every subject and aspect of their society. Ironically, the local Jewish community, which is understandably concerned with how Israel is perceived by non-Jews, was often more uncomfortable with many of the critical docs that were produced than were the Israelis themselves. Clearly, there are no taboo subjects in Israel or in Israeli non-fiction filmmaking. That’s one of the main reasons that Hot Docs decided on Israel as its spotlight country in 2005. Says Chris McDonald, “Western audiences might be surprised by the level of healthy self-criticism that exists in Israel. Israeli filmmakers are outspoken and not afraid to turn the cameras on themselves.”

Filmmaker Dov Gil-Har, whose 2004 film, Behind Enemy Lines, brought together two friends, a Palestinian and an Israeli, to engage in an exploration of each other’s “worlds,” claims that Israel stands out in this regard. Gil-Har, who is also a television anchorman and reporter, insists that “Israeli documentaries are unique in this part of the world in the sense (that) we filmmakers are not anymore trumpeting any of our ‘official’ national narratives but rather challenging them. I think our films are much more political than many of the documentaries (from other countries) I see in film festivals…We filmmakers feel we can still influence the future of this place, by focusing our camera in the right places.”

There’s also the sense that Israeli stories, universal as they can be, are also unlike any others, points out Ruth Diskin, whose self-named company specializes in selling and distributing documentaries. “I think Israeli documentaries are unique because we have great untold stories to tell, and because we have many stories that need to be told, for which cinema is the optimum medium. Israel is a unique place, for better and for worse. Everything happens here.” The remarkably diverse subject matter of Israeli documentaries, which can run the gamut from profiles of the harsh lives of Israeli and Palestinian male prostitutes (Garden) to a young man’s poignant search for a girlfriend (Out for Love, Be Back Shortly) to a shattering behind the scenes look at a mysterious Orthodox Jewish community (In Satmar Custody) allows them to function, in many ways, like a petri dish of social issues studied through the eye of the camera. “What strikes me about Israeli docs is the way the political impacts on the personal,” says Susan Alper, founder and Executive Director of the Montreal Jewish Film Festival. The films also perform as a sort of therapy for the often beleaguered Israeli people, comments producer Amit Breuer (Checkpoint, Sentenced to Marriage). “Daily life is so complex (in Israel) that challenging reality through the camera lens is a kind of escape from fear and frustration.”

Sean Farnel, whose prestigious Real to Reel program at the Toronto International Film Festival is devoted to screening documentaries, also sees Israel as standing at an original crossroads in the documentary film world. “Of the planet’s many geopolitical hotspots—those regions where the tectonic friction of history, religion, economics and race continue to rumble—Israel is the only country with a developed system to fund work by indigenous filmmakers. It’s made all the difference: the complexity and human cost of the region’s political turmoil is most fully expressed by those that experience it on a daily basis.”

The way that they express that human cost in their documentaries, whether they take on the endless Israeli-Palestinian conflict or inter-religious rivalries, seems to be particular to Israel, says Brett Hendrie, Managing Director of Hot Docs. “Perhaps what is ‘unique’ to Israeli filmmakers working on these subjects is an especially personal connection to the characters and situations that they’re capturing. For instance, while non-Israeli/non-Jewish filmmakers might attempt to examine the political repercussions of the ‘security fence’ being built, many of the Israeli docs that consider the same subject may be more inclined to take a more emotional and affected approach (to the subject). Indeed, many of the Israeli docs we looked at suggested a simpatico between the filmmakers and their subjects, often rooted in a cultural, religious or political empathy.”

“Audiences who attend film festival screenings of Israeli documentaries often respond in kind,” adds Montreal’s Susan Alper, whose festival celebrates its tenth anniversary in May. She points to her 2003 showing of Erez Laufer’s Mike Brant, Laisse-moi t’aimer, as a prime example of that. The poignant documentary, which chronicles the life and death of an Israeli singer who became a superstar in France in the 70s but could not handle the pressures of his fame, resonated strongly with Montreal audiences. “I had no idea he had this following in Montreal. It was a revelation to me,” says Alper. “I had never heard of him (but people) really loved the film. He was a working class Haifa boy who became a superstar and had such an influence on people and the Francophone population at large.” Many of them, Alper points out, would probably not even have known that Brant, born Moshe Brandt, was Jewish until the release of the film. Montreal audiences were also “very moved” by David Fisher’s 2002 release _Love Inventory_, where the filmmaker explored an unexplained tragedy in his family’s history. “It’s his story,” she adds, noting that the audience “lived” through it as Fisher unearthed the revelations contained therein.

Despite the international commercial success of Israeli feature fiction films in recent years, such as Broken Wings and Late Marriage, Western, and particularly American, distributors have been slower to evince interest in Israeli documentaries, particularly the non-political ones, though the critically acclaimed Watermarks is set to be distributed in North America this spring. Distributor Veronique Courtois (Casque D’Or Films), however, is making a point of seeking out Israeli documentaries. She reasons: “There is a creative vitality in Israeli documentaries that is rarely matched in films coming from other countries. Over the past few years, Israeli documentaries have reflected with a certain ‘rawness’ the harsh reality of the many changes that have happened in their society. Their depiction of human conflicts in the areas of politics, family, teenagers’ angst, racism, men-women relationships, gay and lesbian awareness, religion are far from the too often sugar-coated documentaries that Westerners are used to seeing.”

Sinai Abt, head of Channel 8, Israel’s cable documentary channel, is bullish but realistic about the present and future climate for documentary filmmakers at home. “The local industry is active and lively, filled with talented filmmakers. Amazingly enough, the ratio between the size of the population and the number of documentaries being produced every year, is among the highest in the world,” he says. Channel 8, which is over a decade old, has birthed numerous award-winning Israeli documentaries in recent years, including, My TerroristAnother Road Home, Garden, Purity and Sentenced to Marriage. Despite that,” adds Abt, “even fine documentaries don’t always provide the filmmakers with a reasonable profit, so I would say that the biggest challenge would be to not only produce and distribute the films but to create a strong and systematic marketing structure that will ensure profits from the documentaries being produced. To confront that, Channel 8 has recently launched a distribution arm that aims for commercial marketing of documentaries.”

By creating docaviv, Israel’s primary documentary film festival, seven years ago, filmmaker Ilana Tsur (_The LastTransfer_) took her own steps to raise the profile of Israeli documentaries. “I thought that Israeli documentaries were very good and the existing festivals didn’t do justice to them. They were always put at the end of the catalogue and given the worst hours and places for screenings. A group of filmmakers felt like me, so I decided to organize it in Tel Aviv, which is the center of the cinema industry, and didn’t have a festival of its own.”

By creating docaviv, Israel’s primary documentary film festival, seven years ago, filmmaker Ilana Tsur (The LastTransfer) took her own steps to raise the profile of Israeli documentaries. “I thought that Israeli documentaries were very good and the existing festivals didn’t do justice to them. They were always put at the end of the catalogue and given the worst hours and places for screenings. Agroup of filmmakers felt like me, so I decided to organize it in Tel Aviv, which is the center of the cinema industry, and didn’t have a festival of its own.”

But is Israel’s filmmaking environment, despite the many documentaries made each year, actually more hospitable to documentary filmmakers than in other countries? Amit Breuer doesn’t think it is. “It’s a very unhealthy society and the filmmaker’s environment is ultra-competitive. There’s not much (of a) budget (for) proposals and ideas.” According to Breuer, who recently moved to Toronto from Europe, only 5 to 10 per cent of documentary submissions (in Israel) actually get financing. “This causes a lot of frustration,”she says. “I think that many European countries and Canada offer many more options (for) development, production and marketing for documentary filmmakers.”

And while Israelis are known to question authority and their country’s policies vis a vis the Palestinians, at least one major (political) Israeli filmmaker is adamant that so-called “left wing” films rarely get support there. “Most of the films which are shown outside Israel deal with the eternal Israeli-Palestinian conflict and show the horrors of the occupation. These often have some artistic quality about them (but) they are shown in Israel itself almost only if they were successful abroad,” says director Ram Loevy. Loevy, a veteran Israeli filmmaker, who has been making documentaries for more than thirty years, has lately sought funding from other countries to help get his films made, such as with his recent French-Israeli film Close, Closed, Closure about the adverse economic ramifications of Israeli border closures on the Palestinian populace. “Political documentaries are much harder to make these days,” he says bitterly. “It was much easier for me ten or thirty years ago. Now, in the Kingdom o fIsrael, only a few lunatic liberals would like to see what I and my colleagues wish to present. The small, liberal Channel 8 is (thus) a haven for the oppressed.” (The documentaries that appear on Israeli TV, outside of Channel 8, are in his opinion,“enlarged news reports.”)

That opinion is definitely not shared by Dov Gil-Har. “Political documentaries here are somehow easier to make, I would say. Just find the story, choose your point of view and balance your camera. Take Checkpoint, for example. It’s an excellent documentary (which) just needed patience and many hours of work (to get made). Everything needed was just in front of the filmmaker, unfortunately.”

This back and forth among the filmmakers can obscure the genuine success of many Israeli documentaries in the domestic market and, lately, abroad, says filmmaker David Fisher (Love Inventory). In addition to filmmaking, Fisher is the General Director of The New Foundation for Cinema and Television, which he labels “the major driving force behind documentary filmmaking inIsrael.” The Foundation annually funds the production or completion of about 20 Israeli documentaries, as well as most Israeli feature films. (Available public funds and network purchase of broadcast rights take care of the financing for the rest.)

While conceding that ratings for the documentaries on Channel 8 are low, since it’s on a lesser seen cable station, Fisher, who is on the Hot Docs jury this year, rattles off a long list of popular Israeli docs. They include Watermarks and Juliano Mer Khamis’ and Danniel Danniel’s Arna’s Children, both picked up for US distribution; the Israeli and French release of Michale Boganim’s Odessa, Odessa; the high attendance figures for Tomer Heymann’s It Kinda Scares Me (50,000 admissions) and Aviv (30,000); and his own Love Inventory, which played commercially in Israel, Germany, Switzerland and Austria. Israeli docs occasionally score big on commercial Israeli television, adds Fisher, though the public channels don’t support documentaries as well as they might (Checkpoint captured a 10 per cent audience rating, Dan Setton’s Emmy-winning religious themed doc In The Name of God pulled in an “uncommon” 20 per cent.)

Fisher also praises the high moral standards displayed by Israeli documentary filmmakers, which relates to the fact that Israeli filmmakers, unlike their counterparts in other lands, are often perceived as the conscience of their country, particularly as seen through the eyes of foreigners. “(They) have a very high sense of duty and responsibility towards the country in which they live and create,” says Fisher, adding that “the films which The New Foundation supports express Israel’s strength as a democratic state.” He emphasizes that the government-funded Foundation enjoys total freedom and autonomy in deciding what to fund. Israeli films also stand out he feels, because of their striking“narrative techniques…which always use a conflict as a starting point, which allows the story to develop in a very clear and focused way.”

“All this had led to local docs making more of an impact in Israel,” says Sinai Abt. “In recent years there has been a growing interest from the public (in documentaries), which can be attributed to the global trend as well as to a growing investment in co-productions.”“

Looking at the myriad Israeli documentaries that blanket the airwaves and cinemas of Israel and the world, one needs to consider the country’s Jewishness as playing an integral part in making its documentaries stand out from the pack,” says Helen Zukerman, Executive Director of the Toronto Jewish Film Festival. “If Israeli docs are unique and more plentiful, it could stem from the fact that Jews are unique in that we are always debating and arguing; perhaps the docs reflect that characteristic of the Jews.” To which Susan Alper adds, “Israel embraces so many different ways of being Jewish. Israeli society is so multi-faceted and the documentaries reflect that.”

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