LOS ANGELES, March 7 (JTA) — The news that three Israeli movies are opening around the same time at commercial theaters in major American cities may not shake the foundations of Hollywood, but for the small Israeli film industry, it’s a breakthrough. For years, Israeli producers have been trying to get their movies out to U.S. audiences beyond those people who attend Jewish film festivals. With few exceptions, American distributors — the crucial middlemen — have not been willing to risk their time and money on Hebrew-language pictures. Distributors usually cite the alleged public aversion to subtitled movies, and, truth be told, the production values and storylines of most Israeli films haven’t been all that great. But the theatrical releases of “Broken Wings,” “James’ Journey to Jerusalem” and “Alila” are surely encouraging signs for the younger Israeli directors coming to the fore. One aspect is common to all three films. They focus on family, neighborhood or domestic social problems, with only the most tangential references to terrorism, suicide bombers and other events that define the image of Israel in most of the world. The films are also, at least in Diaspora eyes, unsparing in their criticism of Israeli society. “Broken Wings,” which won awards at international festivals in Berlin, Tokyo and Jerusalem, is being released by the prestigious Sony Pictures Classics. A first feature by 34-year-old director-writer Nir Bergman, it chronicles the tribulations of the Ullman family of Haifa, whose father died recently after a prosaic bee sting. The tragedy leaves it up to the 43-year-old mother Dafna, superbly played by Orli Zilbershatz-Banai, to keep her family afloat by working night shifts as a hospital midwife. During the day, she deals with her two teenagers and two younger kids, who have all been traumatized by the father’s death. Much of the responsibility for looking after her siblings falls on 17-year-old Maya, who is torn between a budding career as a singer-composer and her unwelcome home duties. Of the three films, “James’ Journey to Jerusalem” is likely to be enjoyed most by American audiences. The title character is a young black man from a remote and devoutly Christian village in Africa, who is chosen by his tribe to journey to the heavenly Jerusalem of the bible and report back on the wonders he has seen. Starry-eyed and wild-haired, James arrives in the Holy Land only to be clapped into jail as an illegal immigrant. He is bailed out by the boss of a house-cleaning service for wealthy residents of Tel Aviv, but as a fast learner, James quickly organizes his fellow Africans into his own service crew. Despite the film’s humor, Diaspora Jews are bound to wince as James makes his way in an Israel where everybody cheats a little and the greatest fear is to be played for a sucker. “Alila” is by veteran filmmaker Amos Gitai, who has been getting under the skin of his countrymen for 20 years with movies that dissect their warts, prejudices and insecurities. Set in a shabby apartment building in a rundown Tel Aviv neighborhood, “Alila” is populated by a dozen characters who battle each other and their surroundings for survival and a small share of happiness. Israelis of many backgrounds, they fight and stick their noses in each other’s businesses. Bergman believes that Israeli films are getting better, thanks largely to directors who trained in Israel’s many university film schools and who cut their teeth on television productions. A second factor is money. Practically all Israeli producers draw their budgets from national, municipal or private support funds, and despite the harsh economic conditions, the subsidies have been going up. As a result, more feature films are being made — close to 20 this year compared to half that number a few years back — increasing the chances that a few will be first rate. Unlike recent Palestinian films such as “Divine Intervention” or “Rana’s Wedding,” which deal, quite cleverly, with the difficulties of Palestinian life in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, these films focus on personal problems. Answering why this is is quite difficult, but the need for escapism may be one answer. “In the 1980s, we had a lot of movies on Jewish-Arab relations, usually from a left-liberal perspective, and Israeli audiences stayed away,” says Dan Fainaru, a veteran Israeli movie critic and editor of the magazine Cinematech. “We see news about terrorism and politics on television every hour on the hour, while our documentaries deal with the same subjects,” he added. “We don’t need any more of that when we pay a babysitter to go to the movie theaters.” But when Israelis really want to get away from it all for two hours, they go to see foreign films, overwhelmingly American, which account for a staggering 95 percent of attendance and box office receipts, Fainaru says. Bergman defends his own focus on family life. “Since Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination” in 1995, “Israel has become a different country,” he says. “Now every family is a country of its own.”
Tom Tugend is JTA's Los Angeles correspondent. A veteran journalist, he also writes for the Jerusalem Post, the Los Angeles Jewish Journal and the London Jewish Chronicle.